Eller Kick Elevates Illini Over Nemesis Hawks

Freshman Matt Eller split the uprights on a 46 yard field goal with 24 seconds to play to give the Fighting Illini football team an important 27-24 victory over Iowa in Memorial Stadium Saturday. A warm, perfect November day saw two teams battle ferociously for post-season opportunities as they renewed their bitter rivalry.

Redshirt freshman Eller had just kicked his first college game winner, but he was unflappable in postgame interviews.

"I felt confident with my leg strength, and I just tried to keep my same mechanics. You take it every kick at a time. Obviously, you always think about winning a game with a field goal and how great that would be. You can't let it (the pressure) affect you mentally."

Coach Ron Zook was running on adrenalin afterward. He watched as two talented teams fought with every ounce of strength they could muster. For the Illini, it was an team win.

"We didn't quit, we hung in there," Zook said with pride. "There were times when the guys could have laid down, but they didn't. The offense did it when they had to do it. And of course Matt Eller had a great kick. It was a good win."

The maligned Illini defense came to play this day. Facing a talented offensive line and a great running back in Shonn Greene, they matched Iowa hit for hit and wouldn't back down. Zook complimented them aferward.

"I'm so proud of the defense. They played their tails off. They gave up some plays (in second quarter), but they held them to field goals. If you hold a team to field goals when they're in the red zone, then you have a chance to win it."

Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch was emotionally drained afterward, but he shared Zook's appreciation for the defensive effort.

"It was a wild one. Our kids hadn't beaten them in awhile. It was nice to get after them today. Our kids played hard, I was there. If you give all you have every play, you have a chance in the end. I was proud they bounced back after a tough emotional loss last week."

Illinois broke on top early, moving 82 yards in 11 plays. Jason Ford dove over from one yard out for the score. But the second quarter was typical of some Illinois games earlier in the season. Momentum favored Iowa completely as a shanked punt, a low line drive punt that allowed a big runback, a Juice Williams interception, and an untimely holding call all helped Iowa stay in Illinois' end of the field.

But after three visits to the Illinois red zone, the Hawkeyes had only two field goals for their efforts. The defense gained needed confidence with their outstanding effort. This may have been the biggest key of the game, especially since Juice and the offense were finally able to move the ball against a tough Iowa defense. This set up Eller for a 41 yard field goal to keep the Illini in the lead at the half, 10-6.

The second half was a game of momentum reversals. After Iowa pulled within 10-9, Juice hit receiver Fred Sykes alone down the sideline for a 50 yard touchdown. This big third down play kept Iowa playing from behind, although Illini left tackle Xavier Fulton left the game with a shoulder problem on the play. The Illini played the rest of the game with true freshmen Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis at the tackles.

The quick score fired up the Illini defense, and they forced a punt. But Juice gave the ball right back to the Hawkeyes with his second interception of the game on an ill-advised attempt to go for the jugular. Fortunately, the defense rose up again and again to keep Iowa back near its own goal line.

Early in the fourth stanza, Illini cornerback Dere Hicks made a career-highlight play. Blitzing from the nickel back slot, Hicks forced Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi to fumble, and then he picked up the ball and ran it 7 yards to the endzone for what appeared to be an insurmountable 24-9 lead.

Unfortunately, the Illini offense had been unable to give the defense any rest, and they didn't even get the ball back on Hicks' great play. So it took Iowa only 4 plays to travel 74 yards. Stanzi's 29 yard pass completion to Andy Brodell pulled them to within 24-16.

There was still plenty of game left. With momentum now squarely in the hands of the Hawkeyes, freshman running back Jason Ford was stripped of the ball and Iowa recovered on the 36 yard line with 4:10 to play.

Greene and Stanzi both produced big runs, and Greene scampered the final five yards. A two-point conversion pass from Stanzi to tight end Allen Reisner tied the game at 24.

Illinois had 2:46 left to win the game in regulation. Copying a two-minute drill they use every day in practice, Juice Williams led his team down the field with short passes. Jeff Cumberland (2), Will Judson, Mikel LeShoure, Arrelious Benn and quarterback Eddie McGee all caught important throws in the drive. McGee was playing his first game as a receiver and sparked the team. This set the stage for Eller's heroics.

The two evenly matched teams ended within three yards of each other in total offense, the Illini having the slight advantage 332-329. Juice was able to complete 22 of 37 passes for 272 yards. Benn was again his favorite target, pulling in 7 passes for 96 yards. Cumberland and LeShoure added three grabs each, and Ford, Judson, McGee and Troy Pollard added two each.

The Illini ground game was so harassed by Iowa's tough and well-coached defense that Juice was the team's leading rusher with only 30 net yards. LeShoure added 16 yards in five sorties and Benn gained 15 yards in two carries.

For Iowa, Greene topped the 100 yard mark for the 9th consecutive game, but his 103 yards were accumulated on 21 tough carries. Illinois keyed on him and made him work for his yardage. Stanzi was under constant pressure from a mobile Illini defensive line. He completed only 11 passes in 29 attempts. He was sacked 6 times, and he gave up interceptions to Donsay Hardeman and Vontae Davis, the first Illini interceptions in seven games.

Defensively, Brit Miller again led the team with 9 tackles, but he had plenty of help. Senior linebackers Rodney Pittman and Sam Carson played extensively, collecting 8 and 6 tackles respectively. Josh Brent had three tackles for loss including a sack. Pittman, Hicks, Derek Walker and Will Davis also sacked the Iowa quarterback, with David Lindquist sharing a sack with Walker.

Zook said afterward it was probably the hardest hitting game the Illini have played to date. But with a hungry group of seniors providing outstanding leadership, he says they are now focused on the three remaining games.

"I think we're coming into our own as we're coming into November. This is gonna be a heck of a stretch for us. We've got 21 days. And we need to do whatever we can do for 21 days."

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