James McCourt Rutgers action

Illinois kicker James McCourt returned after missing two games because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols to make three field goals, including the game-winner, during last Saturday’s 23-20 win at Rutgers. The Illini play at Nebraska at 11 a.m. on Saturday.

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Yes, he missed a pair of second-half kicks that would have given Illinois the lead. But when it really mattered, James McCourt came through. Again. Just like he did in 2019 against Wisconsin. And just like he hopes to do again in his remaining time with the Illini. The folks in charge of the Lou Groza Award recognized McCourt by naming him one of the Stars of the Week. Beat writer Bob Asmussen chatted with McCourt earlier this week about his possible return in 2021, future American citizenship and his first hole-in-one:

Were the two earlier field goals just not dramatic enough for you?

Obviously, I would have loved to have made those first two for my own sake and for the team’s sake. I knew the importance of those two field goals going out there, and unfortunately, I couldn’t deliver. In my mind, both of those are game-winning kicks. They would have put us up late in the fourth.

What did you learn from the two misses that helped you on the game-winner?

My aiming point was toward the right upright, where I missed. Just based off the wind that was down there. The longer one, I pushed it a little more right than I wanted to.

I kept with my line and I believed what I thought. I didn’t want to second guess myself when I was out there. Going into the last one, Coach (Bob Ligashesky) asked what hash I wanted it on and I said, “Right hash.” Going out there getting those first two probably helped me get the conditions down a little bit.

The wind was swirly. Wind is always going to be a factor when you play in the Big Ten. The wind in Champaign is as bad as ever. We get the best practice in the windy conditions. Warming up on that field, the wind switched a couple of times.

Who got to you first after the make?

Blake (Hayes, his holder) was right there, and I ran to the sideline and gave Coach Ligashesky a big hug.

What did Coach Ligashesky say to you?

How happy he was for me and how proud he was of me bouncing back. We always talk about bouncing back. That’s the most important thing a kicker can do. No one is batting 1,000. You’ve got to look to the next opportunity and learn from your mistakes. That’s been a constant message throughout my career here.

Who did you hear from after the game?

Chase (McLaughlin, now with the Jaguars) sent a really nice message over. He was getting ready for his game up in Green Bay. It was nice to hear from him.

Which was a better kick, last Saturday against Rutgers or the one against Wisconsin in 2019?

I don’t think you can put one on top of the other. In my mind, they both were very important.

How did you celebrate after you returned home?

I relaxed and got a pizza from Domino’s. Easy. I was pretty tired.

How did you spend your time during quarantine?

I really tried to make it as normal as possible. I would go to the stadium and kick by myself with my shoulder pads and helmet. I normally kick on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I kicked on Saturdays also.

I tried just to replicate what a normal week would be and stay in my routine. I got caught up on some school work I needed to get caught up on. I talked to my family a lot more than I normally would because I had a lot more time.

You live with Brandon Peters. How excited are you to have him back after he missed the last three games?

It’s good. B.P. really expands our throwing game and he’s a great runner as well. The other quarterbacks did a great job as well. Isaiah (Williams) did a phenomenal job stepping in against Rutgers. Coran (Taylor) against Purdue brought a real spark to our team and a lot of leadership.

What has been the mental toll of COVID-19 on the team?

Our team fell into misfortune with some of the guys getting COVID. At the beginning of the season when everything was up in the air, the team was frustrated because everyone wanted to play. COVID was the reason we lost our starting quarterback for three games. Lost our starting center for two games. Two really integral parts of our offense. Now after getting that win against Rutgers, getting Isaiah and Doug (Kramer) back and having B.P. back this week is an added bonus.

You can come back in 2021. Will you?

I’ve put a little bit of thought into it. I haven’t really made a concrete decision. Ultimately, it’s up to the school’s discretion. But with the Ireland game and this shortened season and me being out for two games, the chances are definitely higher I’ll play again here next year.

How did Danville native Caleb Griffin do in your absence?

He did an unbelievable job. He truly stepped up to the plate and delivered. He was confident out there.

Lovie Smith made a big deal about the players being involved in the election. Did you vote?

I couldn’t because I’m not a citizen. We’ve been here since 2006. I’m eligible to get my citizenship, and I’m getting around to that.

What is something people don’t know about you?

I got my first hole-in-one over the summer. On the Blue Course (in Savoy), using a nine-iron from 163 yards out on No. 2. My dad was pretty upset that he didn’t get one before me. I was with Blake and Brandon.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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