Illini football keeps cool during comeback

With just under seven minutes on the clock in the third quarter, Illinois football’s undefeated start seemed to be slipping away.

The Illini were trailing 28-10 on the strength of four touchdown passes from Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, and the defense seemed powerless to stop the Wildcats’ passing attack. The Illini rushing attack, a consistent strength under head coach Ron Zook, had mustered just 34 yards.

The momentum was clearly with Northwestern, and Illinois seemed just one crippling blow from bowing out completely.

And then, with one play, everything changed.

It didn’t seem particularly special at first, with running back Donovonn Young picking his way through the middle for a 14-yard gain and a first down. But his run seemed to be the catalyst the Illini needed.

“We needed a spark,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “And I thought Donovonn actually gave us kinda that spark when he had that big run inside, he got a first down. And that’s what we needed. We needed a spark.”

Five plays after Young’s run, Scheelhaase connected with receiver A.J. Jenkins on a 33-yard touchdown to cut the lead to just 11 points.

“We knew there was gonna be ups and downs,” Scheelhaase said. “Coach Zook talked about it all week. If guys thought it was going to be an easy win, they were definitely wrong going into that.”

The offense wasn’t alone in feeling the momentum swing given by Young’s run. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said his defense feeds off what the offense does.

“We have more seniors, more older guys on offense,” he said. “It just is what it is. It seems like our offense kinda sparks us sometimes. … It seemed like we started having some success on offense, and I think that kind of sparked the whole football team.”

The defense used that momentum to hold the Wildcats to just seven more points the rest of the way, and even those came after a fumble by running back Jason Ford set up the Wildcats with a short field. Meanwhile, the offense continued to hum along from that point on, led by Scheelhaase and Jenkins.

Even after the Wildcats scored to take a four-point lead with just 1:43 left on the clock, the Illini never lost their cool. Instead, Scheelhaase steadily led them down the field before scoring the winning touchdown himself on a goal line quarterback dive.

“We kept believing,” Scheelhaase said. “That was what it was all about. We talked about that all week, just believing in us as an offense, believing in the defense, believing what this team is all about.”

Zook said that while the game wasn’t the prettiest, he was still proud of the way him team fought back.

“We didn’t do a lot of things like we have to do it, but we did what we had to do to win the game, that’s the thing,” Zook said. “They believed in it, and as I told them at halftime, the score doesn’t count until it’s over. They played their tails off and finished strong and were fortunate enough to come out with a win.”