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‘It was a lot of emotions’: Big plays lead Illini to season-opening win

They never said this would be an easy one.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It might not have been pretty, but it was a total team effort win to start the season.

For more than a decade, Illinois football didn’t mean anything to anyone. Last season, the Illini came out of nowhere to compete for the Big Ten West title, and all of a sudden, everything changed.

The atmosphere surrounding the program elevated. Expectations jumped. Following this groundbreaking season, almost 50,000 fans came to Memorial Stadium on Saturday night to witness the potential revival of this long-dormant football program.

Flash forward to the third quarter. Favored by more than a touchdown, the Illini watched their dominant, No. 1 scoring defense from 2022 falter significantly to the defending MAC Champions.

Following an interception thrown by quarterback Luke Altmyer, Illinois watched a Toledo offense — which was moving the ball at will — come back onto the field leading by 12 (seemingly massive) points.

Was this really how the Illini would follow up a historic year? Another disappointing start to a season with unprecedented expectations?

Defensive back Miles Scott had other ideas.

The former wide receiver made a great read on the ball, following the eyes of Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn perfectly. Next thing you know, house call.

“I was just telling myself, ‘Patience,’” Scott said. “‘Just stay calm. The play is going to come to you.’”

After an interception of his own, Altmyer knew how big of a momentum shift Scott’s heroics were.

“I love the way my teammates pick me up, and the way my defense picked me up,” he said. “Miles Scott right after that, you know, putting up seven points for us was unreal.”

The play changed everything. Suddenly, the packed crowd — which was silent for most of the game — was roaring again. The defense was suddenly energized, as it continued turning the tides against the Rockets until Illinois had the lead back.

Despite the drastic shift in momentum, defeating a proven champion is anything but easy. More mistakes by the Illini yielded yet another deficit, this time with only minutes left on the clock.

Many games like this kept Bret Bielema’s experienced squad from winning the Big Ten West less than a year ago. This time, Illinois put its faith in someone who was playing his first game in Memorial Stadium ever.

Altmyer came to Illinois with only 54 total passes thrown in his two-year college career. Facing a fourth down and four in his own territory — the biggest play of his young career — what did he do?

With the crowd on its feet and the early season’s expectations hanging in the balance, the Ole Miss transfer delivered a 33-yard strike to Casey Washington.

“We had to go make a play,” Altmyer said. “When [the fourth down play] was called, I knew that the ball was probably going to Casey and I trusted him 100 percent.”

Every quarterback is just as good as his head coach. With so much riding on the moment, Altmyer knew that he and Bielema had each other’s backs.

“I told [Altmyer] we needed to get to the 25 to feel good about a field goal,” Bielema said. “Once we cross that threshold, I just looked at him and he said, ‘I got you.’ Just his presence, his calmness, [and] his demeanor, was very impressive.”

The drive would result in the game winning 29-yard field goal kicked by Caleb Griffin.

No one knows how this season will turn out after only one game, but one thing is for sure: this team has resilience.

Let’s ride this momentum into Lawrence next Friday.