Illini Lose Heartbreaker On Record Day

The Fighting Illini football team suffered its final indignity of a season to forget as Fresno State scored a bizarre last second two-point conversion to win 53-52 in Champaign Saturday. A small but hearty band of Illini fans were on hand to witness a record-setting day as the two teams combined for the highest scoring game in Memorial Stadium history.

Illinois appeared to have secured a victory to end its long and frustrating season when Fresno State began its final drive with 2:43 to play on its own 33 yard line. Running when the Illini expected pass, the Bulldogs moved downfield. Quarterback Ryan Colburn threw a 19 yard touchdown pass to Jamel Hamler on 4th and 10 to make it 52-51 Illini.

Most expected FSU coach Pat Hill to go for the tie and overtime, but he chose a two-point conversion attempt. Colburn threw the ball as he was hit by Russell Ellington. The ball was tipped away from Hamler by Tavon Wilson into the arms of 6'-6", 350 pound offensive guard Devan Cunningham, who fell into the end zone for the 53-52 win.

Regardless of what fans think of Ron Zook as a coach, he has to be one of the unluckiest coaches in college football. Time and time again over his five years at Illinois, weird things have happened to prevent victories. Zook acknowledged the turn of events afterward.

"The way this year's gone, I guess it's not surprising it ends like that."

Great plays by both teams dominated the action throughout. Both offenses overpowered defenders, producing the remarkable point totals. It appeared the team with the ball last would win, and that is what happened.

Illini seniors lamented the heartbreaking loss in the final game of their careers. Quarterback Juice Williams, who passed Jack Trudeau to end second all-time in career touchdown throws, took his time leaving the field. As a four year starter, he has a unique perspective and tons of memories he wanted to review before departing.

"It was tough. It's the last time I'll walk off the field. I was trying to store as much as possible in my memory bank. There was a lot to take in."

Williams experienced a range of emotions.

"I'm sad on the inside but joyful for the opportunity to take part in one of the best games I've ever played in. It was a remarkable finish to my senior season."

Williams finished with 8 of 16 passing for 211 yards and three touchdowns. He tied Trudeau at 55 touchdown passes on an 18 yarder to senior Jeff Cumberland in the second quarter. He threw long to Arrelious Benn just before halftime.

Benn grabbed the ball away from Desia Dunn and forced his way into the end zone to complete a 58 yard play and give the Illini a 28-21 lead at halftime. And Williams swung the ball to Mikel Leshoure, who dove and was flipped over into the end zone to complete a 22 yard play, giving the Illini their last lead at 52-45.

Williams also threw two interceptions. He gave up a pick-6 at the beginning of the 2nd quarter on a swing pass in the flat when he was engulfed by an onrushing lineman. And he was intercepted on the last play of the game on a desperation bomb.

As has been his forte throughout his career, Williams' option running helped the Illini gobble up huge chunks of yardage on the ground. Overall, Illinois gained 331yards rushing, led by Leshoure with 184 yards in 11 carries. Leshoure scored on runs of 19 and 61 yards. Zook praised his improved play.

"Mikel showed some toughness. He kept us in the game. He's got a great future."

Jason Ford gained 65 yards in 15 carries, and Williams added 56 yards in 14 tries. Ford scored on an 8 yard run. Senior Daniel Dufrene rambled for a 15 yard touchdown to open the scoring.

Ian Thomas was the Illinois tackle leader with 10. Tavon Wilson added seven tackles. In perhaps the best game of his career, senior Antonio James had two tackles for loss among his six tackles.

Fresno State is known for its power running game, and Ryan Mathews didn't disappoint. The nation's leading rusher added to his average by scooting for 173 yards and three touchdowns. The Illini held him in check much of the game, but he got stronger as the game went along.

The Illini outgained the Bulldogs 548 yards to 416. They out rushed them 331 to 233 and had the edge in passing yards, 217 to 183. But FSU won the game.

The Illini never gave up on the season despite losing six of their first seven contests. They continued to improve offensively as they better understood the changes offensive coordinator Mike Schultz had made. The defense played with intensity throughout the season and also showed improvement despite being exposed repeatedly by potent offenses. It wasn't enough to produce wins.

"We didn't get better fast enough, soon enough," Zook reminded. "Big plays have plagued us the last two years."

Zook was emotional over watching his seniors go out on a losing note.

"I'm proud of the seniors. I apologized to them. I feel awful that we didn't get it done for them."

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