CHAMPAIGN — The fans started to gather in the final minutes. Just beyond the sidelines. Waiting. Hoping. Praying.
Turns out being the hero is a little less glamorous in the moment, as Illini kicker James McCourt found out Saturday afternoon.
Then, Ethan Tabel snapped the football perfectly to Blake Hayes. James McCourt calmly moved toward it. Whoomp. Swish. Into the back of the net. Right between the posts.
Memorial Stadium announced a crowd of 37,363 fans on Saturday. They all seemed to storm Zuppke Field. Young and old. Students and parents.
Hugging everyone in sight. Hopping around like kindergartners.
They had just witnessed the impossible. The late Jack Buck said it best: “I don’t believe what I just saw.”
Thirty-one-point underdog Illinois stunned college football. The 24-23 victory came against No. 6 Wisconsin, a team many considered playoff contenders. Not anymore.
In the past 44 years, Illinois had played 20-plus point favorites 15 times at Memorial Stadium.
And how many upset wins? None.
As they flashed the score at stadiums across the country, my guess is the fans in the stands were like, “That’s got to be a typo.”
The 2-4 team, riding a four-game losing streak, wasn’t supposed to beat the undefeated Badgers.
Heck, there was a question going in if Illinois would even score.
Wisconsin shut out four of its previous six opponents. That hope ended with 5:53 left in the second quarter when receiver Donny Navarro found a gap in the Wisconsin secondary, grabbed Brandon Peters’ on-target pass and raced 48 yards into the end zone, cutting the Illini’s deficit to 10-7.
The spell had been broken. In an instant, Wisconsin knew it was in for a fight.
“It gave us some belief. It gave us some confidence,” Navarro said. “It’s always a team effort. It just wasn’t me. Offensive line blocked really well. Brandon threw an exceptional ball. I think it gave us a little bit of a spark. We proved we could score on these guys.”
Navarro can’t read the Badgers’ minds. But ...
“When they haven’t given up a score in the first half, they’re a little like, ‘Oh, these guys are real,’” Navarro said. “And we know that we’re a really good football team. We knew we were capable of putting points on them.”
Our beat writer recaps the quick hits and hands out grades for both teams in the Illini's 24-23 upset win Saturday.
It certainly ranks as Lovie Smith’s biggest victory at Illinois. By a mile.
“This is our signature win,” the fourth-year Illinois coach said. “We’ve needed a signature win. We played them toe to toe and saw so much fight. We learned an awful lot about ourselves.”
After they left the celebration on the field, the Illini had a private, raucous ceremony in their locker room. The shouting could easily be heard outside in nearby hallways.
“There’s nothing like seeing a locker room celebrating after a big win against one of the best teams in college football,” Smith said. “We’re pumped up. We’ll celebrate this for a few hours. Then it’s on to Purdue.”
The upset came 95 years and a day after Red Grange’s epic performance against Michigan.
To honor the “Wheaton Iceman,” the Illini wore their gray ghost uniforms.
They might want to wash and wear them next week at Purdue. And every game after that.
“It’s only fitting that we get a win like this (Saturday),” Smith said. “So many stepped up. We thought we had a good chance. We felt like we matched up.
“We thought if we just hung in there and started faster and finished a little bit better than we have. We’ve seen signs of what our football team should be throughout. But we haven’t been able to put it together for 60 minutes.”
The Illini got close its last two home games, leading Nebraska by 14 before letting the margin slip away and rallying in the second half against Michigan after falling behind 28-0.
Smith promises he saw Saturday coming. Not that many outsiders believed him.
“All the things we’ve gone through, losing tough games the way we have, injuries, all the above, to step up this way and for the momentum to change, a lot of things had to happen to go our way,” Smith said. “And they did.”
Smith’s defense (remember, he’s the coordinator), slowed Wisconsin enough to keep it close.
“We’ve seen signs of what we could be,” Smith said.
He made changes. Tony Adams moved to cornerback and made a huge interception late in the game to set up McCourt’s game-winning kick.
Linebacker Dele Harding played the game of his life, recording 16 tackles, including 12 in the first half.
“His last homecoming,” Smith said. “He’s going to remember this.”
Field-storming upset against Badgers has Illini over the moon
Of course, there were postgame smiles. The widest I have seen in years from an Illinois football team. And there were tears. Of joy. Of relief.
A collective “ahhh. That’s what we’ve been looking for.”
“Believe me, there’s a lot going on,” Smith said. “We talk about our program and where we’re headed. We’re trending this way (pointing up).”
There were recruits in town this weekend. Good timing. Don’t be surprised if a few call this week with an “I’m in.”
Smith hasn’t been a part of a field storming for a while.
“It’s been so long I can’t remember,” Smith said. “I’ve had an opportunity to coach a few big games.
“But our time at the University of Illinois, that’s the first time with our football team. We want to do it again.”
You could sense a mood change in the program immediately after the Illini’s first win against a Top 10 team since it upset No. 1 Ohio State in 2007. And toward the program.
“We’ve had an opportunity to win every game this year,” Smith said. “That’s saying a lot.”
Next for the Illini: Get greedy.
“It’s about stacking them,” Smith said. “We’ve got one big win. How about two in a row? That will be our point of emphasis this week.”
Smith, who is now 12-31 at Illinois and 5-26 in the Big Ten, doesn’t view the win as personal validation.
“It’s one game,” he said. “It’s not like I’ve lost faith or confidence in what we’re doing. If you’ve been around us, we’ve been going to work and there was a sense of, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this.’ Those guys aren’t shocked in there right now.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.