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Throwback Thursday: Illinois overcomes Nebraska under the lights

Can the Fighting Illini recapture the magic of two years ago?

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Throwback Thursday, and we’re not taking the time machine very far this time because we have to get ready for a Friday night game between the Fighting Illini and the Cornhuskers of Nebraska.

Since 2013, Illinois has opened Big Ten conference play with Nebraska, and this will be the last year of this heavily corn-centric new tradition — next year’s conference slate opens with Penn State. The first two games were big losses in Lincoln by Tim Beckman’s Illini to Bo Pelini’s Cornhuskers, but, in 2015, interim head coach Bill Cubit had the Fighting Illini at 3-1 at this juncture. His counterpart, newly hired Husker head coach Mike Riley, had not fared so well against a tougher non-conference schedule and entered 2-2.

Nebraska’s first trip to Champaign since 1986 saw them met with just over 40,000 people, as the interim limbo foisted upon Illinois by the August toppling of the unpopular Beckman regime had fostered a great deal of apathy among the fanbase. However, the Cornhuskers were also met with a staple of October days in East Central Illinois: a swirling wind gusting up to 30 miles per hour.

Invigorated by the hostile but familiar conditions, the defense did not allow a first down to Nebraska until the second quarter. However, in that same time frame, three trips to field goal range resulted in no points. First, a muffed punt by DeMornay Pierson-El was converted to a missed field goal. On the next Illinois possession, dynamic back Josh Ferguson broke free for a 48-yard gain but left the game with a shoulder injury. Illinois nevertheless rode this momentum to 4th and 1 at the Nebraska 10, where a Chayce Crouch gadget play lost three yards. A missed 41-yard field goal by Taylor Zalewski closed out a scoreless first quarter.

Nebraska would find success on the next drive as a 32-yard scramble by quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr moved them down the field. A personal foul on Dawuane Smoot helped them further, and Devine Ozigbo punched it in for a 7-0 Nebraska lead. The Illini offense continued to flounder as receivers struggled to hold on to the ball with an intermittent drizzle coming down. Quarterback Wes Lunt would finish 23 for 45 while taking a couple sacks. Further hampering the efforts of the Orange and Blue was a truly dominating performance by tragically late Huskers punter Sam Foltz, who at one point booted a 63 yarder from his own 13 all the way to the Illini 31. He would finish with 9 punts for an average of 46.9 yards. A heroic 48-yard run by Ke’Shaun Vaughn as the first half ended came up 12 yards short of the end zone and the Illini trailed 10-0 at the break.

After a failed conversion on 4th and 3 from their own 42, Illinois was bailed out by safety Clayton Fejedelem coming up with an interception, but couldn’t do anything with this possession either. Nebraska’s running game was beginning to look effective, but Armstrong continued to throw. Nevertheless, they tacked on a second field goal to make it 13-0 late in the 3rd.

In the fourth quarter with the wind finally at their back, the Illini went to work through the air, as Lunt was able to find Marchie Murdock for a 22-yard touchdown. The defense stood tall, and both teams traded punts in between throwing many incompletions. After an 18-second three-and-out for Illinois, Nebraska took over with 4:38 left in the game and began running the ball down the field. Unable to prevent these gains, Illinois was forced to start calling timeouts.

After stopping Andy Janovich on 1st and 10 for no gain at their own 30, the Fighting Illini called their final timeout with 1:46 left in the game. Janovich took the ball three yards up the middle on the next play, setting up 3rd and 7 from the Illini 27 with the clock running down to around one minute. What happened next I may never understand.

Nebraska called a passing play, and an incompletion to Ozigbo stopped the clock with 55 seconds remaining. Nebraska called a timeout to figure out how to preserve the 13-7 lead, and with 4th and 7 from the Illinois 27, they passed up the opportunity to kick a 39-yard field goal into the wind and instead lined up. Armstrong, who would finish an astonishing 10 for 31 passing, threw one final incompletion and Illinois had 55 seconds to try to win the game.

Working quickly, Lunt found Sam Mays for a 15-yard gain, then lined up and dropped back again only to find Malik Turner open deep over the middle. Lunt flung the ball down the field and Turner picked up 50 yards, being apprehended at the Nebraska 7. Lunt then looked for Allison near the sideline just past the goal line but was unable to connect. Undaunted, Cubit called the same exact play, and Lunt instead found a defensive pass interference penalty. Cubit continued to call the same play; Nate Echard couldn’t catch the decisive ball, nor could Allison on second down. Going to Geronimo yet again, the Illini were bailed out by another pass interference call. At long last, yet another repetition of the same play to Geronimo Allison finally scored the touchdown pictured in the title image, and the extra point gave Illinois a 14-13 lead. They would hold on for the win, moving to 4-1 on the year.

2015 was a strange year with the turmoil in the athletic department, an interim head coach, an offense that routinely went three and out in under 15 seconds and a defense that just wouldn’t quit. Nevertheless, Allison’s touchdown remains one of the most iconic Illini photos of recent years, and though that team would lose 6 of their final 7 games, this moment of excitement will live forever.

Riley is still the head coach at Nebraska. Turner is still a deep threat for Illinois. Could history repeat itself?