McCourt, Hayes play vital role in helping Illini compete against UTSA

Kicker+James+Mc%0ACourt+begins+to+follow+through+on+a+kick+during+the+Illinois+football+game+against+UTSA+on+Saturday.+McCourt+and+Blake+Hayes+played+a+vital+role+in+competing+against+UTSA.

Ryan Ash

Kicker James Mc Court begins to follow through on a kick during the Illinois football game against UTSA on Saturday. McCourt and Blake Hayes played a vital role in competing against UTSA.

By Will Payne, Assistant Sports Editor

After last night’s loss to the UTSA Roadrunners, there weren’t too many positives Bret Bielema could take from his team’s performance. Conceding 37 points to a non-conference opponent after paying them $1.1 million to show up at Memorial Stadium did not sit right with Illini fans.

However, one silver linings from Illinois’ game on Saturday came from the special teams. Kicker James McCourt went 3-3 in his field goal attempts yesterday, as he hit from 52 yards, 53 yards and 32 yards. 

After his 53-yard FG, McCourt broke the record for the most 50+ yard field goals in Illini history. The record of five 50+ field goals was previously held by Chase McLaughlin (2014-18), but now McCourt holds the title with six 50+ yard field goals to his name.

McCourt has made 3-4 field goals early in this 2021 football season. If the super senior can continue this level of play, Illinois will be able to hang around in more games, and maybe even McCourt will pick up some more records and accolades as the season progresses.

Around the rest of the country, Oklahoma’s Gabe Brkic has three 50+ yard field goals and McCourt has two. The rest of the kickers in the country have combined for six.

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    Despite putting up 30 points again this week, there is no doubt the Illinois offense looked stagnant against UTSA. Artur Sitkowski and the Illini offense struggled to establish the run game or consistently move the ball down the field. In a situation such as this, where Illinois were trailing for almost the entire game, solid special teams play is imperative.

    The Illini had one big special teams mistake in the second quarter, when a muffed punt saw UTSA take over from the Illini 26. The Roadrunners converted a field goal on this possession, which was frustrating for the home team right at the end of the half. 

    Along with McCourt, another standout performance from the Illini special teams came from punter Blake Hayes. After last night, Hayes passed Steve Weatherford (2002-05) on the all-time punting average list, as the Australian now sits at a 43.58 average. 

    Time and time again this season, Hayes has helped the Illinois defense massively by pinning opponents within their own five yard line. 

    After McCourt’s record breaking kick today, Hayes was thrilled for his teammate, understanding that his performance was vital to Illinois keeping the game competitive. 

    “For such a tight ball game like we had, those points are crucial,” said Hayes. “They mean everything to the team, and I was just really proud of how he went about it tonight.”

    Hayes knows that being a successful kicker in the Big Ten not only has to do with your ability but your confidence as well. After going 0-1 last week against Nebraska, Hayes loved to see McCourt dazzling the Memorial Stadium crowd with his country-mile kicks.

    Coming off that miss last week, I was really proud of him and the way he bounced back,” said Hayes. “It’s not surprising to me. (McCourt) has that leg, he has the ability to come in from 50 yards and deliver a field goal.”

     

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