CHAMPAIGN _ Here’s a sentence you’ve never read: Illinois needs to win just one of its final seven games in order to become bowl-eligible.
The Illini continued its finest start since 1951 with a 38-35 comeback victory over Northwestern on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Illinois completed its five-game homestand with a perfect record and won its second Big Ten opener in the last 17 years.
Here’s another sentence you’ve never read: Illinois has won each of its last three games by 3 points. The Illini hadn’t won three straight by 3 or fewer points since taking up football in 1890.
“We didn’t do a lot of things like we have,” said Illinois coach Ron Zook. “But we did the things we had to do to win the game and that’s the thing that they believed in.”
On Illinois’ second drive, QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw a terrible pass that NU safety Brian Peters intercepted with one hand in the end zone. After that, Scheelhaase virtually was perfect. With the Wildcats daring him to throw by creeping their safeties into the box, Scheelhaase set career-bests for completions (21), attempts (32) and yards (391).
And when Illinois had first-and-goal from the 4-yard line in the final minute, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino let him carry the ball until he got in the end zone. He ran a sweep left for 2 yards on first down, then sprinted out to the right and just missed the pylon on second down.
Petrino sent in 300-pound guard Hugh Thornton to play fullback on third down, but Scheelhaase took the snap and pushed his way into the end zone for the winning score with 13 seconds left.
“He was the stud today,” Petrino said. “ ‘Feed the Studs.’ I decided I was going to put it on Nathan’s back.”
While Northwestern has plenty to build on after putting 35 points --- and plenty to rebuild after the secondary couldn’t seem to figure out where A.J. Jenkins happened to be --- Illinois has a chance to think big. Really big.
Judging by Ohio State’s offensive ineptitude in its home loss to Michigan State on Saturday, it’s not too crazy to think Illinois can be 8-0 going into the Oct. 29 trip to Penn State.
“We know we have to take advantage of this opportunity because they don’t come around too often,” said Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
Koenning might have to make next week’s plan without outside linebacker Jonathan Brown. Not only did he get a roughing the passer penalty when he knocked Dan Persa in the head after releasing a touchdown pass in the second quarter, Brown picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct foul late in the first half when he kneed tackle Patrick Ward in the “area,” as Koenning so delicately put it, long after the play was over.
Koenning’s additional take on Brown’s play might inflame the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry even further, if that’s possible.
“I’ve also seen their guys do flops before on film,” Koenning said. “You just watch their film. They fall down. If a guy pushes them, they flop on the ground. It looks like the old Lakers of, you know, (Kurt) Rambis and those guys. So I don’t know. He probably did (it). There was a lot of pushing and shoving and late stuff going. We knew that was going to be a part of the game and we coached our guys as hard as we could to not get caught up in that.”