They bent but they didn't falter.
They faced adversity and they persevered.
At the end of the day, Illinois (3-6, 2-5) came out of Minneapolis (5-5, 3-3) with a 35-32 victory over the Golden Gophers in an effort that gives every Illini fan some hope leading up to the final three games of the season.
Jacob Charest relieved Juice Williams after the senior left with a sprained ankle in the first quarter and calmly led the Illini offense to three scoring drives. Charest made some perfect passes but his pocket-presence and his ability to deliver the ball gives the Illini their first true pocket passer since Kurt Kittner.
Charest finished 10 of 19 for 185 yards and a touchdown and might even of had better numbers if not for three dropped passes.
The Illini struck first with Williams leading a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 22-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Jeff Cumberland.
The hero of last week's game against Michigan, Terry Hawthorne, struck again. Hawthorne picked off Adam Weber for a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown.
With Williams out, Charest led the Illini down field for two more touchdowns in the second quarter. Jason Ford and Justin Green trotted home for the touchdowns to give Illinois a 28-7 halftime lead.
Minnesota fought back valiantly but to no avail. With the Gophers cutting the lead to 28-25 and Illini facing a 3rd and 4 from midfield, Charest found quarterback-turned-receiver Eddie McGee on a short flat route and McGee took off downfield for a big gain and a first down. On 3rd and goal from the 4-yard line, Charest threw a fade route for Arrelious Benn who hauled it in for his first touchdown catch of the season. The score was also Charest's first of his career.
Even though the Illini offense scored 59 points in four quarters (counting the second half of the Michigan game), the story of this one was the Illini defense. Clay Nurse had his coming-out party with a four sack effort while Hawthorne, Josh Brent, Garrett Edwards, and Ian Thomas played superbly. In total, Illinois sacked Weber and MarQueis Gray seven times.
Northwestern, Cincinnati, and Fresno State are all that stand between Illinois and a bowl. Three wins and the Illini will complete the most improbable turnaround in Illinois history.
Player of the Game & Grades
Illinois quarterback Jacob Charest
A very tough decision. Nurse deserves this honor with his four sacks and the force of Weber to throw the interception to Hawthorne. But in only his second action of his career, Charest spearheaded the victory. Aside from his elongated passing motion, Charest's comprehension of the offense at this point is quite impressive. With Williams' status unknown, Illinois' bowl hopes lie on the North Carolinian's shoulders.
Illini Offense - A-
Outside of Charest, Ford had a solid effort and Jack Ramsey and Chris Duvalt made several clutch receptions. Nice to see Benn get a touchdown catch. Mikel Leshoure did little after a career-game against Michigan.
Illini Defense - A
The dormant pass rush is hopefully back to life. The secondary, despite a couple of horrendous third and extremely long conversions allowed, played strong. Like to see better coverage on the tight end against Northwestern.
Illini Special Teams - D
Another week, another blocked punt and missed field goal. Not a good pattern for Illinois. What has happened to Matt Eller? The sophomore from Florida continues to get enough leg in his kicks but the accuracy has been pathetic. Derek Dimke might get a shot against Northwestern. Anthony Santella continues to boom forty-five yards punts.
Illini Overall - B+
Wish the Illini didn't make it interesting. Got a little lackadaisical with the tackling and blocking in the second half. All in all, give the team credit for not quitting on the season. Illini fans have some optimism going into the final three games of the season.