Last week when looking at the rankings NCAA '14 gave our non-conference opponents, I noticed that the Western Kentucky ratings were surprisingly similar to the Illini. A passing thought ran through my head at the time warning me, "this one could be close." Boy was it ever!
In case you've forgotten, here are the rules of the simulation:
- All rosters and starting line-ups will be updated weekly to ensure all the right players are in the game.
- The weather forecast will be added as well as the time of day.
- Difficulty settings will be set to Heisman and the clock will run full 15 minute quarters.
The Illini opened the contest with a solid drive resulting in a Taylor Zalewski FG from 41 yards out (he would finish the day 4/4 in FGs with a long of 42 yards and 2/2 in PATs). The defense stood tall and caused the 'Toppers to punt the ball back, which resulted in another FG drive of 41 yards. Later, Wes Lunt tossed a 52 yd touchdown pass to big Jon Davis which boosted our total to 13 points at the end of the first quarter. So much for starting slow!
However our run game was snuffed out right from the start. Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young couldn't get ANYTHING going in the first half as they combined for just 64 yards on 29 carries. Ferguson also fumbled the ball which led to a redzone FG for Western Kentucky midway through the second quarter. The good news, however, was that our passing game was red hot. Lunt would throw for 297 yards (18-35, 51%) in the first half. Zalewski nailed another FG in the second quarter and the defense continued to hold the high powered Hilltopper offense at bay. While they were able to run for 92 yards on 20 carries, the Illinois defense held as Western Kentucky managed to convert just 33% of their redzone appearances into points. A late Hilltoppers FG came late in the quarter off of a big punt return from their special teams unit. For a game that was looking to be a tough one, the Illini were in control at the half. ILLINI 16 - WKU 6
At this point in the simulation, I had kicked back knowing that our defense had been rock solid and our offensive efforts were moving the ball up and down the field. I cracked open a fresh BEvERage and watched as Mason Monheim took an interception 26 yards to the house to give Illinois a 23-6 lead. Yes, the Illini defense actually intercepted the ball in this simulation. We were in the driver seat.
That's when Leon Allen woke up as he gained a grand total of 253 yards on 64 touches. He found the endzone twice in the 3rd quarter alone to bring Western Kentucky back to within a field goal heading into the 4th quarter. The Illini offense spent 19 of the opening 30 minutes with the football and took control of the game early. In the second half, the tables turned fast as Lunt threw an early interception. The offense wouldn't convert one third down in the 3rd quarter. Some questionable decisions were made by the coaching staff as they decided to go for it on 4th down four times in the 3rd quarter to no avail. The Illini offense would end the game converting only 2 of their 7 redzone appearances into points (28%, yikes). We suddenly had a game.
Western Kentucky opened the 4th quarter with an early FG and the Illini answered right back to maintain a three point lead. That's when both offenses took control of the game. The Illinois rushing game finally found its form with a few key 3rd down conversions from Ferguson, but the Illini couldn't seem to get the ball into 'Topper territory. Western Kentucky would also find more success on the ground, but 2 fumbles and an interception caused multiple drives to come to a screeching halt.
The Hilltoppers got the ball with 2:48 remaining in the game and managed to move the ball from deep within their own territory to the Illini 44 yard line with one minute left. That's when the Illini defense stood tall causing three straight passes to be knocked away--it was 4th and 10 for WKU. In an unlikely turn of events, Mr. Allen stepped up again and managed to grab a 40 yard pass from Doughty leaving the Hilltoppers four yards away from victory with just 38 seconds left. At this point, I had no fingernails left and was standing on my couch in disbelief.
First down was a rush up the middle that was covered well by Mason Monheim. Second down was an option sweep to the right that Monheim covered again leaving 3rd and goal from the 2 yd line. Once the ball was snapped, the Illini blitz rushed at the perfect time and caused Allen to fumble the ball back to the 8 yd line. Western Kentucky managed to recover, but it brought 4th down from the 8. Fully expecting the WKU kicking team to trot on the field, the Hilltoppers spread the field on 4th down with a single back to the right of Doughty--it had the look of a screen pass. Sure enough Allen ran right and the ball was delivered on target. As Allen was headed to the endzone, Mason Monheim again managed to make a shoestring tackle stopping the halfback short of the goal-line. Ballgame.
Mason would lead the team with 12 tackles and the defense as a whole would allow 475 yards of total offense (253 by ground, 222 by air). But 3 HUGE turnovers and some great plays from our leaders would save the day. Offensively, Lunt would go 25 for 59 (42%) for 383 yards with a touchdown and INT. Geronimo Allison once again was a popular target as he caught 8 passes for 131 yards, but 7 different players would haul in passes for the Illini. Add in 149 yards on the ground from Ferguson and DY5, and the Illini had 532 yards of total offense. This one wasn't pretty, but dag-gummit we won the game.
And a win is a win, no matter how you get it.
Illinois 26, Western Kentucky 23