Hawthorne’s heroic play propels Illini to victory, may just force him to stay on defense

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When Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier threw a pass from his own 23-yard line to receiver Roy Roundtree early in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the Wolverines led the Illini 13-7.

The first half was similar to others during the Illini’s 1-6 start to the season — the defense held the Wolverines to minimal damage, but the offense just couldn’t get much going. But as Roundtree bounced off of freshman safety Walt Aikens, it looked like the Illini defense was about to give up a big play, something that had become all too familiar in 2009.

“When the play first started and he broke open, I was just jogging to the play because I thought the safety was going to make the tackle,” Terry Hawthorne said.

Roundtree streaked past the Illini defense and was about 10 yards ahead of any Illini defensive back by the time he crossed midfield.

The Michigan receiver had his sights set on the end zone, and there was little reason to believe he wouldn’t put the Wolverines up 20-7 and into the driver’s seat.

But Hawthorne had other plans.

“I just said, ‘Go get him,’ and that’s when I just went,” the freshman cornerback said.

Still, Roundtree kept running all the way to the 10-yard line before Hawthorne even looked like he had a chance to catch him.

“Honestly, I thought he was gone,” said linebacker Ian Thomas, who watched from Forcier’s side after a failed blitz.

Hawthorne used his blazing speed, which some teammates have called the fastest on the team, to catch Roundtree and tackle him into the end zone. But the play was initially ruled a touchdown and the scoreboard read 19-7, making Hawthorne’s rundown look little more than an ambitious freshman trying to make a big play.

“I was confident that it wasn’t a touchdown,” he said.

The touchdown was called back after an official’s review, and the ball was placed on the 1-yard line.

The Illini still had to make a goal-line stand, but they wouldn’t let Hawthorne’s play become meaningless.

“When he did that, it made everyone feel like we could just stop them,” said Thomas, who called it the play of the year. “If he can run down there, chase him down from 20 yards behind, we could them from getting into the end zone. It was an inspiration for the whole game.

“I’ve never seen any speed like that before.”

The play spurred the Illinois defense to stuff four Michigan running plays for no gain, giving the ball back to an Illini offense that went on a tear of its own, scoring on its next four drives as Illinois won its first Big Ten game of the season.

“That gave us the momentum,” quarterback Juice Williams. “That’s the first thing I said, ‘We’ve got to pay the defense back.’”

But Hawthorne’s game-changing play almost didn’t happen.

When he committed to Illinois, the East St. Louis native didn’t think he would play anything other than wide receiver. But surgery during the summer to repair a broken hand caused him to fall behind his fellow receivers. When cornerback Miami Thomas was injured during training camp, head coach Ron Zook and his staff decided to move Hawthorne to the defensive side of the ball.

“When I first came over, I was feeling like, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ But as I just kept on going, I came to the conclusion I was just going to stay in and just do it.”

Hawthorne’s move happened on one condition — that Zook promise his offensive coaches he would put Hawthorne back on offense at season’s end.

But co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch wasn’t so sure that would happen after Saturday’s win.

“Oh, he’s not going back to the offense, brother,” Disch said. “No, I’m just kidding, Coach Zook makes those decisions, and that’s something they’ll decide in the offseason, but he’s got a chance to be an awful good corner. If they ask me, I’m going to say keep him on defense.”

Hawthorne has stated all season that he planned to move back to receiver. Unfortunately for him, though, he may have played himself to a permanent spot at cornerback.

“Hopefully I’ll switch back over, but most likely I’m not,” he said with a glum smile.

Teammates wouldn’t shoot down the idea of Hawthorne playing on both sides, but Zook didn’t even want to talk about the process.

“I don’t think this is even a time for us to even worry about next year,” he said. “I can tell you this, he’s going to finish up the year on defense.”

But Hawthorne’s teammates did draw a few conclusions from Saturday’s game.

“If it wasn’t for that guy, we wouldn’t have had that goal-line stand, and that kept us going,” defensive tackle Corey Liuget said. “I highly doubt (he’ll move), he’s looking pretty good on defense.”