How quickly things change.
With one play, the Illini misfortunes pulled a complete "180." Well, at least for one day.
In a play that will be talked about for years to come, freshman Terry Hawthorne chased down Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree on 75-yard reception. Tate Forcier threw a beautiful ball over the middle on a deep post to Roundtree, who had 45 yards of green ahead of him. Coming out of nowhere, Hawthorne managed to drag Roundtree down just short of the goal-line. After first ruling it a touchdown, which would have given the Wolverines a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter, the officials used instant replay to overturn the call and placed the ball at the 1-yard line.
The Illini defense sunk in and managed to stop Michigan on three consecutive runs. On 4th and Goal from the half-yard line, Michigan's Brandon Minor took a handoff and appeared to just get enough of a push to get in the end zone. Once again the officiating crew ruled the play a touchdown but instant replay showed that Minor's elbow was clearly down at the half-yard line giving the Illini the ball back.
With the crowd in a frenzy, Mikel Leshoure took off up the middle for a 70-yard touchdown run on the sixth play of the drive to give Illinois a 14-13 lead.
How quickly things change.
The Hawthorne play jolted the sluggish Illini who scored 31 unanswered points in the second half to rout Michigan, 38-13.
Juice Williams seemingly won back the starting job after another spectacular performance against Michigan (Williams set the single game total yardage mark at the Big House in 2008). Williams led only the fourth 99-yard drive, and the first since 2006 vs. Syracuse, in school history. Jacob Charest, who was probably going to start the first series of the second half had the Illini not been pinned on their own half-yard line, did not get any snaps in this one.
Williams led the Illini to a touchdown on the opening possession of the game, capped by a 3-yard Arrelious Benn touchdown run. Michigan answered right back as Carlos Brown scored on a 2-yard touchdown run.
The Illini offense sputtered in the second quarter while Michigan added two field goals to take a 13-7 halftime lead.
After Hawthorne's heroics and Leshoure's long touchdown run, the Illini defense forced a three-and-out and Williams led the Illini down to the Michigan 2-yard line. In what was arguably the best play call of the year, Williams faked the handoff, boot-legged to the right, and found freshman London Davis for the touchdown. The catch was Davis' first of his career.
After another big Illini defensive stop, Williams, Leshoure, Jeff Cumberland, and Chris James, who hauled in a circus catch to get the Illini down to the 6-yard line, fueled another touchdown drive. Williams scored on an option read run from three yards out.
In all, Illinois gained 209 yards in the third quarter to grab a 28-13 lead.
The victory must be a welcomed sigh of relief for the embattled Ron Zook. It's Illinois' first win over a FBS opponent since November 1, 2008. Students brought paper bags with "FIRE ZOOK" written on it in the first half but, as the game wound down, the paper bags read "HIRE ZOOK."
How quickly things change.
In what has been a sour senior stint for Juice, yesterday's effort was a sweet one. No player has taken more flack than Williams but he will at least silence the critics for one week after a performance reminiscent of his sophomore or early junior years. Williams finished 8-11 for 123 yards and a score.
Leshoure clearly distanced himself from the pack as the No. 1 running back, gaining 150 yards on 21 carries. Jason Ford added 128 yards while Williams scampered for 97 yards.
Defensively, kudos to the a much-maligned unit that forced four sacks, three turnovers, and came up with what very well could be a season-defining moment in their goal-line stand. Aside from Hawthorne, Ian Thomas, Clay Nurse, Tavon Wilson, Garrett Edwards and Corey Liuget (who wreaked havoc on the Michigan interior offensive line all afternoon) played excellently and spearheaded a defense that finally played to their potential.
At 2-6, the Illini need to win their last four games to become bowl-eligible. A win at Minnesota next Saturday morning will make things very interesting the rest of the way.
Enjoy this one Illini fans, its been a long time coming.
Player of the Game and Illini Grades
Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne
He was all over the field. Beside the obvious season-defining play, Hawthorne covered Greg Matthews beautifully and made several key tackles to catapult a dormant Fighting Illini.
Illini Offense - A
Burn the second quarter tapes. Even without an injured Benn (ankle) for most of the game, the offense thrived thanks to Williams and Leshoure. Fans will ask: "Where has that been all year?" The execution was perfect. There were no unnecessary penalties. The line played their best game of the season, containing a very good Michigan front seven.
Illini Defense - A-
Two words: Terry Hawthorne. The Illini found an emerging star. Will he stay on defense in the coming years? That will be a question for the offseason.
Illini Special Teams - A-
Derek Dimke had a phenomenal day booming the ball on kickoffs. Matt Eller continues to struggle on field goals. Give Anthony Santella credit for another wonderful day of punting.
Illini Overall - A
Of course there were the usual offensive inefficiencies and the defensive secondary struggles. But, at the end of the day the Illini won and played an outstanding last thirty minutes. Maybe this jump starts the team and gets the program back on track. Above all, some hope resonates throughout Illini Nation for the first time in awhile.