Winning teams find ways to pull out victories even when the odds appear against them. Illinois has now come from behind three games in a row to achieve their perfect record to this point. The Northwestern game Saturday was the biggest reversal, coming from 18 down to go ahead, and then using their two-minute offense to perfection to overcome a late Wildcat score.
Afterward, Illini coach Ron Zook was extremely happy. He credited his players and coaches for the win.
"We believed in it. I told them at halftime the score doesn't count until it's over. It was important we finish strong, and we were fortunate enough to come away with the win.
"The players are beginning to believe that the things the coaches have been telling them the last two years, maybe these coaches are right. Maybe they do know what they're talking about. They're buying in. It's hard to win, and they found that out today."
Northwestern came to play. They were well-prepared and determined to reverse last year's embarrassment in Wrigley Field. They were motivated to prevent the Illini from running the ball, and they were successful as Illinois ended with just 82 net yards rushing.
However, the Illini opened up their passing game and found numerous openings in the Wildcat secondary to counter the absence of a running game. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino explained the UI strategy.
"They were not gonna let us run the ball. Their safeties were low, and they just kept them low the whole game. Coming into the game, we felt we had to throw deep. On Friday nights, I meet with Coach Zook and go through the game plan. I told him I thought we had to throw deep to win the game.
"When we were walking off the field (before the game), he grabbed me and said, 'Don't be cautious." That's probably the best thing that happened to me all day. It gave me a lot of confidence, and I thank him.
"The long passes were open all game. The second half, we protected. We didn't run the ball consistently at all, but we made enough big plays to win the game."
Those eager to write a UI epitaph began blaming mistakes, penalties, turnovers and lethargic, inconsistent play for the demise. Those were all true at times, except for the final result.
"It wasn't the prettiest game we've played this year, but sometimes those things happen," Zook said. "We've got to start playing from the beginning of the game. We didn't run the ball like we have to run it, we didn't do a lot of things like we have to do them. We did what we had to do to win the game."
The Illini drew first blood in the game as a shanked punt placed the ball on the NU 32 yard line. But they failed to score on their previous drive when Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception to Brian Peters in the end zone from four yards out on third down and goal. Scheelhaase hit A.J. Jenkins from 14 yards out to make it 7-0.
From there until the fourth quarter, it looked like Northwestern had destiny on its side. Quarterback Dan Persa, playing his first game in nearly a year after Achilles tendon surgery, fired the first of his four touchdown passes, nine yards to Drake Dunsmore to culminate a 69 yard drive.
NU then took advantage of an errant Illini pitch that put them in great field position. Persa found Jeremy Ebert for the first of his three TD grabs to make it 14-7 NU. The Illini came back with time running out in the half to set up Derek Dimke for a 49 yard field goal as the half expired.
When the Wildcats scored on their first two second half possessions, many thought the Illini were goners. But Scheelhaase hit Jenkins on a 33 yard strike to make the score 28-17. Jenkins, who ended the day with an Illini record 268 receiving yards in 12 receptions, caught consecutive passes of 8 and 50 yards around the quarter turn to put the Illini back within 28-23 (a two-point conversion try failed).
Now fully engaged, Illini fans sensed a victory as NU went three-and-out. A 65 yard punt forced the Illini to begin its next drive from the five yard line, but momentum was now strongly at their backs. Jenkins caught Scheelhaase passes for 24, 12 and 14 yards on the drive, and sophomore Spencer Harris became an exceptional alternative.
Harris caught passes on consecutive plays for 12, 5 and 9 yards, and he caught a 14 yarder after an incompletion. Donovonn Young burst over the goal line from one yard out to give the Illini a one point lead. The Illini then went for two, and Scheelhaase hit Harris, who reversed direction to make a diving grab for a 31-28 lead. Harris refused to take personal credit.
"That was a great drive. Me and Nate connected well. I'm gonna have to give that one to the o-line, Nate, the backs and receivers. I can't take credit for any of that."
Scheelhaase is glad to have Harris, who had 6 catches for 63 yards, on his side.
"He made a lot of big catches today. We knew he was a playmaker. He did a great job of that. He's a big guy with long arms, jumps well. You can throw it anywhere around him, and he can find a way to make a catch.
"And the other thing he's been doing great is blocking his butt off. For him to be that well-rounded as a receiver, that helps us as an offense."
When the Illini forced a Northwestern punt with 3:04 left in the game, the lead appeared secure. But normally reliable Jason Ford fumbled the ball on the first play, giving NU possession on the 36 yard line.
Persa was out of the game after reinjuring his Achilles, so Kain Colter took charge. A top runner, Colter had the energy and speed to confound the Illini defense. He sparked a drive that ended with a six yard run by Jacob Schmidt to give the Wildcats an apparent victory with 1:15 left on the clock. Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning waxed philosophically regarding Colter's play.
"When they put #2 in there in the fourth quarter, we were gassed and he was fresh. It looked like an old dog trying to chase a deer."
Undeterred, the Illini were not willing to give up. Running the two-minute offense to perfection, Scheelhaase found Jenkins for 28 yards and scrambled for 22 more. A pass interference penalty put the ball on the four yard line. Scheelhaase sneaked it over from half a yard out with 0:13 seconds remaining to give the Illini a well-deserved 38-35 triumph.
Jenkins is backing up his preseason bravado, but he was unwilling to take personal credit afterward.
"I don't care if I get the ball or not. As long as we win games, I don't care if I have no catches at all. Last year, Mikel (Leshoure) beat them with about 300 yards rushing, so we knew we had to beat them deep this year. That's what we did.
Scheelhaase had no problem praising his buddy.
"Honestly, he had a great week of practice. We were excited to see him go out there and make plays. That's what we expect from him. He was consistent throughout the game and had a breakout game. I'm real proud of him. It was fun throwing the ball to him."
The offensive line is key to a downfield passing game. The linemen must sustain their blocks long enough for the deeper routes to open up. Jeff Allen spoke for all the linemen regarding how they benefit from a teammate's offensive record.
"It feels great. There's nothing that feels better than doing something for someone else. He was able to make big plays that helped us win the game."
The line was much better second half. Allen thinks he knows why.
"We spoke at halftime about being tough. Great teams win games like this. We came out second half and kept the same attitude and kept believing."
Scheelhaase had by far his best passing day as a quarterback. He finished 21 of 32 for 391 yards and three touchdowns. He was also the leading ball carrier with 35 net yards. Only the one interception marred his day.
"I think I had 295 in high school and mid 200's against Arkansas State. So that's a first. That was pretty fun."
Scheelhaase felt one aspect of the team's play was most important for the victory.
"We kept believing. That is what it's all about. Believing in us as an offense, believing in the defense, believing in what this team's all about. That's what we did throughout the game.
"Coach Zook talked about it all week. If guys thought it was gonna be an easy win, they were wrong about that. Coach Zook said with a rivalry game, you're gonna have ups and downs. That's what we had, but we kept believing.
"We definitely threw caution to the wind. We threw the ball down the field and executed some long plays. We did probably as good as we ever have done of hitting the plays down the field when they were there."
Zook credits two previous comeback wins with helping his Illini persevere Saturday.
"I don't think there's any question. When I looked in our guys' eyes, there wasn't any panic. They believe in themselves, they believe in the coaches, they believe that they're gonna get it done. You've got to play one game at a time, and that's what those guys are doing right now."
Zook saw Scheelhaase progress in his development.
"I think Nathan took a little step today in terms of his own confidence level. He knows he can run, and now he knows he can throw. He's the whole package."
Scheelhaase believes he has finally proven to defensive coordinators the Illini offense is multidimensional.
"Every week, we've been able to pull out new things we've been able to do well. Now we're a pretty dynamic offense, and we feel good about that. Defenses should be a little more nervous when they're playing us. It makes it tougher for them."
Illinois struggled with the two-minute offense last season, but things are much smoother now that Scheelhaase has a year in the system. Petrino doubts the Illini could have scored at the end last year.
"I'm not sure with a minute left last year we would have gone down the field and scored. But they never blinked. They never didn't believe we weren't gonna find a way to win."
Practice makes perfect; Zook requires daily work on the 2-minute offense.
"That's something we work on every day. Sometimes Coach Petrino gets upset with me. A lot of games are won in the last two minutes of a game, particularly when you get into this stretch of the schedule. I told them in the huddle, 'This is just like practice.'"
The Illini outgained NU 473 to 332, but the Wildcats gave them all they could handle. The senior Persa was exceptional, evading the rush and finding open receivers for first downs on third and long.
"It's easy to see why he's the player that he is," Zook reminded. "I don't know how many times we had him sacked, and he gets out of it. He's a great player. We don't have to worry about him anymore."
Koenning spoke along similar lines.
"That was amazing what he was able to accomplish. The second half he played better than the first as he was probably getting more used to playing. He was able on 3rd and 8, 3rd and 9 to convert it. It's hard to do that."
Northwestern hadn't done that well with the run this season, but they gained 169 yards on the ground Saturday. Koenning was somewhat distraught about that afterward and said the Illini would be practicing harder this week.
At the same time, the normally strong Illini running game was impotent against a team that stacked the box against them. Zook believes they must have tougher practices to regain their edge.
"I think we're gonna do some one-on-ones this week because I think maybe we've lost our edge a little bit. We're gonna run the football. We need to go back and do some 9 on 7 and let these guys go against each other and compete a little bit."
Regardless, the Illini are 5-0 on the young season, and that is sitting well with them.
"It's amazing," Koenning admits. "You know what, that's 1-0 in the conference. We feel very fortunate, and we know we have to take advantage of this opportunity because they don't come around as often. We've got a lot of improvement to do."
Scheelhaase likes the conference audit even better.
"5-0 is good. More importantly than that, we're 1-0 in our conference. That's exactly where we wanted to be. With the competition we've faced, we've seen a lot of different looks, a lot of different styles. In the Big 10, it's big game after big game. You get excited about playing that competition."
The Illini appear to have escaped another game without major injuries. But on one discouraging note, receiver Darius Millines aggravated his foot stress fracture Wednesday in practice, the same one that kept him out of spring ball. Zook says he is week to week. He was on crutches in a walking boot Saturday.
The Illini now take their show on the road for the first time this season. They will enjoy this win tonight, but Zook reminds that every week is a tough one in the Big 10, and the Illini must prepare well for Indiana.
"This will be our first time on the road. There will be a lot of new stuff going on. I promise you, it will probably be another game like this. We've got to practice better and go play."