Late comeback gives Illini 42-35 win

Illinois+Josh+Ferguson+%286%29+dives+into+the+end+zone+to+score+a+touchdown+during+the+game+against+Texas+State+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Sept.+20%2C+2014.+The+Illini+won+42-35.

Illinois’ Josh Ferguson (6) dives into the end zone to score a touchdown during the game against Texas State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. The Illini won 42-35.

By Sean Nuemann

In three plays, the Illini football team began to save itself from a devastating loss to Texas State on Saturday.

It was a dark first half for Illinois (3-1), which allowed nearly 300 total yards on defense. The Bobcats took a 21-13 into the half after the Illini allowed eight Texas State third down conversions and 17 first downs.

The team’s dismal performance in the first half lasted even longer than the Illini hoped after a lightning delay stopped the game for nearly two hours.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Beckman said. “I’m getting a lot of gray hairs playing these games.”

But the storm cleared, the second half began, and Illinois made another second-half comeback to win 42-35 and finish nonconference play with three victories.

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    It started with a sack. 

    Illinois’ defensive line was one of the few bright spots for the defense Saturday.

    The Illini defense allowed Bobcats quarterback Tyler Jones 336 yards through the air for four touchdowns

    “They have a unique offense,” Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Their quarterback is a really good player and their running back was probably a little bit better than we anticipated.”

    Texas State running back Robert Lowe had 117 rushing yards on 26 attempts.

    The Illini trailed 21-13 when Texas State was faced with another third down early in the second half — a hot spot for the Bobcat offense Saturday — when Illinois linemen Jihad Ward and Austin Teitsma sacked Jones for a 10-yard loss, forcing a Texas State punt.

    It was Illinois’ fourth sack of the day. And the most important for the team’s momentum starting the second half.

    “(The sacks) were big,” Teitsma said. “That’s something we’ve been wanting to work on, especially since last year.”

    Then came the return

    Illini returner V’Angelo Bentley has been looking to make a big play on special teams all season. While his fourth quarter interception return for a touchdown might be his best moment from Saturday, his return game made a large impact after the sack. 

    When a 54-yard punt landed in Bentley’s arms, he immediately split the Bobcats up field and returned the punt 40 yards, rolling in the change of momentum.

    The return set up the Illini offense on the Bobcats’ 33-yard line, giving Illini quarterback Wes Lunt an opportunity to make his first impact through the air — he had just six completions on 12 passing attempts in the first half.

    “We weren’t doing the things we were practicing,” Lunt said. “We just kind of regrouped and get back together.”

    Ferguson’s touchdown

    The Illini running backs accounted for four touchdowns Saturday (three rushing, one receiving), but Ferguson’s 33-yard touchdown reception early in the third quarter awakened the Illini. 

    “That brought us back into the game,” Ferguson said. “We weren’t playing up to par after the first touchdown and we came out and fixed it.”

    Lunt’s performance came late. The Illini sophomore completed 25 passes for 266 yards in the game, but had just three yards on two completions before the weather delay.

    “It was frustrating,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “I think Wes handles himself really well when it’s not going well. All of the sudden he just got in rhythm.”

    Cubit said it was refreshing to see Illinois’ rushing game have a break-out game with 219 yards. Illinois’ offense had yet to rush more than 100 yards in a game this season.

    Illinois will now head into Big Ten conference play with a 3-1 record, facing No. 24 Nebraska on Saturday, but Beckman is concerned with the team’s performance in the nonconference schedule — one that forced the team to make three fourth quarter comebacks.

    “We’re still making too many mistakes to be successful,” Beckman said. “We have to play four quarters of football.”

    Sean can be reached at spneuma2 @dailyillini.com and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.