Illini football reach first bowl game under Beckman

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Without Reilly O’Toole, the 2014 Illinois football season might have been head coach Tim Beckman’s last.

But then the senior quarterback rose to the occasion against Minnesota, throwing one touchdown and rushing for another to help the Illini to a 28-24 Homecoming victory over Minnesota.ss

He again rose to the occasion at home against Penn State. With Illinois on the brink of missing out on postseason play for the third-straight year, he led a 54-yard drive that culminated in a David Reisner 36-yard field goal to put the Illini up 16-14 with eight seconds remaining.ss

Visiting Northwestern on the last day of the regular season, the three-year backup put on his best performance as an Illini, throwing for 147 yards, rushing for 147 yards and accounting for three touchdowns in a 47-33 victory over the Wildcats.ss

Those three Big Ten wins brought Beckman’s conference win total from one to four in his third year as Illinois’ head coach and secured the Illini a trip to the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. There, Louisiana Tech handed Illinois a 35-18 defeat in the Cotton Bowl, but the bowl loss did not end Beckman’s Illinois career — after the season, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Mike Thomas guaranteed Beckman would be back for the 2015 season.ss

The Illini finished 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten.ss

“Reilly O’Toole helped this football team win,” Beckman said after the win over Northwestern. “He’s one heck of a leader, a competitor, and he’s one of those names I’ll remember forever, as long as I coach.”

O’Toole replaced sophomore Wes Lunt when the Oklahoma State transfer went down with a broken leg following the Texas State game. Lunt played in the first half of the Minnesota game before Beckman went with O’Toole, who finished the season as the team’s starter.ss

With O’Toole’s graduation, all signs point toward Lunt starting the 2015 season as Beckman’s signal caller.

Freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek was the breakout star of the year for the Illini, catching 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. But the freshman All-American tore his ACL during a noncontact drill at spring practice and is expected to be sidelined until at least October.ss

Besides Dudek, the lone Illini named to the All-Big Ten team was senior punter Justin DuVernois, who finished second in the Big Ten with 44.4 yards per punt.ss

No Illinois players were drafted in April’s NFL draft, but senior tight ends Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis were signed as undrafted free agents — LaCosse with the New York Giants and Davis with the Dallas Cowboys.ss

The Illini begin the 2015 season under the lights on a Friday night: Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. against Kent St. at Memorial Stadium.

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