The day was November 22, 2014. The Illinois Fighting Illini Football team (4-6) hosted the Penn State Nittany Lions (6-4) in a must win game for the Illini to keep their bowl game hopes alive after losing to Ohio State and Iowa in their previous two games.
I attended this game with the lowest of expectations. Truthfully, the only reason I was there was because one of my friends from Penn State was in town and he wanted to catch the game for a fraction of the cost he would pay in State College. It turned out I wasn’t the only Illini fan who was alright with missing this one.
The atmosphere in Memorial Stadium was about as far as you could get from a full-on Penn State “White-Out” in Happy Valley. It was a dreary, cold day and a perfect allegory for Illini fans’ current thoughts on the direction of the football program. The actual number of people in the stands never approached the official attendance of 35,172, which was bolstered by the well-traveling Nittany Lion faithful, and fans filtered out as the game went on and the weather deteriorated.
I had thought the game would be a passing matchup between two pro-style quarterbacks, Wes Lunt and Christian Hackenberg. That proved to be the case initially, as Hackenberg struck first by finding Chris Godwin in the endzone on an 18-yard pass. As for Lunt, he proved totally ineffective leading the offense, and a desperate Bill Cubit replaced him in the second quarter with Reilly O’Toole.
It was clear that the Penn State defense had not prepared to face O’Toole and did not scheme against him. His first drive went for an impressive 68 yards over 12 plays, and resulted in a touchdown on a play action pass to Matt LaCosse.
Reilly O'Toole to Matt LaCosse Touchdown pic.twitter.com/Ro6u3NsQME— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 22, 2014
O’Toole’s mobility and threat to run was a drastic shift from Wes Lunt’s stoic presence in the pocket, and it threw the defense into disarray. That first drive closed out the half, and prevented Penn State from running their own two-minute drill to try and answer.
Coming out of the half, Illinois recovered the ball on a wild kickoff that got away from Penn State. O’Toole completed passes to Dudek, Geronimo Allison, and Donovonn Young to get the Illini into field goal range, where David Reisner hit the first of his field goals on the day to give the Illini a 10-7 lead.
Penn State’s offense finally started to move at the end of the third quarter. Since Christian Hackenberg’s passing had largely been about as ineffective as Lunt’s, running back Akeel Lynch stepped up and drove the Nittany Lion offense. He was able to break free on a 47-yard rushing touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter to give Penn State the lead 14-10. Between the terrible weather and reliance of both teams on methodical rushing attacks, the game was a stereotypically perfect Big Ten matchup.
Reilly O’Toole and Donovonn Young then continued pushing the Illini offense and drove down to within the Penn State 10 yard line. Unable to punch it in, they again turned to David Reisner who hit the 25-yard attempt to bring the Illini within a point. Earlier, I was resigned to our fate during the slow and slogging majority of this game, but now everyone in the stadium began to realize that they could be in store for a truly exciting finish.
Penn State punted, and Reisner missed the 50-yard field goal on the ensuing drive. The Nittany Lions took over but after three plays they were stopped one yard short of the first down. At this moment, James Franklin sealed his fate by daring the Illini offense and punting on 4th and 1 from his own 41 yard line. Three plays later, Dudek and Josh Ferguson had brought the ball down to the Penn State 14, but Ferguson and Young were stonewalled by the Nittany Lions there.
Then on 4th and 14, David Reisner trotted out and secured his place in Illini football history.
The Illini would qualify for a bowl by defeating Northwestern 47-33 in Evanston the following week. Illinois drew Louisiana Tech and former Illini Houston Bates in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, and were defeated 35-17 in the most recent bowl game to which the Illini have been invited.