CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — No, it wasn’t just a fluke.
It was nowhere near a fluke.
After saving the day in heroic fashion last weekend, backup quarterback John Paddock came back to Memorial Stadium on Saturday morning as the starter for injured Luke Altmyer.
With new pressure and questions aplenty surrounding the fifth-year senior, Paddock didn’t just rise to the expectations. He completely shattered them.
Paddock threw for a whopping 486 yards and three touchdowns in regulation, but a late Indiana comeback pushed the game to overtime.
Trailing by three in the extra period, Paddock faced a 3rd and 6 from the 21-yard line.
Would his historic performance be ruined in dramatic fashion? Or, would the hero against Minnesota cement his legacy in Illinois history even further?
With the entire Dad’s Day crowd standing in anticipation, Paddock dropped back to pass. Flushed out of the pocket, he scrambled past Indiana would-be tacklers, and looking downfield, he found Isaiah Williams.
Touchdown. Game over.
“The greatest quarterbacks I’ve been around are the guys that can make plays out of nothing,” said head coach Bret Bielema.
In a game that will go down in Illinois history forever, Paddock rose to the occasion. His 507 passing yards and four touchdowns pushed Illinois past Indiana in overtime, 48-45.
And just like that, Indiana’s four-game win streak in the rivalry is over.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The rivalry game didn’t have the look of a shootout early. An Illinois (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) field goal was the only score in either of the teams’ first two drives, but a muffed punt by Isaiah Williams gave Indiana (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) the boost needed to get into the endzone.
Then, chaos ensued.
Illinois found itself in the endzone a mere two plays later. Paddock completed a 67-yard pass to Williams followed with Reggie Love — returning from a three-game absence — punching it in from eight yards out.
Enter Indiana quarterback Brendan Sorsby. Just a redshirt freshman, Sorsby put on an offensive clinic in his next three drives. He lead the Hoosiers down the field for three more touchdowns, giving them a 27-12 lead.
Both of Sorsby’s passing touchdowns of the half went to Donoven McCulley. In just one half, the junior had his first multi-touchdown game and first 100-yard receiving game of his career.
The 15-point deficit seemed to suck the life out of Memorial Stadium, but from there on out, it was the John Paddock show.
Touchdowns of 20 yards to Casey Washington — the first of his career — 13 yards to Pat Bryant, and 42 yards to Isaiah Williams put the Illini back on top.
Those 42 yards were a big part of Williams’ career day. His 200 receiving yards were a career high, and the nine catches increased his Big Ten lead.
“[Williams] is a quarterback’s dream,” Paddock said. “He’s a fantastic athlete and fantastic receiver.”
Since Paddock took over at the end of last weekend’s game, he and Williams have been completely in sync. The star receiver has had 22 catches, 331 yards and four touchdowns in the last two weeks. Of those totals, the Paddock-Williams duo has yielded 11 catches, 268 yards and three touchdowns.
Their immediate chemistry has caught everyone’s eye, and the receiver gives all the credit to his quarterback.
“Whatever his role is, he does it to the best of his ability,” Williams said.
On the flip side, Paddock attributes much of their chemistry to William’s previous experience at the quarterback position.
“He knows what feels good and doesn’t feel good back there,” Paddock said. “There are some receivers that are great and they’re fast, but they’re not necessarily quarterback-friendly.”
In his return, Reggie Love had a career day as well. His 37-yard touchdown run in the second half extended the Illinois run to 27 unanswered points.
Love’s second touchdown of the day catapulted him over the 100-yard threshold, one that no Illini running back had reached all season. He ended his day with a career-high 140 rushing yards.
“There are no words to describe the feeling I have right now,” Love said. “It’s just great.”
Others on the Illinois offense had career-best performances too. Bryant (5 catches, 131 yards, TD) and Washington (5 catches, 99 yards, TD) joined Williams in achieving their career highs in receiving yards.
Despite FIVE different Illini having career-best games on Saturday, the Hoosiers didn’t go down without a fight. Facing a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter, Sorsby led his team down the field and powered through defenders for his second rushing touchdown of the day.
The redshirt freshman quarterback didn’t miss out on the career-high party, throwing for a personal-best 289 yards and three passing touchdowns (five total).
Illinois needed to manage another fourth quarter lead — similar to the one it couldn’t keep a few weeks ago against Wisconsin — and with under two minutes left, Indiana got the ball back down by eight.
Sorsby needed to go 85 yards down the field with no timeouts, and that’s exactly what he did.
Indiana’s DeQuece Carter had only one catch of four yards heading into the drive, but Sorsby found him twice for 51 yards — one of them being the biggest play of Indiana’s day: a 26-yard dart into the endzone with only 26 seconds remaining.
The comeback wasn’t complete, though. The Hoosiers still needed a two-point conversion to tie the game, and Sorsby delivered. Rolling to his left, he found E.J. Williams Jr. in the back corner of the endzone.
Overtime in Champaign.
Indiana got the ball first and was forced to settle for a field goal, giving Illinois a chance to win with a touchdown.
And the rest is history. The legend of John Paddock has led Illinois to its first win streak of the season.
“I’m excited we won. I could’ve thrown for two yards, and if we won, I would’ve been happy,” Paddock said. “That’s from the heart.”
I’m a big believer that the quarterback position is evaluated by one number, and that’s either if there’s a win or loss in that column.”
While it will be short-lived, the “John Paddock Era” is something straight out of a movie. From a four-year backup at Ball State, Paddock has now cemented his name in the Illinois record books forever.
For all the other players who are in his shoes, Paddock urges them to stay the course.
“You never know when your opportunity is going to come,” Paddock said. “Stay ready.”
The Illini are now only a win away from bowl eligibility, and they are miraculously still in contention for the Big Ten West title.
On the other hand, the crushing loss for Indiana makes Tom Allen’s team ineligible for a bowl game for the third straight season.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
We’ll show you again. INCREDIBLE!!!
Reggie Love gives the Illini the lead again capping off the two-play 75-yard drive.
It only took five years, but Casey Washington finally scored a touchdown.
Mac Resetich’s first-career interception led to more unanswered Illinois points.
The real John Paddock game.
John Paddock's 507 passing yards is the second-highest single-game total in program history and the most by any player at Memorial Stadium.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) November 11, 2023
Only Dave Wilson (621, 11/8/80 at Ohio State) threw for more yards in a single game in program history.#Illini | #HTTO
TWEET OF THE GAME
That’s our damn quarterback.
John Paddock is enjoying life. https://t.co/ZAdUp6I8Hb— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) November 11, 2023
Illinois will takes its 5-5 record into Iowa City where a win will solidify bowl eligibility.
Kickoff and TV Channel against the Hawkeves are TBD.