O’Toole leads Illini football to senior day victory

Illinois%27+Reilly+O%27Toole+%284%29+passes+the+balll+during+the+game+against+Penn+State+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Nov.+22%2C+2014.+The+Illini+won+16-14.
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O’Toole leads Illini football to senior day victory

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole (4) passes the balll during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. The Illini won 16-14.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole (4) passes the balll during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. The Illini won 16-14.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole (4) passes the balll during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. The Illini won 16-14.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole (4) passes the balll during the game against Penn State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. The Illini won 16-14.

By Sean Neumann

Reilly O’Toole was so excited he tripped over himself and nearly fell back down the staircase.

The senior quarterback was running up the stairs of Memorial Stadium’s Block I student section to hug his friends. They stayed on campus an extra day into Thanksgiving break to watch him play his final game in Champaign.

O’Toole’s parents and siblings were also in the crowd, escorting him prior to the game in a senior day celebration at midfield.

“I tried to hold back tears before the game as much as I could,” O’Toole said. And after the game, he was still holding back tears as he embraced his friends.

What his friends didn’t know was they would be watching one of O’Toole’s best games, as the Illini defeated Penn State 16-14 on a late field goal drive. It may not have been his best game statistically, but it was by far the most clutch.

The backup quarterback entered the game late in the first half, leading Illinois to a touchdown on his first drive. It was the first moment the Illini looked alive against a Penn State defense that ranked fourth in the country heading into the game.

“Whenever Reilly comes in, he gives us a spark,” wide receiver Mike Dudek said. “You never really expect it out of the second-string quarterback, but Reilly prepares like he is the starter in case his number is called and his number was called today.”

O’Toole connected with Dudek four times for 45 yards, taking the Illini down to the Penn State one yard line – a situation he didn’t expect to find himself in. But after starter Wes Lunt threw four just 58 yards early in the game, O’Toole got his chance.

He took the snap on third and goal. He knew it would be one of his last at Memorial Stadium. 

He faked a hand-off and turned to look for an open receiver in the end zone. He found tight end Matt LaCosse for the score.

“I’ve always had a place for Reilly, but I’ve gained so much respect for him this year,” LaCosse said. “He’s been put in some tough spots ever since freshman year and he’s overcome them every time.”

In a game-changing moment, the ball was in O’Toole’s hands.

“You can’t script that stuff. It’s incredible,” O’Toole said. “Those moments celebrating with your best friends, you can’t emulate them.”

LaCosse and O’Toole’s family homes are six minutes apart from each other, and the two have played against one another in different sports since they were in third grade. But they weren’t close until becoming roommates freshman year. The pair has roomed with one another since.

“There’s no better feeling than catching a touchdown from him and seeing his big, goofy smile come running at me,” LaCosse said.

The touchdown breathed new life into the Illini sideline, and the momentum remained with Illinois late into the game when O’Toole again led his team to a game-winning field goal drive — highlighted by kicker David Reisner’s go-ahead field goal with just eight seconds remaining.

When the clock hit zero, O’Toole had thrown for 157 yards on 18 completions, and Illinois’ bowl hopes remained alive heading into its final game against Northwestern.

“I can’t say enough for Reilly O’Toole,” Beckman said. “He won the Homecoming game for us and now he can honestly say he was the quarterback that won a (senior day) game that hadn’t been won in seven years here for these seniors.”

The only game O’Toole could compare Saturday’s emotional level to was the Illinois state championship in his junior year of high school. That game went to double overtime, and the quarterback led Wheaton Warrenville South to a Class 7A title.

In a way, the Illini can think of next week’s matchup against Northwestern as an overtime of their own. With low expectations, Illinois fighting for a bowl bid in its final game is a situation that’s shocked most.

It might not be a prestigious title, but Illinois’ shot at a bowl game is an opportunity for seniors like O’Toole to extend their careers by one more game.

“Hopefully we can go out and win this next game so we have a few more weeks together before everybody goes off and graduates, starts training for the NFL, or starts trying to get jobs,” O’Toole said. “We just want to stay together and be Illini for as long as we can.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.