It wasn’t as pretty as the game-clinching drive Fresno State put together two years ago in the Rose Bowl versus UCLA. But Bulldog head coach Pat Hill will take it.
“You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” said Hill. “Tonight we live by the sword.”
Hill was referring to one play in particular – the call to go for it on 4th-and-1 with just over three minutes to play.
“I was really debating it…the reason I went for it I thought we could get them to use their timeouts. And get that game down to 30 seconds – 20 to 30 seconds – if we made it.”
Instead, Fresno State left Illinois with just 18 seconds after starting the drive at the 9:31 mark of the fourth quarter. The Illini’s Eddie McGee misfired on his first throw getting the ball tipped, and he was sacked as time expired giving the ‘Dogs their second straight win over the Big 10 opponent. But it was very close to going the other way.
“We made it by – it’s a game of inches – we made it by inches,” Hill said about Ellis’ fourth down run. “If that would have gone the other way, I don’t know what I would be talking about now…we needed a yard, they got a yard and an inch.”
Illini head coach Ron Zook disagreed, however, and challenged the call – using the first of his three timeouts. While some replay angles showed Bulldog running back A.J. Ellis short of the first down, the officials ruled, there was not enough evidence to overrule the call on the field. The first down stood and the Illini was charged with the timeout.
“That was a heck of a win for this football team,” said Hill. “We had to fight through some adversity. Ryan Colburn has been struggling a little bit…our time and spacing was excellent [in the passing game].”
It didn’t take long for the Bulldogs score on Friday. After producing just one offensive touchdown in the previous nine quarters, Colburn hit Ellis on a 27-yard screen pass for a touchdown less than four minutes into the game. Kevin Goessling’s PAT was blocked by Clay Nurse, and the ‘Dogs took the early 6-0 lead.
But Colburn was just getting warmed up as he hit Jalen Saunders for a 78-yard touchdown pass – the longest of the season for FS – on the Bulldogs’ next possession. The corner and safety both came up in coverage and Saunders raced past both for his only reception of the game giving the ‘Dogs a 13-0 lead.
Goessling would add a 45-yard field goal before the Illinois offense woke up.
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaasse struggled throwing the football completing just 5-of-16 passes for 61 yards and one touchdown. His legs gave the Bulldogs problems. He finished with 131 yards rushing on 24 carries with most of his big runs coming on broken pass plays.
“He’s a very good scrambler,” said Fresno State defensive end Chris Carter. “Scheelhaasse, he’s got a little shake in him, but I know it was a little difficult for him tonight because of the mud, which kind of worked in our advantage.”
The field conditions were atrocious. Both teams were sliding and slipping on the wet, muddy field. And unfortunately, Illinois linebacker Ian Thomas was carted off the field after slipping on the field and injuring his leg. A brace was placed on his leg on the field.
Scheelhaasse carried the ball six of eight plays on the Illini’s first scoring drive gaining 75 yards. Despite having a first and goal inside the Fresno State 5-yard line, the Bulldog defense didn’t break forcing Zook to settle for a 18-yard field goal after Lorne Bell stuffed Scheelhaasse at the one on third-and-goal from the two.
Goessling would counter with a 52-yarder that barely made it over the cross bar and clunked off the support bar.
Down 19-3, Illinois star running back Mikel Leshoure finally made some noise with a 35-yard touchdown run. He would finish with 142 yards rushing – putting him over 1,500 yards for the season – and the one touchdown. But for the most part, the Bulldog defense held him in check. He also had a 50-yard third quarter run, but he gained only 57 yards on his remaining 22 carries.
FS senior running back Tracy Slocum, who made his first career start on Friday, fumbled on the ‘Dogs next possession. It was the only turnover in the game on both sides. But the defenses prevailed in the final minutes of the second quarter, and FS took a two-score lead into the break.
The Illini would cut the lead to 19-17 after Scheelhaasse launched pass on 3rd-and-7 from 18 yards out to A.J. Jenkins in the end zone. Bulldog cornerback Isaiah Green was in decent position to make a play but had no idea where the ball was before Jenkins made the catch.
Colburn answered with a 21-yard touchdown strike to Rashad Evans capping three consecutive pass plays to Evans on the drive – his only three receptions of the game.
Hill elected to go for two to make a “true” two-score lead. Ironically, the play called looked awful familiar to the one that Deven Cunningham scored on last year to beat Illinois, 53-52, in Champaign. Colburn was stopped in the backfield before releasing the football.
But Scheelhaasse and the Illini were not done. Down 25-17, his 21-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter got the margin back to two. And Zook elected to go for two and the tie, but Scheelhaasse’s pass fell incomplete.
Colburn finished with over 300 yards passing for the first time since Sept. 25 at Ole Miss. He completed 18-of-26 passes with no interceptions (no fumbles as well).
“We believed in what were doing tonight,” said Colburn. “We felt that all year, it was just a matter of getting on track. And we got started real early and got started fast tonight and that was huge for us.”
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