Illini drop season finale on wild ending

The Illini football team must feel like it’s seen it all during its 3-9 2009 season.

Up 52-51 during Saturday’s game against Fresno State, all the Illini had to do was defend a two-point conversion with two seconds left to win the highest-scoring game in Memorial Stadium history.

And when linebacker Russell Ellington wrapped up Bulldogs quarterback Ryan Colburn, the Illini thought they were on their way to their fourth win of the season on Senior Day.

But Colburn heaved the ball toward the end zone, where an Illinois defensive back deflected the ball into the hands of Bulldogs’ offensive lineman Devan Cunningham, who ran in for the conversion.

“I’m glad that I was in the right place at the right time,” Cunningham said.

With the conversion, Fresno State took the lead for the first time since the second quarter, and all Illinois could muster next was a Juice Williams Hail Mary, which was intercepted.

The play was the last in a game that included 964 yards of offense and 14 touchdowns.

“When they scored that touchdown, I was just sitting there like, ‘This is nuts, this is nuts,’” senior offensive guard Jon Asamoah said. “Never in my life have I ever played in a game like that.”

The game didn’t look like a record-setter from the beginning, as each team scored only seven points in the first quarter, with Illinois’ Daniel Dufrene and Fresno’s Ryan Matthews each rushing for touchdowns.

But the scoring picked up in the second as Williams threw an interception for a Fresno touchdown before he followed it with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland and an 8-yard touchdown run by Jason Ford.

Colburn then connected with receiver Seyi Ajirotutu on a 4-yard touchdown pass, making the score was 21-21 and opening the offensive floodgates.

With 22 seconds left in the first half, Williams threw a 58-yard bomb to Arrelious Benn, who grabbed the ball from the outstretched hands of a Fresno State defensive back as he scored just his third touchdown of the year. He then proceeded to throw the ball into the stands and was flagged for a personal foul, something for which he apologized after the game.

“The ball just came into my hands and I just took it, because he had his hands on it, too,” Benn said.

“I was excited to get into the end zone, and I kind of showed it when I threw the ball.”

The touchdown was the first touchdown from Williams to Benn, a preseason Walter Camp watch list member for national player of the year.

A Derek Dimke field goal preceded 10 points by the Bulldogs, including another Matthews touchdown run. The junior running back rushed for 173 yards and three touchdowns on the day.

A 61-yard Mikel LeShoure touchdown run for the Illini, which gave him three touchdowns on the day along with 206 total yards, followed by Matthews’ third touchdown began a string of six touchdowns, alternating between teams, on the next eight drives. The scoring barrage culminated in a 19-yard Jamel Hamler touchdown reception with just two seconds left, which set up the game-winning two-point conversion.

“I’m sad on the inside, but at the same time I’m joyful because I get to reflect on the last four years,” said Williams, who leaves Illinois as the all-time career leader in total offense.

“It was one of the best games I’ve ever played in … It was a remarkable way to end my senior season.”

As his career concluded, Asamoah put the game into perspective.

“It just feels like my career here, just everything all over,” he said. “Just unexpected things always happening. Besides winning, I wouldn’t want to go out any other way.”