Illinois 27, Middle Tennessee 25
Taylor Zalewski made a 51-yard field goal with 2:09 left as Illinois (3-1) survived to beat Middle Tennesee (2-2).Middle Tennessee missed a 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired. The Illinois defense held the dangerous Middle Tennessee offense (which entered averaging 51.0 points per game) in check. The Illinois special teams came up with another big play when Caleb Day blocked a punt, recovered by Clayton Fejedelem in the end zone for a touchdown. The Illini offense struggled to find a rhythm, but the run game was effective when interim coach Bill Cubit used it. Senior running back Josh Ferguson and freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn picked up some big first downs to eat up some clock.
What it means
Illinois (3-1) finishes the nonconference with the record most projected and enter Big Ten play halfway to a second-straight bowl game. It wasn't a pretty win, but Middle Tennessee State could probably beat a few of the lower-rung Big Ten teams. This was a "survive and advance" game for Illinois. A loss could've sent this team into a tailspin, given its whirlwind offseason. A win -- no matter how it was earned -- keeps them on track.
What went right
The Illini defense returned to its form from the first two games. It wasn't dominant, but it gave a struggling Illinois offense a chance to win the game. The Illini entered the game with just one sack but put pressure on Brent Stockstill on Saturday, and the Illini did a much better job of tackling on first contact.This defense won't dominate in the Big Ten, but it needs to be a bend-but-not-break unit. Also, The Illini run game dominated the second half -- again, when Cubit went to it. Vaughn has the potential to be special. He has vision you can't teach and hits the hole with a burst. He should allow Cubit to use Ferguson in a more versatile role.
What went wrong
The Illini scored just 10 points on its first five trips inside the redzone. Wes Lunt was visibly frustrated as he and his receivers weren't on the same page for most of the game. The receivers had drop issues the first three weeks, and they had miscommunication issues this week. This is a huge concern going forward. Cubit also had a puzzling day. He went for a 4th-and-1, up five. A field goal would've given the Illini an eight-point lead (touchdown and a two-point conversion). He went for it, Marchie Murdock dropped a catch, and Illinois kept MT within range of taking the lead on one drive. Special teams had a few miscues as well. Kicker Taylor Zalewski missed a 38-yard field goal attempt, and returner V'Angelo Bentley failed to field a punt, which MT downed at the ILL 1. Lunt fumbled the snap, which resulted in a MT safety.
Co-Stars of the game
Dawuane Smoot, LEO and Clayton Fejedelem, safety: Smoot made the game-changing plays, two sacks and a forced fumble that resulted in an Illini field goal at the end of the first half. Fejedelem made plays that minimized many MT drives, breaking up several passes with big hits and wrapping up receivers quickly on short passes and bubble screens.
Just like the previous two seasons, the Illini kick off Big Ten play against Nebraska -- though at least this one is at home. The Cornhuskers (2-2) offense, led by dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., is a bad matchup for Illinois. But the Nebraska defense is shaky, allowed 26.5 points per game. Nebraska, which nudged out a 36-28 win over Southern Miss on Saturday, is more talented than Illinois but the gap is smaller than the previous two seasons.