It was a major victory for the program and for head coach Tim Beckman, especially. It is the third conference win for Beckman in as many years, and one that could very well save his job. We'll talk more about that in a little bit, but first, I want to talk about the players.
One of the biggest surprise of the day came from the Illini defense. Usually a major suspect in every one of our losses, it was the defense that was able to hold Penn State to only 265 yards in total, the lowest in a game since September 29, 2013 against Miami of Ohio. They were exceptionally good except for the opening drive and one 47-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Senior defensive tackle Austin Teitsma continuously fought to collapse the middle of the line, sometimes accomplishing that goal while being double-teamed. Jihad Ward, the monster D-end who transferred into the program, looked explosive off the edge. He's evolved from a raw, high-potential recruit to a legitimate pass-rush presence. He's probably the second brightest spot of optimism from this year.
If you don't already know the brightest spot, then you haven't watched any Illini games this season. Freshmen receiver Mike "Wow" Dudek is putting together a school-best year. With his 15 catches for 115 yards, he now has 902 receiving yards on the season, already placing him 34th in school history (and that's while have 66 receptions, 47th in school history). But what you need to know about Dudek is that he is above stats, his catches are hardly believable even when watching them.
The quarterback throwing him those passes is now somewhat up in the air. Starting the game behind center was sophomore Wes Lunt, but an inefficient 8 for 17 with 58 yards, led Beckman to replace him with senior backup Reilly O'Toole. That's not completely fair calling O'Toole a backup, though, he led the team in four games while Lunt sat out with an injury earlier in the year.
O'Toole won't shock many people with his style of play -- it's rough like sandpaper and sometimes overly dramatic like a Sportscenter; he's a younger Ben Roethlisberger with less of an arm. But today, it was exactly what we needed. Completing 18 of 25, his 157 yards propelled the Illini on confidence-building drives over and over. The offense got better as the game continued, and when it mattered the most, they were ready.
With 1:48 to go, O'Toole hit Dudek for 25 yards and then Marchie Murdock for 17 to get the Illini to the Penn State 30. It set up sophomore kicker David Reisner for a 36 yard field goal. With :08 on the clock, Reisner split the uprights, sending the players, fans, and (most importantly) the seniors into hysteria.
There's one person that may have been happier -- Tim Beckman. Fans of this blog will tell you that Beckman is walking on thin ice when it comes to returning to Champaign next year. It's took him more than two and a half years before anything remotely competitive was shown on the field. Now, with today's win and the upset over Minnesota, he has two quality wins under his belt. Is it enough to make fans accept a fourth year?
Beckman became the head coach just as the program was entering a down period. The roster was in disrepair, and it was almost certain that most coaches would come out of those first two years with losing records. But it's not just the records that concern fans, it was the way he presented himself and the way he prepared the team. Before a camera, Beckman made some considerably terrible gaffes, looking out of place as a B1G coach, and every Saturday, the Illini would appear dead-on-arrival even against some of our easier competition.
But the biggest argument for Beckman is that he's done what he was hired to do. He's improved the academic situation off the field, he's improved in wins (although somewhat slower than most would hope), and he's fixed the depth chart. And if you asked most fans before the season started what would be required for Beckman to win his job, the over/under sat right at 5.5. We're here, right where we all expected to be.
I watched today's game prepared for the worst. But it was Beckman who surprised me more than any of the players. The gameplan was ready for Penn State. It knew what was coming and how to handle it. He even managed around the swirling winds of Memorial Stadium, something he's been lax to do on several occasions. At one point, Lunt nearly got a delay-of-game penalty only for a timeout from the sideline saving the play. Beckman glared at Lunt and pointed into the distance, yelling something that I imagined was like, "There's the game clock! It's not that hard to see -- use it!!" That's coaching, and it's not always seen from Beckman on a normal Saturday (at least while watching on TV). This was the best coached game of Beckman's career.
Now we get ready for a trip to Northwestern, the rival who swings from bad to good just as much as we do. To raise the stakes TO THE MAX, both teams currently sit at 5-6 -- THERE IS A BOWL GAME ON THE LINE HERE PEOPLE!
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Earlier this week, I wrote an article and drew a picture about the potential greatness of both Illinois' Wes Lunt and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. Seeing how both played in the game, I figured it needed to be revised, especially since Reilly O'Toole was the best quarterback on the field.