CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — James McCourt says he couldn’t breathe at the bottom of the pile.
A day that started with Illinois sitting as 31-point underdogs ended with a dogpile on the Illini’s kicker, who redeemed himself with a last-second field goal to cap the biggest upset of the season in college football: Illinois’ 24-23 win over No. 6 Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium on Homecoming.
“Honestly, the only thing going through my head was oxygen because I was passed out at the bottom of the pile,” McCourt said. “Supposedly, Jake Cerny saw my eyes roll back in my head. I got lifted up, and I thought I woke up from a dream or something. It was unbelievable seeing everyone around [me]. I can’t even describe it.”
Illinois’ 24 points were the most Wisconsin’s defense — one that shut out four of its first six opponents — had allowed all season. Yet, the Illini strung together three touchdowns on the Badgers, including the first one they allowed in the first half in 2019.
But the credit here goes to the Illini’s defense for keeping it close throughout. The unit held a vaunted Wisconsin rushing attack to just 72 yards in the first half. The Badgers dominated the time of possession, but a costly fumble and a three-and-out inside their own 10 gave the Illini multiple opportunities to capitalize.
“Coach had a good gameplan for us,” said linebacker Jake Hansen. “We play hard, we matched their physicality. That was our gameplan.”
Illinois took advantage of the fumble with a 48-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Peters to walk-on Donny Navarro, the first of the sophomore’s career. The other four first-half drives for the Illini ended in three punts and a missed field goal.
The Illini and the Badgers exchanged touchdowns in a lengthy third quarter, including Reggie Corbin’s 43-yard touchdown run toward the end of the period. Corbin’s run made Illinois’ 80-yard drive worthwhile, after Peters missed a wide open Josh Imatorbhebhe a few plays earlier.
Down just six points at the start of the fourth quarter, Illinois remained within striking distance. The Badgers settled for a field goal after the second goal line stop of the day for the Illini, who countered with a score of their own. Peters led the team the length of the field, capping another scoring drive with a 29-yard strike to Imatorbhebhe.
And when the Illini needed a play the most, it was Tony Adams who stepped up in the clutch. The junior picked off Wisconsin’s Jack Coan just past midfield, putting the offense in position to get McCourt into field goal range with three timeouts and two minutes remaining.
“I’ve been talking about how this team needs to overcome a certain amount of inertia, and that was it right there,” Imatorbhebhe said. “That gave us the momentum we needed and the belief just came as a result. Because of that, we were able to finish the game. So that was huge.”
Nine plays and 32 yards later, the clock struck 0:00 as Illini nation watched McCourt’s boot sail through the uprights.
“Last week, we honored one of our all-time great defenders in Dick Butkus,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “On Homecoming we wear the Grey Ghost uniforms to honor Red Grange. It’s only fitting we get a win like this today.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Missed Kick: McCourt has a steady leg, but he missed a chip shot late in the first quarter. Facing a Wisconsin defense that literally doesn’t allow points, you can’t miss chances like that. Good thing he redeemed himself.
ILL-egal Man Downfield: Imatorbhebhe had what many at Memorial Stadium considered to be a go-ahead touchdown on Illinois’ final possession of the first half, but it was called back for an illegal man downfield. Frustrating, and the Illini went to the showers with a 13-7 deficit.
Pick of the Year: Adams sealed it for the Illini with his interception at midfield. The rest was history.
“We needed to make a play,” Smith said. “We needed to get the ball back for our offense. Tony Adams has done a lot. To see him make a play like that was special.”
TWEET OF THE GAME
“I just saw a bunch of happy people.” — James McCourt, on being lifted up after the game-winning kick.
“Thank you. You guys are what helped us. You guys are what drove us. I got on Twitter last week after I played terrible and watched everyone say I suck. I love it. We’ve been underdogs our whole life, everyone in that locker room. That’s when we thrive. We love the people that are with us, we love the supporters.” — Reggie Corbin, on those who counted the team out.
“My freshman year at USC we came back 28 points in the fourth quarter and kicked a game-winning field goal to win the Rose Bowl, but this is right there with it. Beating the No. 6 team in the nation after losing four games, at your home field on Homecoming night. This was huge for the fans and Illini nation.” — Josh Imatorbhebhe, on where this win ranks among the biggest moments of his collegiate career.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Donny Navarro had more first-half points (six) than South Florida, Central Michigan, Michigan, Northwestern, Kent State and Michigan State (three) had against the Badgers defense this season combined.
Illinois hits the road next week to face off with Purdue for an 11 a.m. CT kick on Big Ten Network in West Lafayette.