A collective sigh of relief fell over Memorial Stadium as the seconds clicked off to end a true rarity in college football. Illinois had just beaten Michigan for the first time since 1983, and the first back-to-back victories, home and away, since 1958. The victory also ended a nine game losing streak for the Illini against BCS schools and gave new life to a program on the edge of a deep precipice.
"It's a big win, Coach Ron Zook understated afterward. "No one in that locker room was born the last time we were fortunate enough to beat them in Memorial Stadium.
"First of all, I'd like to congratulate our players. They did it, this is their win. They've gone through some tough times and have hung in there. They've done the things we've asked them to do. It's hard when everything around you is falling down.
"We talked about you have to believe, you have to have faith. Faith keeps fighting. We are the Fighting Illini, and they did that. We've got to keep going, but I'm proud of them, I really am."
There were many heros for the Illini on this day. Juice Williams, Mikel Leshoure, Jason Ford, Jeff Cumberland, Chris James, London Davis, Doug Pilcher, Corey Liuget, Josh Brent, Garrett Edwards, Nathan Bussey, Garrett Edwards and Ian Thomas were just a few of the many who stepped up and made big plays. But perhaps the star of the game belongs to freshman cornerback Terry Hawthorne.
Leading 13-7 at the half, Michigan quarterback hit Roy Roundtree on a long pass on third and seven that appeared to be heading for a touchdown. Sixty six yards later, Hawthorne outran Roundtree to down him on the one yard line.
On another day, it might have taken the Wolverines one more play to boost their lead. But the beleaguered Illini defense rose up with a sensational goal line stand. On fourth and one, Brandon Minor was headed for the end zone. Safety Garrett Edwards interceded, and instant replay confirmed that Minor touched his elbow down before crossing the goal line.
Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch was proud of the way his defense stood up to the Big 10's leading rushing offense.
"We made some big plays and didn't give them the endzone. That goal line stand was probably a momentum changer."
Inspired by the defense's herculean effort, the Illini offense covered 99 yards in six plays to take a lead they would never relinquish. Four runs moved the ball 12 yards and gave Illinois some breathing room. Williams hit Cumberland, playing tight end in place of the injured Michael Hoomanawanui and Hubie Graham, for 17 big yards. With a first down on the thirty, Leshoure took a handoff, burst through a big hole and outraced the UM secondary for a 70 yard touchdown.
Leshoure was caught from behind on a similar run earlier in the season, but not today. He described the play.
"I give all the credit to Juice on that. He carried his fake out real well on the safety, which opened the hole for me. I kept saying to myself, I can't have a repeat of the last one. Get my own touchdown."
It was a team win with all phases of the game cooperating. As proof, Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz credited the defense.
"I think the huge play in the game is when Terry Hawthorne ran the guy down and we make the goal line stand. And then we proceed to go down and score again. That was a big, big deal right there."
Suddenly, all the momentum that had eluded Illinois all season started nudging them ever onward. After a UM three-and-out, the Illini went 79 yards in just five plays to boost the score to 21-13. Leshoure put on a great move to free himself for a 27 yard gain, and Williams hit Cumberland for 34 more.
After a Williams option netted two yards, UM committed a pass interference penalty in the end zone, and the ball was placed on the two yard line. A run fake to the left allowed Davis to get open in the end zone to receive a Williams pass.
Michigan gave up the ball again without gaining a first down. Hawthorne made a great play to break up a sideline pass. The UM rugby punt misfired, allowing the Illini to take possession on the Michigan 45 yard line.
Again, the Illini scored quickly. The big play was a sensational, over-the-back catch by Chris James 37 yards downfield to put the ball on the four yard line. Williams optioned into the end zone to make it 28-13. The Illini scored three times in the third quarter, more than they had scored in any BCS game they had played this season.
Michigan started getting its offense untracked again just before the start of the fourth quarter. Gains of 17, 22 and 17 gave the appearance of an exciting finish. But senior defensive tackle Sirod Williams caught running back Carlos Brown six yards behind the line on first and goal from the 10. On third and 16, Brent stripped UM quarterback Tate Forcier of the ball and Liuget recovered at the 21 yard line.
Illinois continued its offensive supremacy. Williams had the big plays in the drive with runs of 28 yards on a draw and 23 more on an option. They had first and goal from the three, but the drive then sputtered and Matt Eller tacked on a 23 yard field goal to make the score 31-13.
The Wolverines threatened again, but the Illini rose up to make big plays and keep them from scoring again. On the Illini's last possession, Ford added icing to the cake with a brilliant 79 yard touchdown run.
When a team is playing well, everyone contributes. This was readily apparent today as reserves took up the slack for fallen starters. Besides Hoomanawanui and Graham, receiver Jarred Fayson and safety Donsay Hardeman were not dressed. And star receiver Arrelious Benn tweaked his ankle again and couldn't play most of the second half. But there was no letdown in effort.
Another big factory was the quarterbacking of Williams. Zook planned to play both him and Jacob Charest in the game, but he stuck with Williams when it became obvious the option game was hurting UM. Williams responded with his best game of the year. He ran for 134 yards if you don't count 28 yards in losses, he completed 8 for 11 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, and he led the offense.
More than anything, Williams was relaxed and allowed the game to come to him rather than trying to force things.
Williams accepted no credit for his effort.
"I didn't try to do too much. I just figured I should take one play at a time, execute each play and go from there. I got in a rhythm, just relaxing and not pressing, letting the plays come to me.
"I think a lot of players forget that and try to go out there and be too aggressive. But today the receivers and running backs did great jobs, the offensive line got it together today."
Overall, the Illini outgained Michigan on the ground 377 to 113, the last place team statistically dominating the top rushing team in the Big 10. The Illini had 500 yards of total offense compared with UM's 377. An important statistic was the three fumbles recovered by the Illini without losing the ball on turnovers.
Leshoure and Ford both had over 100 yards rushing. Leshoure had 150 in 21 carries, and Ford added 128 in just 12 carries. Benn had one rush for 3 yards, but that was significant as he scored his first touchdown of the year on a dive in the first quarter.
Cumberland was the leading receiver with 51 yards on 2 catches. A.J. Jenkins caught two balls also, while James, Leshoure, Benn and Davis had one each. There was no need for more passing as the Illini running game moved the ball and took time off the clock.
Defensively, Walter Aikens led the Illini with 10 tackles. Thomas was right behind with nine including one tackle for loss. Edwards added 7 and Hawthorne 6. Liuget was creditied with 2.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks. Defensive end Clay Nurse had 1.5 TFL, while Pilcher and Evan Frierson had one each.
Zook knows better than anyone the pressures that were building for his team and his own future. He said a blanket had been lifted off his program with this win. There are still four games left, and he thinks his Illini can build off of this and get some more wins.
"I know a lot of people were thinking we'd quit, but I knew they hadn't quit. We had to just keep fighting through this. Wins are hard to come by. If you could see their faces, see the excitement in their faces and the emotion they showed."