Illinois can finally exhale. After missing its first two opportunities to gain bowl eligibility, it finally achieved its sixth victory by overpowering Northwestern. And it did so in Chicago's historic Wrigley Field. Head coach Ron Zook acknowledged the problems of playing on a baseball field while praising his players.
"I'm happy for our players and the whole Illini Nation. I'm proud of them. There was a lot of noise in the system, and they just kept fighting. It was a great win. I know there were some issues, but our guys really enjoyed the opportunity to play here."
The victory also gave the Illini possession of the Land Of Lincoln trophy in the second year of its existence, formerly known as the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy, it resided in Northwestern's trophy case six of the last seven years.
Mikel Leshoure rushed for 66 yards the first three plays of the game to give the Illini a lead they never relinquished. He continued to find gigantic holes in a porous Wildcat run defense all day. His 330 yards in 33 carries eclipsed Robert Holcombe's 315 yard effort at Minnesota November of 1996.
It is also the largest rushing total of any back in the nation for 2010. Illini immortal Red Grange played on this field but never enjoyed a game this special.
Zook praised his junior running back, who scored twice.
"Mikel played extremely well. Mikel's done a great job all year. He grew up starting last spring and kept it going."
Leshoure fought through cramps and foot problems to complete his record day. He was quick to praise his blockers.
"I had some opportunities; it starts with the o-line. And we came in with the perfect game plan for their defense. We played hard. We needed this game. I just fought through the injuries and played hard."
Leshoure wasn't the only one to benefit from great blocking. Jason Ford, who also battled through an injury, gained 86 yards in 17 carries and scored three touchdowns. And quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase added 97 net yards in 19 sorties. Zook spoke highly of the entire offense after gaining 519 of its 559 yards on the ground.
"Everybody was blocking, the receivers were blocking, everybody. Mikel did a great job. All the running backs, Jason Ford, Nathan ran well. Any time you can put up as many yards as we did rushing, you've done something right."
Scheelhaase had an off day passing, completing just 6 of 13 passes for 40 yards and a touchdown. He also threw an interception. But Zook praised the redshirt freshman for his leadership on the field.
"That was the first pick Nathan's thrown in four games, but still he did just a marvelous job of managing the game. He made a couple first downs right at the end of the game that were critical to stay on the field for that last touchdown."
The Illini looked like they would enjoy a blowout as linebacker Martez Wilson forced an Evan Watkins fumble on NW's third offensive play to give the Illini great field position at the Wildcat 30. Six plays later, Leshoure went over from the one to make it 14-0.
Defensive end Clay Nurse caused a fumble on Northwestern's next series, recovered by Bandit Michael Buchanan. However, the Illini tried to go for a trick play that backfired. Hit while he threw, Eddie McGee's pass was intercepted by Brian Peters, who returned it 59 yards to pull the Wildcats within seven.
Leshoure quickly gained back the advantage for the Illini by darting for 70 yards on first down. Ford scored his first TD two plays later to make it 21-7. When linebacker Ian Thomas intercepted a Watkins pass tipped by safety Trulon Henry, it appeared the Illini couldn't be denied.
However, a holding call forced a Derek Dimke 29 yard field goal that missed. With the ball at its own 20 yard line, Northwestern struck quickly. Running back Mike Trumpy, nephew of former Illini receiver Bob Trumpy, rambled 80 yards untouched to bring the Wildcats back to a 21-14 deficit. All this action occurred in the first quarter.
Dimke delivered a 45 yard field goal to make it a ten point Illini lead, but a long punt return by Venric Mark put the Wildcats into position for a Stefan Demos 31 yard field goal. When Peters intercepted a Scheelhaase pass, NW had all the momentum. Trumpy scored from 2 yards out to tie the game at 24.
Fears of a repeat of the past two weeks cropped into Illini Nation and perhaps some players at this point as mistakes and bad plays had turned a comfortable lead into a possible loss. However, the Illini offense finished out the half in impressive fashion, moving 69 yards to set up a 39 yard Dimke field goal to give them a 27-24 lead at halftime.
The second half was all Illini. Zook knew his team was ready to prove itself after the break.
"I felt like they were into it at halftime. They knew it was going to be a 60 minute ball game, and they weren't going to back off. Obviously this is a good team, a Big 10 team, and they've got to be strapped up and ready to go. They weren't gonna fall off."
Except for a couple breakdowns, the Illini defense played well first half. They put great pressure on rookie quarterback Evan Watkins, starting his first game after a season-ending injury to star Dan Persa. They were even better second half, giving up only a Demos field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Zook liked the way his team controlled the game in the second half.
"When we went out there and stopped them the first series in the third quarter, and then the offense went down and scored...You never think you're all right, but we were playing the way we needed to play."
The Illini offense continued its domination. Using a ball control style which kept possession for an amazing 41:16 of the game, it marched downfield in a 14 play drive culminated by a ten yard Scheelhaase pass to A.J. Jenkins to put the Illini up 34-24.
Jason Ford added 2 and 1 yard plunges in the fourth quarter to ice the game. Northwestern couldn't score without the ball, and the Illini were playing keep away. The 48-27 final didn't demonstrate how completely the Illini dominated the game.
Illini linebackers Nathan Bussey and Martez Wilson led the way for the defense with six tackles each. Wilson was credited with 3 tackles for loss including 2 sacks, one forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as he played before family and friends in his home town. Ian Thomas added five tackles to his interception. Steve Hull and Corey Liuget had four tackles each.
Northwestern gained just 318 total yards, but 80 of that was the Trumpy run. There is no doubt the Wildcats missed Persa, but they were helpless against the powerful Illini rushing offense. The Illini were determined to win the game and attain bowl eligibility, and they did what they had to do.
This game will go down in history books due to its location and Leshoure's great game. Zook didn't feel the limitations imposed by the dimensions of the field within a baseball stadium detracted from the opportunity.
"Everything went off about as smooth as it could go off. I think it's a unique venue, and our players really enjoyed it. This is something they're gonna be able to tell their grandchildren about. It's still blocking and tackling, and our guys did a good job of it."
Zook also paid tribute to all the former Illini greats whose exploits added greatly to the history of Wrigley Field.
"There's been a lot of great Illini players that have played in this stadium. Maybe they were here."
Whether the Illini were aided by the ghosts of Wrigley Field or earned the victory on their own, they have earned the right to represent the University in a bowl game. For that, everyone is both relieved and excited.