Rapid reaction: Illini upset No. 6 Wisconsin on McCourt field goal
James McCourt calmly stepped in and knocked through a 39-yard field goal as time expired to lift Illinois to a stunning 24-23 victory over No. 6 Wisconsin. McCourt's field goal was the first in Illinois history to take the Fighting Illini from trailing to the win as time expired.
The final Illinois drive was set up by a spectacular interception of Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan by Illini cornerback Tony Adams. Starting from its own 47-yard line, Illinois drive 32 yards in 9 plays to set up the McCourt kick with :04 on the clock.
Wisconsin entered Saturday as a 30-point favorite. Illinois pulled off what is easily the biggest win of the Lovie Smith era. The Illini, looking at possibly their fifth straight loss, desperately needed something positive to happen. A date with the Badgers on Homecoming proved to be just the ticket.
The Illinois game plan coming into the contest was a no-brainer. They had to try to slow down the Wisconsin rushing attack and Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor. It was a mismatch on paper. The Badgers entered the game with the No. 11 rushing offense in the nation,, averaging 248.67. Conversely, Illinois had allowed 324.33 yards rushing per game in conference play. On Saturday, the Illini limited Wisconsin to 156 yards rushing and 3.6 yards per carry. MLB Dele Hardin led the way with 16 tackles. Sidney Brown and Jake Hansen added 11 tackles each, while CB Nate Hobbs pitched in 10 tackles. We also saw aggressive play up front from Tymir Oliver and Jamal MIlan, It was an inspired performance by a much-maligned Illinois defense.
BANDITS AND THIEVES
As those who have followed Lovie Smith over the course of his career know, the Illini coach puts a huge emphasis on taking the ball away. The Illinois defense has struggled to get stops, but they have been great at forcing fumbles over the last four season. Jake Hansen forced two more fumbles today vs. he Badgers, and he now leads the nation with 7. The 13 forced fumbles as a team also leads all of college football. While the clutch kick by McCourt may have been the play of the game, it wouldn't have been possible by the spectacular interception by Tony Adams at the Illinois 47-yard line with 2:32 reaming in the game. Adams was playing his first game at cornerback after starting previous games at free safety.
BIG PLAY BARKER
Illinois converted just 2 of 10 third down tries on the day. The average distance to go on 3rd down was 8.1 yards, and Illinois averaged just 4.5 yards gained. Yet it was two huge 3rd down throws from Brandon Peters to sophomore tight end Daniel Barker that set up two scores, including the game-winning field goal. The first was a completion to Barker in the 3rd quarter that set up a 43-yard touchdown run by Reggie Corbin to put Illinois within 20-14. Then Peters found Barker on a 19-yard completion to the Wisconsin 40 to keep the final drive alive. Peters was just 9-21 for 174 yards, but he made some clutch throws. He also completed a 29-yard touchdown to Josh Imatorbhebhe to make the score 23-21 Wisconsin with 5:53 on the clock.
RECRUITING VISITORS GET A TREAT
Illinois brought in one of its best group of potential recruits for visits this weekend, including three official visits. The top prospect on the recruiting board, St. Louis linebacker Antonio Doyle, was one of the officials. Illinois needs to hit a home run on Doyle's visit to jump ahead of Texas A&M and others. The upset over the No. 6 team in the country can only help. Recruiting has seemed dead in the water as high school players contemplate if Lovie Smith will be back for a fifth season. The scene at Memorial Stadium is a boost. Also at the game were several top basketball prospects hosted by assistant coaches Chin Coleman and Stephen Gentry.
MORE WINNABLE GAMES
It's crazy how one big win change change the narrative. Illinois was 2-4 heading into a game against Wisconsin as a 31-point underdog. It looked bleak for the season, and possibly even for Lovie Smith career at Illinois. Of the five remaining games, Illinois would have likely only have been favored against lowly Rutgers on November 2. Now, the remaining schedule doesn't look nearly as daunting. The talk shifts to whether Illinois can win 3 of 5 and reach bowl eligibility. The Big Ten West just isn't that great, and Illinois closes out the season at Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern.