O’Toole, seniors leave everything on field in Dallas

DALLAS — When Reilly O’Toole walked off the field at the Cotton Bowl Stadium, his white No. 4 Illini jersey was stained with green and brown. The senior quarterback was beat up all day by the Louisiana Tech defense in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. 

The Bulldogs sacked him seven times and his former teammate, Houston Bates, contributed 5.5 of those sacks in the Bulldogs’ 35-18 win. 

Yet when O’Toole walked into the postgame media room, he cracked a smile.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a great experience — obviously you want to come out with the win. But at the same time, we weren’t here last year, so we can have our heads held high knowing that we improved so much from last year.”

The excitement in his voice was almost comical, considering it was coming after a loss and the end of his Illinois career. But one would expect nothing less from the ever up-beat O’Toole.

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    O’Toole said he received a text message the night before the game from former Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase telling him to leave it all out on the field in his last game in orange and blue. 

    He certainly did. 

    Said teammate and friend Donovonn Young: “If you look back at Reilly’s jersey today, he’s a warrior. A warrior.”

    It was an emotional experience for all of the seniors. Tears were shed. The loss didn’t sting for the team so much as saying goodbye to the seniors. 

    O’Toole led the Illini to three key wins down the stretch this season. His career at Illinois had its highs and lows. But walking onto the field at the Cotton Bowl to start a bowl game when everyone said he couldn’t do it has to top it everything.

    “You’ve got to respect the kid,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said after the game. “Sometimes coaches think they impart a lot of wisdom on kids. That’s probably true. But there’s also a lot of wisdom on the other side that I get. Sometimes with a kid, the message gets lost. With him, the message never gets lost.”

    Even though Illinois lost, Illini fans should have O’Toole’s postgame attitude. There’s nothing wrong with a slow trek forward. Beckman’s Illini started with two wins in 2012, then four in 2013 and now six in 2014. There’s nothing wrong with an “I’m happy to be here” attitude if it is warranted.

    In this case, it was warranted.

    A bowl game on Dec. 26 against a Conference-USA team doesn’t really mean a whole lot. The Illini were beat by a Bulldogs’ team that caught a couple of breaks.

    Fans could point to the officiating crew, the same one that will officiate the Sugar Bowl national semifinal between Alabama and Ohio State next week. Illinois was penalized eight times in the first half, while Louisiana Tech was penalized once — with 32 seconds remaining in the half. 

    O’Toole threw a pick-six in the second quarter when it appeared Illini receiver Mike Dudek was interfered with from behind. No penalty flag was thrown and the 69-yard touchdown return stood.

    But the officials can’t make up for the defensive miscue that led to an 80-yard Louisiana Tech touchdown. They can’t account for Bates’ 6.5 tackles for loss.

    Most of Illinois’ nine total penalties were sloppy or unnecessary. That’s what a month off will do to a team.

    It was a good experience for the football program and it will give the young players a taste of what is possible.

    What is possible for Illini football in the New Year is a guessing game? Beckman and Illinois could continue to prove people wrong and climb to the seven or eight win range. Or it could end in disappointment and a coaching search.

    Either way, hours of hard work will go into it. Next year’s seniors could go out quietly on the last Saturday in November. Or they could go out at a stadium in Texas or Florida or California, like O’Toole: with green stains on their uniform. 

    Sean is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @sean_hammond.