"People said we didn't have much chance of winning," San Jose coach Fitz Hill said. "But we picked up the check and we cashed it, too."
San Jose State has been known this season to not put together two halves of good football, but they came away with a 38-35 victory over Big 10 defending champion Illinois (1-3) in a raucus and hostile stadium.
The Spartans (2-2), who haven't played a home game this season, were simply too quick. They featured the 5-foot-5, 143-pound Ferguson, a host of speedy receivers and backs and a durable quarterback in Scott Rislov, who completed 27 of 45 passes for 408 yards.
"They came after me and put it on me pretty good," Rislov said. "If we lose, every hit is a waste, but with a win, it's the exact opposite."
Illinois (1-3) tied the game with 1:21 to go when Jon Beutjer hit Aaron Moorehead for a 32-yard touchdown pass, capping an 80-yard drive that took 46 seconds.
But San Jose State, as it did all day long against the Illinois defense, moved the ball down the field in just its third-ever meeting with a Big Ten school.
"Speed gives you a chance to win," Hill said. "California's full of speed. We match up with anyone on the perimeter."
The Spartans had lost the last two weeks to Washington and Stanford.
On the final drive, Rislov threw a 21-yard pass to Kendrick Starling and found Tuati Wooden on a 19-yarder. After a 5-yard facemask penalty, Ferguson ran 9 yards to the 18, and Rislov took a knee before calling a timeout with four seconds to go.
The guessing game at QB is finally over, as Rislov played the entire game, but paid the price with heavy hits by the fightin illini. In the previous two games Rislov had been replaced by back up QB Marcus Arroyo.
It looks as though the coach has finally picked a quarterback for the season. We think anyway.
Gilliam then nailed the kick - he's 6-for-8 this season - and San Jose State's entire team rushed to the middle of the field, leaping in celebration.
"Something you dream about, kicking the game winning field goal," Gilliam said.
Illinois players sat on the turf in disbelief.
"It's very disappointing," defensive back Eugene Wilson said. "You work so hard all week and then you mess up and don't do what you're supposed to do. We were hoping (Gilliam) would miss, but then it went through and it's over."
Ferguson had a 2-yard TD run and three more from 1 yard out, including one with 6:14 to go that put the Spartans ahead 35-28.
"We've been getting it done in the air, but our running game has been struggling," Ferguson said. "Today we tried to establish some sort of ground game. We had to, to help the receivers."
Beutjer, in his second start for Illinois, rallied the Illini to the game-tying score. He threw a 34-yard pass to Walter Young to kickstart the drive, and a 5-yarder to Young on fourth down to keep it going.
Beutjer finished 28-of-38 for 426 yards.
Moorehead made a leaping catch on a pass by Beutjer for a 17-yard TD with five seconds left in the first half, tying the game at 21 after a wild start.
Ferguson had a pair of short TD runs as the Spartans took a 21-14 lead in the second quarter, one set up by Charles Pauley's 52-yard kickoff return and a late hit on the Illini.
In the first half, Beutjer completed 14 of 18 passes, threw a pair of interceptions and had TD passes of 8 yards to Young, 44 yards to Brandon Lloyd and then the final one to Moorehead.
The Spartan defense gave up 502 yards, 426 yards which went via through the air. The Illini scored three TDs via the air, one for 44 yards and another for 32 yards, as an continuing poor pass rush and weak coverage in the secondary continue to be the weak spots. The Spartans had no sacks in the game.
The Spartan defense did indeed come up with 3 turnovers, 2 INTs and one fumble recovery, that were converted into TDs. Gerald Jones recorded his 5th INT of the season, and continues to impress.
Next week the Spartans host UTEP (0-4) in the Spartans' home and WAC opener. The theme is "Football Fiesta", so come on out early and don't forget the Coronas and Fajitas for the barby in the gold lot!
The SpartanThunder Player of the game: QB Scott Rislov. The kid has poise, guts, and a big heart.
(*) San Jose's only other win over a Big Ten school came in 1992 when Ron Turner - now the coach of the Illini - led them past the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minnesota.