It's been a long time, filled with painful despair and futility, but the hope has finally been fulfilled -- the Illinois Fighting Illini are bowl eligible once again.
The 5-6 Illini traveled to Evanston, Illinois to take on the 5-6 Northwestern Wildcats for the Land of Lincoln Rivalry Trophy and the rights to postseason eligibility.
The Illini opened the game with 19 unanswered points. Both the offense and the defense played well, fighting for extra yards or getting turnovers (respectively). Actually, it was the turnovers that won us this game. Northwestern had four consecutive drives that resulted in a turnover. When summarizing those drives the stat line looks horrible: 9 plays for 21 yards and 2 interceptions and 2 fumbles.
Reilly O'Toole got the start at quarterback and never let anyone doubt that decision. The senior quarterback started the season as a back up to Wes Lunt, but here in the latter half of the season O'Toole has found ways to win over and over. He had 147 yards passing (completing 17 of 28) and 147 yards rushing on 21 carries (7 yards per rush). His three passing touchdowns are the most he's thrown in a game all season. It is the best game of his Illini career.
Mike Dudek, everyone's favorite freshman receiver, had one touchdown and 63 yards on 7 receptions. In college football, a bowl game means that a player gets one more game to improve his stats. Dudek is now 35 yards away from the 1,000 yard milestone.
Running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young (who gets one more game, as do all other seniors) were playing at the high level we all expected from them at the beginning of the season. With O'Toole as the quarterback, Beckman chose to run more of the option handoff plays, which allowed Ferguson, Young and O'Toole to run through the confused Northwestern defense.
There were two different Illini defenses this afternoon. The one that played during the first half was wonderful. As I mentioned earlier, they were able to get four turnovers in the span of about four and a half minutes. The Northwestern offense went into half time with only 62 yards to their name.
The second half saw the Wildcats use a different quarterback, junior Zack Oliver (the guy we'll likely have to deal with next year). Oliver was able to spread out the Illini defense due to his accuracy. The Illini were unable to contain both the pass and the run on a general basis. Northwestern scored 24 points in the second half mostly from a quarterback change. It shows Illinois's weakness that stills needs work going into the bowl game and the offseason.
Then there was the special teams. It wasn't pretty. Kicker David Reisner, one of the major factors in last week's win, missed an extra point and severely under-kicked a 36-yard field goal in the second quarter. From then on, Senior kicker Taylor Zalewski resumed the role for the rest of the game starting with a successful 33-yard field goal. But on the ensuing kickoff, Northwestern's Solomon Vault returned the ball to the endzone finally giving the Wildcats some points.
And of for those of you wondering about the fate of Tim Beckman: don't. His job is safe. He has improved the program each and every year he's been at Illinois, adding two more wins than last year's total. These last two games have been some of the best of his tenure, both in terms of how the players performed and the decisions he's made.
Now, we wait for Monday night, when the bowl game matchups are announced. We'll find out soon enough about the next and final game of the 2014 season.
Happy Bowl Eligibility everyone!!