It’s not how they drew it up, but Ron Zook and his Fighting Illini will take it.
This year’s version of the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy between Illinois and Northwestern was all you could ask for as a college football fan and definitely instant classic material.
The homecoming day crowd in Champaign was treated to a game in which there was over 800 yards of total offense between the two teams and, more importantly, a 38-35 Illini victory to put them at 5-0 for the first time since 1951.
But it wasn’t easy.
The Illini killed themselves all day with turnovers and penalties, which almost cost them.
In the first half, QB Nathan Scheelhaase had a pass intercepted in the end zone and another touchdown pass called back because of an offensive pass interference call.
Despite that, the Illini only trailed 14-10 at the half.
However, Northwestern QB Dan Persa came out firing touchdowns in the second half and with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter the Illini found themselves trailing 28-10.
After that, it was just simply the Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins show.
The Illini proceeded to score 21 unanswered points thanks in large part to the play of Scheelhaase and Jenkins. Scheelhaase finished the day with a career-high 391 yards passing and three touchdowns, all of which went to Jenkins, who had 12 catches for an Illinois record 268 receiving yards.
After Donovonn Young scored on a one-yard run, the Illini had regained the lead 31-28 with just over 6:30 left in the game and looked like they had it sealed up when the defense stopped Northwestern on a fourth down attempt with under three minutes remaining.
On the first play from scrimmage with the Illini trying to run down the clock, Jason Ford fumbled and it was recovered by Northwestern. The Wildcats proceeded to score on a one-yard touchdown run and with 1:15 remaining had regained the lead 35-31.
Never fear, it was time for Scheelhaase to go to work again.
Along with more help from Jenkins and three timeouts, Scheelhaase drove the Illini down to the Northwestern 1-yard line and then finished off the drive himself by scoring on a sneak to seal the 38-35 victory for Illinois.
The Illini will definitely take the victory, but there are some things that they are going to have to address going forward.
They only managed 82 yards on the ground in this game after averaging over 200 yards on the ground in the first four games. Even more alarming was the fact that starting running back Jason Ford had only nine yards on seven carries along with the big fumble at the end of the game.
The Illini will have to be able to run the ball more effectively in the Big Ten if they want to continue to have success. They can't rely on games like that from Scheelhaase and Jenkins to bail them out.
On the other side of the ball, the defense didn't play an awful game, they just weren't as good as they were the first four games. Give some credit to Northwestern QB Dan Persa because that guy is tough and he just made plays out there.
The defensive backs had a few breakdowns and gave up some touchdown passes, but overall the defense played another solid game.
Finally, the turnovers are something that the Illini will have to address because they cannot continue to turn the ball over three times and win games, especially in the Big Ten.
Despite all of that, the bottom line is that Illinois is 5-0—they are gaining confidence, and most of all, they are making people believe.
They have now shown that they have the ability to come from behind with a quick strike offense, and coupled with their tough defense, they just may be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
ILL - INI.
Bring on the Hoosiers.
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