With the perfect excuse to pull from the fountain of Illini fandom’s nostalgia following the largest comeback in school history, The Champaign Room presents an officially unofficial competition to determine the best “last minute” comebacks in Illinois football history from the last two decades.
Thanks to the TCR stats department, we’ve compiled a list of the Top 8 “last-second” wins from the last two decades. Criteria for qualification was simple...if the Illini overcame a defect with less than two minutes in the ballgame, it counts as a “last second win”.
Your task is very simple (in theory, anyway). Of the games listed in the bracket below, which do you think was the “better” last-second win? This could mean your favorite win, the win with the most impact, the most memorable win, whatever you want it to be.
Three of our staffers gave some thoughts on the first round matchups, along with their thoughts on the best “last second” win in the last two decades. Take all of it as a gain of salt, and don’t forget that Illinois will play in a bowl game in 2019.
Michigan State 2019 vs Rutgers 2005:
Brad Repplinger: It’s going to be REALLY tough to knock off last Saturday’s win. We’re talking about the largest comeback in the history of Illinois football. Not mentioning the fact that said victory put the Illini in a bowl game, the fact I was there and got to witness that game made it that much sweeter. No offense to Ron Zook and his first “big” win in Champaign, but this one is a no-brainer for me. MSU ‘19.
Michael Berns: Prisoner of the moment? Maybe. To come back after being all of those points down against Michigan State on the road — I still get goosebumps. Zooker brought us great joy in the mid 2000s, and we love him for that. This game clinched a bowl game. It validated the idea that leading-the-nation-in-turnovers-aka-Lovie-ball could be taken on the road in a hostile environment. I get we beat Purdue as part of this win streak on the road, but with those flooded conditions + Purdue on a 3rd string walk on quarterback — I mean, Spartan Stadium at least in the first half was a true road game. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” Lovie preaches. The way the Illini finished the first and second halves in the game in East Lansing — that’s ILLINI Baller Status Football. MSU ‘19
Thumpasaurus: You KNOW I’m gonna take MSU ‘19. There was still a lot of new-coach-smell on Ron Zook when the Rutgers game happened, and it was great to have such an auspicious start to the Zook era after 2.5 years of trash. Great as that comeback was, though, it mostly served as a fun thing to remember while the Illini got slaughtered for ten straight losses to close the season. Michigan State, aside from being the biggest comeback, was a road game coming off of a three game win streak that was kicked off by a once-in-a-decade magical moment against Wisconsin. Beating two losing teams kept the magic going, but it seemed to have run out early in the second quarter. However, the magic not only returned, but compounded over the fourth quarter. This game broke a 5-year bowl drought and legitimized Lovie’s long-awaited emergence as a threat. MSU ‘19.
Penn State 2001 vs Nebraska 2015:
BR: Coincidentally, both of these were night games in Memorial Stadium. One game I attended, the other I watched from home. The Penn State win comes to mind, mostly because I can still remember Mike Tirico on ABC exclaiming, “Harvey breaks free!” But I can’t go against that rainy night in September of 2015, where I watched Wes Lunt and Geronimo Allison took the Illini down the field with a minute to spare to beat Nebraska. Still can’t believe Mike Riley tried to throw the ball three times on their final drive with the lead. Illinois damn near beat Iowa in Kinnick that next week too... NEB ‘15.
MB: I hate the Green Bay Packers, but I still scream Geronimoooooooo every time Geronimo Allison catches a football BECAUSE of the Nebraska game winning catch. This was not the most exciting football game. It still counts as the only time Illinois has beaten Nebraska since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten. I know it might be hard for some of our readers to believe that for a time, and for a large chunk of my upbringing, Nebraska was probably the best football team in the country — and they had (perhaps only in my own nostalgic imagination) this aura about them when it came to winning important college football games. For this mental blockade in mind about what Nebraska was, this game meant a lot for Illinois Football. NEB ‘15
Thump: The Nebraska win moved Illinois to 4-1 under Billy Cubes, which was an incredible thing to behold given all the turmoil of having Tim Beckman fired before the season. Nevertheless, I’m just trying to imagine the Fighting Illini coming out before a crowd of 71,000 at home, with a chance to pull even with Michigan atop the Big Ten against a struggling Penn State team. Well, when I say struggling, I mean they got blasted by 2001 Miami to start the season, which...will happen when you play 2001 Miami. They had a losing record, but were still the Penn State Nittany Lions while we were just Illinois, perhaps not to be trusted in moments this big. After the Nits pulled out to a 21-7 lead, the Big Ten title must have started to seem like a pipe dream. But two touchdowns and two field goals in the second half gave the Illini a 27-21 lead...which was immediately extinguished by Penn State’s second return touchdown of the day, a 97-yard kick return. The Illini responded with an 80 yard drive to win the game and keep the impossible dream season going. I’m taking PSU ‘01.
Michigan State 2006 vs Penn State 2014:
BR: Another matchup of TV against being there (in the snow this time). David Reisner’s field goal to keep Illinois’ bowl hopes alive was a more memorable kick for me than watching Jason Reda beat Sparty in ‘06...though it was pretty cool to see the team plant the flag at midfield on the road. Still, give me PSU ‘14.
MB: I was at the PSU ‘14 game standing in the near-empty student section game, and sure it was close and meaningful and at home and all of that jazz — but it was a boring football game. Neither team had more than 285 yards of total offense. Just one turnover... from Penn State. I’ll admit I don’t remember much of anything from that Michigan State 2006 tango except for two things: 1. I was infatuated with true freshman Juice Williams , and 2... this moment in the video posted just below. It happened when I was a senior in high school, just when I was filling out my college applications, with Illinois at or near the top of my list. This moment I saw live in my living room from home — and I’d be lying if I said it had no impact on me wanting to attend Illinois. It gave the Illini the swagger necessary to build and eventually reach the Rose Bowl the following season. Give me MSU 2006:
Thump: This is a tough one, but it sure was beautiful to see Reilly O’Toole and David Reisner be the unlikeliest pair of Illini heroes in recent memory as James Franklin coached himself out of a win. With virtually nobody in attendance and nobody believing in them, these Illini fought and ground out a win with their backs all the way up against the wall. I’m going to go with PSU ‘14
Wisconsin 2019 vs Northwestern 2011
BR: James McCourt is a goddamned legend, and he should never have to buy beer in Champaign ever again (even though that missed XP against MSU was peak Illinois football). But there is NOTHING better than beating Fitzy and the Cats, especially at home during homecoming week. Jason Ford fumbling late in the game to give Northwestern the go-ahead touchdown, only to watch Nate Scheelhaase march that offense down the field in the final seconds AT HOME to go 5-0 was one of my best memories of watching football in Memorial Stadium. Yes, this also means I only picked games that I attended. NU ‘11.
MB: On the Wednesday leading up to the Saturday of the Wisconsin 2019 game last month, I asked the TCR Staff on Slack: “Over/under 275 rush yards for Jonathan Taylor?” I was dead serious. Taylor looked invincible leading up to that game, and I believed he was the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy as long as Wisconsin kept winning. Illinois were 31 point underdogs. Wisconsin had clobbered Michigan. They made Michigan State look like an FCS team. Quarterback Jack Coan who was bad in our game looked great in every other game up until that point. Illinois had not beaten Wisconsin since I was a freshman in 2007. It seemed like the most impossible result when there was no reason whatsoever for hope. Biggest UPSET in school history. Facts. UW ‘19
Thump: GOD, WHY would you put these two? Ugh, Nern 2011 would be my 3rd choice, because it was my senior year and it kept the Illini undefeated while absolutely ripping the heart out of Northwestern on a fourth quarter comeback led by my favorite Illini quarterback of all time in Nathan Scheelhaase. This is one of my very favorite sports memories. But unfortunately, it has a tough draw, because Scheelhaase felt inevitable, but James McCourt did not. UW ‘19
What do you think is the best last-second win?
BR: I have the Northwestern win on homecoming up against Saturday’s game, and I just can’t think of anything better than winning in East Lansing. The fact that the Illini were able to validate the three previous victories with the largest comeback in school history will ALWAYS take the cake for me. Throw in the fact that it was a bowl-clinching win against a program like Michigan State, and there’s no real debate for me.
Illinois always seems to lose that game. There never seems to be that moment of glory where we watch our team triumphantly overcome a deficit on the road and celebrate in the corner of the stadium with the tens of people that made the trip (shoutout RR and the rest of the 17). If anything else, we’re just pre-conditioned to expect a disappointingly bad performance in a game Illinois SHOULD easily win. Thankfully, that was not the case in East Lansing.
While last week was not the BEST Illini game I have ever seen in person (that list will be made later), it’s definitely the best last-second win and postgame moment I have ever been a part of. MSU ‘19.
MB: It has to be the Wisconsin game. Why? It was far more shocking than any Illinois game I’ve ever watched. 31 point underdogs. Greatest upset in Illinois Football history. I came into the Michigan State game honestly expecting Illinois to win. In Champaign Room, most of us, and really a lot of Illini media as a whole were expecting the Illini to win this game despite the 14 point underdog tag. I truly believed we were going to beat Michigan State. We were riding high. Sparty was stinking it up — I know they had a bye week. Wisconsin was so out of left-field, so numbingly unexpected against a team I thought would march right to the Big Ten Championship representing the West, I still can’t believe it actually happened. Michigan State was more fun and more exhilarating, Wisconsin was far more unexpected against a far better team. UW ‘19.
Thump: You know, what’s crazy is that even though MSU was just four weeks after Wisconsin, at various points the wins seemed just as unlikely. I remember saying in the Q&A at Bucky’s 5th Quarter that it was entirely possible that Lovie is fired the day after the Wisconsin game. There wasn’t a chance in hell we were going to win that game. However, the margin never got big enough for me to stop paying attention to the game completely. Wisconsin was perpetually a couple big plays from breaking it open, but also just a couple huge mistakes from trailing. Still, with the Badgers in control the whole time, it really didn’t feel like the Illini had a chance to win even with such a slim deficit...until Tony Adams got the pick. At that point, it suddenly became very possible that this actually happens, and that maybe in Lovie’s last year at Illinois, they shock the world for one last good memory of the otherwise bleak Lovie Smith era.
On the other hand, going into Michigan State, there was definitely the possibility of Illinois winning. I didn’t expect it, but the Michigan State fans were talking about the game as though we were a peer. The difference is that DURING the game, I thought Illinois was dead and buried early in the second quarter. With Michigan State at the Illini 9 yard line up 28-3 just over 20 minutes into the game, I could honestly say that the odds of Illinois winning that game at that moment felt even longer than the odds of Illinois beating Wisconsin seemed before that game started.
But if we’re talking about the LAST-SECOND WIN moments here, the moments leading up to the Wisconsin decisive play were fairly calm. It was afield goal within McCourt’s range. It’s as good a shot as we could have given him, and if he makes it, Illinois is the weirdest 3-4 team in the nation.
The moments leading to the Michigan State play were an absolute circus. That drive involved a pass I thought was picked off but was snagged away from the DB by Caleb Reams, an insane 4th and 17 conversion, a first down by Donny Navarro, who I thought had been broken in half earlier, and then a disastrous series of plays from the 1. A fourth and goal fade was my worst nightmare until the flag gave us an extra life. After losing yards on first down, the Illini spent damn near 30 seconds substituting and running dudes in and out.
I damn near passed out. It was second down. All I’m thinking about is how somehow we won’t get the count right and we’ll lose the snap, or that we’ll get stopped on the ground and run out the rest of the clock without using 3rd or 4th down. So as I’m seeing this, I just start screaming things. OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING JUST RUN THE SAME PLAY DO SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO STOP THE CLOCK WHAT THE HELL THE CLOCK IS RUNNING OH MY GOD THE CLOCK IS RUNNING DO SOMETHING HOLY SHIT THERE’S NO WAY WE HAVE A GOOD PLAY IN OH MY GOD NO NOT THIS WAY PLEASE NOT LIKE THIS!
Suddenly, there it was! MSU ‘19.
Do you have any memories/thoughts/opinions on the best Illini last-second win? Share them in the comment section, or with us on Twitter @Champaign_Room. As always, thank you for reading!