Illini football wins in tale of two field goals

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  • Taylor Zalewski (17) kicks a field goal in Illinois' game vs. Middle Tennessee.

    Tyler Courtney

By Charlotte Carroll, Staff writer

Taylor Zalewski was on the sidelines as the clock ran down and Middle Tennessee State was driving the ball.

With just eight seconds to go, the Blue Raiders were down to their last chance and Zalewski’s job was done. So he waited with his teammates, coaches and the Illini faithful to see what would happen.

“Usually, I root for the kickers to be honest,” Zalewski said with a laugh. “But, this was the first time I was thinking, ‘I hope he pulls it left.’”

And Middle Tennessee kicker Cody Clark did pull it left, securing a 27-25 win for Illinois in a game that boiled down to a pair of field goals.

After missing three field goals in a row this season, including one earlier on Saturday, Zaleswski made two against the Blue Raiders. One of those was a 51-yard game winner in the final three minutes that was the deciding score for the Illini.

But the distance didn’t worry him. In fact, Zalewski said he has made 70 yarders in practice but a game situation makes hitting the long ones much more complicated because he has to aim higher to avoid the block.

Though it was his third 50-yard career field goal, it was his first since he made a 54-yarder in 2012 against Purdue.

So as he ran onto the field for that final kick, he didn’t have a lot of nerves. He was calm and said a prayer. There was a little wind, his aim was good, and the ball went the distance.

“By far, it was the biggest kick I’ve had (at Illinois),” Zaleweski said.

Last season, Zalewski made just half of his six attempted field goals while competing with fellow kicker David Reisner, who went 6-for-11.

With a new approach this year, Zalewski has maintained his confidence, which he said is key in the kicking mindset.

“This year is forgetting about the last kick,” Zalewski said. “You make it, you miss, it doesn’t matter, you move on.”

Head coach Bill Cubit have gained confidence in their kicker and said he had no hesitation about sending him out there to kick in the final minutes. Instead, his nerves set in when Middle Tennessee was kicking its field goal at the end of the game.

Cubit was on the sidelines saying a prayer and asking his recently deceased mother for a gust of wind to carry the ball outside the goal posts.

But defensive man Dawuane Smoot, who was on the field for that final Blue Raiders’ kick, was not as worried as the seconds ticked away.

“I didn’t look back,” Smoot said. “I just kept looking forward and when I heard the crowd, I knew.”

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@charlottecrrll