Football ends drought, finally

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By Lisa Koulias

It certainly wasn’t the best game in the seniors’ tenure at Illinois. But Saturday’s 26-22 win over Indiana will probably be the game the team of seniors will remember for the rest of their lives.

And why shouldn’t they? The Illini rallied from a 19-point first quarter deficit to snap a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. And they did it at Memorial Stadium, for the seniors’ last home game.

“It was the last game at home, it was our last shot to play in this stadium,” center Duke Preston said. “And to have a chance to go out a winner on our home turf is big. I’ll definitely never forget it and appreciate all the effort that all the guys gave today. You just feel a sense of accomplishment. The way these guys fought today was unreal and I think it’s just a testament to how much this team cares about one another and what we are trying to do.”

As the season dwindled down, a sense of urgency developed among not only the seniors, but the rest of the football team as well. They knew they needed a win, not only because the underclassmen wanted to send their seniors off on a happy note, but also to point this program in the right direction.

“It’s motivation for us to come out and play hard,” running back Pierre Thomas said about getting a win for the seniors. “They have given a lot to this team, and we wanted to go and win for them. They have meant a lot to this team. It’s motivation for us to make plays; we wanted to give the seniors something special. We wanted to go and get them all a Big Ten win this year.”

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    From the first play in the game, when Indiana’s Matt LoVecchio connected with Jahkee Gilmore on an 80-yard touchdown pass, the Illini knew they would have to fight till the finish. Indiana went on to score 13 more points in the first quarter before the Illini could get on the board.

    “We could have folded several weeks ago after the Minnesota game,” said Illinois head coach Ron Turner. “There were lots of opportunities to fold and to go out there without a lot of energy and fall behind 19-0.”

    But the game’s momentum changed when punter Steve Weatherford faked a punt on fourth-and-11 and rushed for 12 yards to get the Illini first down. On the next play, quarterback Brad Bower connected with Kendrick Jones for a 56-yard touchdown pass.

    “It was definitely a momentum swing,” Weatherford said about the faked punt. “It’s always a big play when you can get a first down on fourth down. In practice we were looking at a couple of holes, and we thought we could exploit them. The line blocked well; I didn’t have to do anything except run straight ahead.”

    The Illini scored once more in the first quarter when Melvin Bryant caught a 16-yard pass from Bower.

    The Illini defense stepped up the rest of the game, holding Indiana to only three more points.

    Thomas, who led the Illini offense with 185 rushing yards, broke tackles right and left en route to a fourth quarter, 44-yard touchdown.

    “He doesn’t like being tackled,” Turner said. “When Pierre is on, he is on and when he is healthy, he is usually on. He has been beat up these last few weeks. I could see it coming this week in practice.”

    Illinois’ 2-point conversion failed, and the Illini trailed 22-20 with 5:21 left in the game. Two plays later, cornerback Kelvin Hayden intercepted a Blake Powers’ pass and returned it for 33 yards, giving the Illini the ball on Indiana’s 30-yard line.

    With 30 seconds left in the game, Jon Beutjer, who entered the game at the end of the third quarter, connected with a wide-open Jones for the touchdown, and the game.

    “As soon as I saw Kendrick I looked over at Jon,” Turner said. “I knew he saw it. I was just thinking, hurry up, snap the damn ball, let’s go. It was a good heads-up play from both those guys.”