There was 1:49 left on the clock. Nebraska held a 13-6 lead and had a 99.5% chance of winning. But then craziness ensued. The Cornhuskers decided to throw the ball on two straight plays, giving the timeout-less Illini life in the process. Illinois got the ball back and found themselves inside the opposing 10-yard line after a 50-yard strike to a wide open Malik Turner.
From there, Wes Lunt targeted Geronimo Allison four times in the endzone. The first three tries yielded two separate pass interference calls on the defense and it was first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On Illinois' final play of the afternoon, Lunt dropped back and found Allison for the game-winning score. A perfectly executed squib kick ensued and the Cornhuskers didn't have any time to answer.
I was screaming and jumping and couldn't feel my fingers or toes. But sitting through the cold was all worth it in the end because Illinois had defeated Nebraska in football for the first time since 1924.
Players of the Game
1. The Defense
How do you choose just three players after a game like that? I can't. The entire defense stepped up in a big way yesterday. It turns out the advanced stats weren't lying to us after all.
This was the best defensive performance since the program's 2011 victory over Arizona State. The line got good push up front against the Nebraska offensive line. Getting consistent penetration against a team like Nebraska is major improvement over the past couple of seasons. Duwaune Smoot stood out once again, coming up with big plays throughout the afternoon including a big sack to force the Cornhuskers out of field goal range.
The linebackers also played well. TJ Neal and Mason Monheim each had 10 tackles on the day while Eric Finney, who might be Illinois' most improved player, was flying around the field.
And last, but certainly not least, the secondary played a fantastic game. They collectively held Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska's best receiver, to 1 catch for -1 yards. They also had 6 pass breakups, which indicates they were consistently in positions to make plays. Taylor Barton and Clayton Fejedulum delivered some hard hits, and V'Angelo Bentley andEaton Spence stayed on their assignments. Even rotational guys like Jaylen Dunlap and Davontay Kwaaning made an impact.
2. Wes Lunt and the Receivers
The passing attack looked horrible for just about the entire game: dropped passes, miscommunications, etc. But that doesn't matter. They were brilliant on the final drive of the game. The final minute was as good as I've seen Lunt at Illinois -- he was absolutely determined to move his team down the field.
Malik Turner did the one thing Nebraska was supposed to not let him do: get behind the defensive backs. He pulled down the bomb from Lunt and, just like that, Illinois was in scoring range. From there it was all Geronimo Allison. He hauled in the deciding touchdown and ended up with 8 catches for a total of 91 yards -- he's now leading the Big Ten in receptions and reception yards.
3. The Freshmen
Ke'Shawn Vaughn played the best game of his young career after Josh Ferguson went down. The Cornhuskers could not stop the true freshman as he rushed for 110 yards on 24 carries. Vaughn is a workhorse back that has the potential to carry this team for years to come. Hopefully Ferguson's injury isn't too serious as the duo can be quite the 1-2 punch the rest of the way.
Sam Mays and Desmond Cain were also huge in the passing game. Cain caught some good balls from Lunt when it seemed like none of the other receivers were able to make a play; he finished with 4 catches for 40 yards and continues to be a relative constant.
There are still certainly things to patch up from Illinois' perspective, but the Illini dominated this game and should've won easily. Regardless, this is a great way to gain confidence for Big Ten season. Illinois now needs just two more for a bowl game, and to match their conference win total from a season ago.
Next up on the schedule is a trip to face the 5-0 Iowa Hawkeyes in what could be Illinois' toughest test to date.