How exactly did the 2014 Illinois Football team make a bowl game? I'm still not sure.
I'm not sure what drew me to several of the games that year. I think it was the players on the team. I had a vested interest, as I follow Illinois recruiting pretty regularly. Knowing where players came from and what they bring to the table almost makes you feel as if you've gotten to know them. Not for everyone, maybe just me. It allows me to root for those players with as much passion as any diehard Illini fan.
For that reason, it was definitely rewarding to see a player like Reilly O'Toole succeed in getting an Illini team to respectability.
A senior from Wheaton, Illinois, O'Toole had been a backup for several years to Nathan Scheelhause, and, early on in 2014, lost the starting competition to transfer Wes Lunt.
Now Lunt, arm-wise, was clearly the more talented option. He could throw a nice deep ball, his throwing motion was fluid and easy, his footwork was solid. He was the prototypical pocket passer for this offense.
O'Toole, more of an athlete playing quarterback, had raw talent, but had never realized it as a pure passing player. More Tim Tebow than Tom Brady.
This is not to say he played perfectly in place of Lunt after the sophomore suffered a season-ending injury, but he did what came naturally to him: get the ball to his playmakers and use his running ability to keep plays alive. In wins over Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern, that's exactly what he did, leading the team to its first bowl in three years.
It also helped that O'Toole had some very talented offensive players surrounding him that season, a byproduct of Ron Zook's recruiting prowess.
Josh Ferguson, most assumed, was recruited to entice teammate and 5-star rusher Ty Isaac to Illinois. This fan did not assume that. Watching his film from powerhouse program Joliet Catholic, Ferguson’s speed jumped off the screen. They run a very complex rushing offense, where the ball carrier gets the ball in a variety of ways. Sort of a triple-option look.
Every time Josh Ferguson touched the ball, he seemed to score a touchdown. His size was diminutive; his ability on the football field was not.
That talent translated quite well at Illinois. He was a one-man wrecking crew who could take a handoff and soar. It was fun to watch.
In 2014, he was in rare form. Leading the team in rushing yards (735), rushing touchdowns (8), all purpose yards (1,162) and scoring points (60), Ferguson did as much as he could to stem the tide in more than a few blowout losses in his career, including 2014.
He was joined by freshman phenom Mikey Dudek. We all know what has happened since, but it's hard to describe how good the Naperville product really was in 2014.
Watching him in person, it was exhilarating as an Illini fan. He could make any catch. He was fast out of his breaks. He ran crazy good routes. He could contort his body to make ridiculous catches. He was the total package as a slot receiver. Think Julian Edelman. That comparison was not that far-fetched in 2014. Lamentably, what came next was hard to watch. But for a brief, shining moment, Mikey Dudek was a budding superstar.
Defensively, the player who defined the Illini's season in one play was another short player recruited from a power program.
Cleveland (Glenville) has been one of the premier high school football teams for a while now. The home of Ted Ginn Sr., Glenville has pumped out some pretty impressive FBS level talents.
Illinois got one of their more underrated with V'Angelo Bentley. A 5-foot-10 cover corner, Bentley was under-recruited due to his lack of size.
Again, though, Illinois took advantage of a market inefficiency. For what Bentley lacked in height, he made up for in tenacity and speed.
At Illinois, that worked well for special teams, as Bentley became one of the Big Ten's best return men. He's the only player in Illinois history to return a kickoff, punt return, interception, and fumble recovery for a touchdown in his career.
That fumble recovery just so happened to seal the biggest win of 2014 against Minnesota. Trailing 24-21 with four minutes to go, Minnesota looked to ice the game by running the ball. Fortunately, someone got a hand on the ball, and V'Angelo Bentley knew exactly what to do with it. It was the defining moment of a baffling season for Illinois.
Tim Beckman didn't do a whole lot right at Illinois, but he did one good thing in leading this mishmash of under-recruited diamonds in the rough to an improbable bowl season. It's not a season many will remember in the annals of college football, but for an Illinois fan who followed the players as much as possible, it was a pleasant surprise.
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