Those Were The Days - Penn State
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The Lovie Smith Era at Illinois has ended. The Rod Smith As Head Coach Era begins and ends this week at Penn State. Will Illinois be motivated for this end of season matchup? How much time will I spend on Flight Aware this week? (Answer: too much). Let's go back to when Illinois football had success, seems like a long time ago…
November 22, 2014: Most fans (me included) expected this to be the Tim Beckman Farewell Tour. We should have made t-shirts. Anyhow, Illinois limped into this matchup at 4-6. Rumors abounded that Athletic Director Mike Thomas would sack Beckman after another losing season. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions were inconsistent under first-year head coach James Franklin. UI students had already left town for Thanksgiving and a cold, gray and very windy November day awaited the teams before a meager crowd at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois started the game with a three and out. Penn State promptly drove 52 yards for a touchdown. Illinois again went three and out with the wind causing a short punt. Penn State took over at its own 46 yard-line and got into the red zone. On third down and three from the Illinois 4-yard line, running back Akeel Lynch got stuffed. Penn State brought out the field goal unit. However, the holder bobbled the snap and got tackled for a loss, snuffing out the drive.
The teams traded punts for most of the first half. However, Illinois took over at its own 32-yard line with 2:41 left. Also, Beckman made the most important decision of his short Illinois coaching career. Wes Lunt was struggling, just seven weeks after breaking his leg. He replaced quarterback Wes Lunt (8/17 passing, 56 yards) with Reilly O'Toole. This gave the offense a mobile quarterback. Initially, the move did not work but on fourth down at its own 39-yard line, our lads got a break. Penn State jumped offsides on a punt, giving the Illini a first down and hope. Two runs by Donovonn "Truckmaster" Young gained a first down.
O'Toole threw two passes to Mikey Dudek for another first down. Illinois now was at the Penn State 28-yard line with 52 seconds left. After an incompletion, O'Toole again found Dudek open, resulting in a 20 yard gain. Once more, Dudek caught an O'Toole pass, giving our boys the football at the one-yard line with 32 seconds left. Illinois lined up in an "old school" Triple I formation! O'Toole faked a handoff into the line, rolled left, and saw Matt LaCosse wide open. O'Toole threw the ball right before a Nittany Lion could deflect it and Illinois had a touchdown!
The 7-7 halftime score gave Illinois hope. The second half kickoff showed the effects of the wind. Illinois kicked off high into the wind. The football fell in front of the befuddled Penn State up-men. It was a free ball and the Illini's Clayton Fejdelem recovered at the Penn State 28-yard line! James Franklin thought the play was a fluke, but Beckman said special teams coach Tim Salem called for the high kick into the crazy wind. "I hadn't seen that many times in my life," admitted Beckman. Illinois took advantage by moving to the Penn State nine-yard line before David Reisner booted a 28-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
The teams again traded punts for most of the third quarter. The wind truly played havoc with the offensive strategies of both teams. But with 2:30 left in the third quarter, Penn State put together an impressive drive. Starting at their own 23-yard line, the Nittany Lions converted two critical third downs to have the ball at midfield. With fourteen minutes left, Lynch rambled 47 yards for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
The Fighting Illini lived up to their nickname. The offense mixed in several short O'Toole passes with "Truckmaster" runs to have the football at the Penn State 35-yard line. On third down and needing two yards for a first down, Aaron Bailey entered at quarterback. He gained one yard. On fourth down, our lads went for it and Penn State got flagged for defensive holding for a critical first down. O'Toole threw two more passes for a first down at the Penn State 13-yard line. Although the drive stalled, Reisner kicked another field goal for a 14-13 deficit.
The Illini defense held for a three and out. Taking over at their own 30 yard-line, the offense got busy. A huge 18-yard run by "Truckmaster" gained a first down to midfield. O'Toole continued to roll out of the pocket to throw short passes. The drive stalled at the Penn State 32-yard line. With the wind at his back, Reisner tried a 50 yard field goal and saw the wind push it wide left.
With 3:14 remaining, the Illini defense needed one more stop to give its offense a chance to win the game. Lynch ran twice for five yards. Illinois called time out with 2:39 left. Penn State faced a third down and five from its own 37-yard line. Hackenberg scrambled to his right, towards the first down marker. In the biggest play of his Illini career, Darius Mosely shoved Penn State wide receiver Daesean Hamilton into Christian Hackenberg, forcing Hackenberg out of bounds, just short of the sticks! Now facing a fourth down and 1 from its own 41-yard line, Penn State called time out. Would Franklin go for it or punt? Franklin played it safe and punted. "You punt the ball, you make them go earn it. If we go for it on fourth and 1, we don't get it, everybody's in here right now talking about how stupid I am."
Illinois took over at its 28-yard line with 1:28 left. O'Toole threw to Dudek for 25 yards and then to Marchie Murdock for 17 yards who stepped out of bounds. Josh Ferguson of Joliet Catholic ran through a massive hole down the right side for 16 yards! Now, Illinois had the ball at the Penn State 14-yard line! Illinois ran three more times for minus four yards. Out trotted Reisner for a 36-yard field goal attempt to win the game.
On the radio call Kurt Kittner said "I'm not watchin'." At least Beckman believed in Reisner! "I looked him in the eye and told him 'This is easy for you.'" Reisner adjusted for the wind based on his prior miss. Reisner nailed it and the crowd, despite its small size, went mad! So did the special teams unit, mobbing Reisner! Penn State had eight seconds to do something from its own 25-yard line. It ran a bunch of laterals and backwards passes that ended up with the receiver tackled at his own 46-yard line for a massive Illini victory!
The Illinois defense played very well, holding Hackenberg to just 93 yards passing. O'Toole played efficiently, going 18 of 25 passing for 157 yards and a touchdown. He exhibited calm on that last drive when Illinois needed it. "I wasn't worried," said O'Toole. "Honestly, I thought there was more time on the clock." "Truckmaster" moved the chains for 62 yards rushing. Mikey Dudek continued his monster freshman year with 11 catches for 115 yards. And, in a nod to Lou "Coach Death Penalty" Tepper, STAND UP FOR SPECIAL TEAMS! The lads recovered the kickoff to start the third quarter and Reisner was three of four on field goals. Illinois now stood at 5-6 and won its next game at Northwestern to go bowling!