Victories like this have been few and far between for Illinois in the last few years. The crowd hoped for a win over ranked Arizona State, but too many previous losses kept their hearts guarded to protect from another disappointment. Illini players believe this can be a special season, and the fans are beginning to get the message.
As Illini head coach Ron Zook stated afterward, everyone deserves credit for this big win over the Sun Devils, including the fans.
"Our fans were unbelievable. You know what it meant to our players when you saw them run up into the stands. It was loud, it was fun.
"When you get in games like that, you need everybody on the football team, and you need everybody that's in orange. We had a great crowd tonight, and they did a great job. It was a great effort, a University of Illinois effort, and everybody gets a little bit of the credit."
All aspects of the Illini team did their part, but special credit must go to the defense. Arizona State has a high powered offense with special 6'-8" quarterback Brock Osweiler and outstanding receivers. They completed many passes but could only score two touchdowns.
Zook credited the entire defense afterward.
"I'm so proud of the defense. They had a great plan, and they just kept coming. I kept telling Vic (Koenning) they're not gonna beat us rushing the football. They came here to throw the football. They did get a few yards on the ground, but our defense played great.
"The secondary played well. Coach Gillhamer, that's one thing about being from the NFL, he's pretty good at breaking down all those routes. The guys were where they should be and in position to make the plays. And they played their hearts out.
"The pressure was great. Coach Gilmore did a great job, and Vic called a great game. He had them coming from all different directions. And they kept coming. I'm proud of the way the defense played."
Osweiler was sacked six times and pressured on numerous other occasions. Defensive coordinator Koenning was like a mad scientist all week, conjuring up schemes and lineups that might slow down the potent ASU attack. It may not have looked like anything the Illini have done in the past, but it confused ASU.
"We missed him more than we got him. It was sometimes frustrating because our guys really worked hard this week. We did some different things up front particularly, things we put in last Monday. We put the game plan together, looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy.' But it all worked."
Illini defenders smelled blood in the water after they got to Osweiler a couple times. It pushed them to work even harder according to sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown, who was credited with seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks.
"We knew he hadn't been hit yet, so if we got to him he'd get a little rattled. That's what happened. I kind of saw (frustration) in his face, so that made me take it up another level."
Defensive end Whitney had two sacks of his own. He saw the same thing as Brown.
"Coach Vic told us to hit him like he'd never been hit before. When J.B. lit him up, he started getting nervous in the pocket. We put him out of his comfort zone."
Bandit Michael Buchanan also benefitted from the onslaught, registering 1.5 sacks.
"I thought we did a good job of making plays. When he couldn't find a receiver open, I felt like he was getting frustrated that we were getting pressure on him."
Mercilus spoke for every defender when sharing his frustrations with preseason slights toward the defense.
"The win boosts our confidence. It shows everybody in the public that we're a good football team. They can't sleep on us. They can call us underdogs every game, but we're gonna try to come out on top.
"Before the beginning of the season, everyone said the defense was underrated and not up to par with other teams. They said the offense was better than us. But we came out tonight and showed what we can do.
"I was tired of the negativity. I just wanted to prove to everybody in the public that we're not second-rate, that we can be competitors."
Both the defensive line and linebacker units were ranked last in a 12 team Big 10 conference in preseason, and the Illini haven't taken kindly to that insult. They play with a large chip on their shoulder, and tonight was partial vindication.
Of course, they weren't perfect. They gave up 362 total yards including 256 yards through the air. They bent, but they broke only twice. The early score on a 21 yard pass from Osweiler to Gerell Robinson was especially frustrating for Koenning.
"There were some things we didn't do perfect in the game, especially early. We were messing up a bunch of stuff. Some guys were probably overly hyped. We messed up coverage and gave up the first touchdown.
"Coach Zook deserves credit for keeping us coaches from getting rattled. He was a tremendous calming effect on us coaches because I was about ready to go crazy on some of the guys. He kept everybody calm and kept believing.
"He really did a good job with players and coaches on the sideline first half when we weren't playing defensively like we are accustomed to. That calmed us down, and then we started getting into a groove."
The Illini came out strong to begin the game. Trulon Henry caught Mike Willie for a 5 yard loss on the first play from scrimmage, and Whitney Mercilus sacked ASU star Brock Osweiler for a 6 yard loss, forcing a punt.
The Illini offense took over on the ASU 38 and needed only six plays to score. Nathan Scheelhaase ran three times for 28 yards and hit A.J. Jenkins for 14 more. Jason Ford forced his way into the end zone from one yard out.
The Sun Devils came right back, giving the appearance of a high scoring affair. The big plays were a 22 yard strike from Osweiler to Aaron Pflugrad before the TD to Robinson.
Scheelhaase found Jenkins for a big 45 yard pass down to the two yard line on their next possession, but the Illini were rebuffed from the end zone. Derek Dimke hit a 21 yard chip shot to make the score 10-7.
The rest of the half was a wash as both teams threatened but mistakes hurt their cause. Jonathan Brown hit Osweiler as he threw, and teammate Glenn Foster intercepted. But the Illini lost a fumble on an exchange between Scheelhaase and Donovonn Young and a Scheelhaase interception where he tried to hit a bomb against double coverage.
The third quarter was all Arizona State as the Illini had terrible field position throughout and couldn't muster a single first down. And yet they rebuffed the Sun Devils until the first play of the fourth quarter, Osweiler using a clever draw call to give them a 14-10 lead.
A holding call on first down snuffed out the next Illini possession, but the biggest play of the game occurred three plays later. Mercilus hit Osweiler behind the line, forcing a fumble Ian Thomas recovered at the ASU 41 yard line. Thomas wanted more than just the recovery.
"I wanted to score, put the ball in the end zone and get some points for us. It was a defensive game on both sides."
Scheelhaase had hurt his throwing shoulder on the previous series, so Reilly O'Toole replaced him. He was late on a wheel route, but the Sun Devils were whistled for pass interference. Uplifted, Scheelhaase returned to run seven yards.
Jason Ford fought for three tough yards before Scheelhaase found Jenkins in the flat. He outraced ASU linebacker star Vontaze Burfict down the West sideline to score what would prove to be the winning score from 16 yards out.
"I knew I had to make up for the one I didn't score on the long pass play," Jenkins reminded. "It was good line blocking. All I had to do was beat #7, and I did."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino praised Jenkins for his special effort.
"He did a great job of making sure he got into the end zone. He's a great player, and he can do things like that. I was proud of him. I thought he had a great game."
Scheelhaase says his injury is minor.
"It's all right. On one of the scrambles, I went around the right edge and hit the ground funny. It was just a little sore. I was over on the sidelines praying to God to give me another chance to step out there and have enough strength to throw the ball."
The Illini offense gained only 240 yards for the game, with 135 coming on 11 for 15 passing and one touchdown by Scheelhaase. He had one interception and was sacked twice. He was also the team's leading rusher with 67 net yards in 18 carries. Jenkins caught six passes for 103 yards.
Ford added 62 rushing yards in 21 hard fought carries. His bull rushes gave the Illini an important first down and kept the clock running late in the game to keep the ASU offense off the field.
The Illini know they must improve their offensive production, but Petrino acknowledged the quality of the Arizona State defense.
"They have a good defense. They're really well coached, they're sound, they know what they're doing. They make you earn it."
Koenning felt the Illini were calm and confident before the game, and Zook felt the same afterward. The Illini are celebrating tonight, but they know this is just one game of a long season.
"This is a great win for us, a great win for this season," Zook said. "But we're gonna get a bunch more of these. This is not the Big 10 Championship, it's just something we're gonna build on. But it does make people realize that maybe Illinois is a little better than people think.
"I've got to believe that, if they're the 18th best team in the country, then maybe we should at least get a few votes."
Zook says the key now is to regroup and begin preparations for Western Michigan. It does no good to win a big game if you lay an egg the following week.
"I know our offense is gonna be really good, so I'm not worried about that. And I know our defense is gonna be really good. We've just got to keep on getting better. The next game is the most important game of our lives."