NEWS

An appropriate ending for Illinois football

JOHN SUPINIE

Leave it to Illinois football to find another way to lose.

On a two-point conversion with 2 seconds left, a pass deflected by Illinois cornerback Tavon Wilson landed in the hands of Fresno State offensive guard Devon Cunningham, who lunged into the end zone for the go-ahead score in his team’s 53-52 victory Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The teams combined for the most points scored in stadium history.

“I guess that’s the way the year has gone,’’ Illini coach Ron Zook said. “That’s probably not a surprise the game went like that.’’

Had this nonconference game been in September, it would have been exciting. In December, not so much. The university sold 48,538 tickets, but there were about 30,000 no-shows.

That either was a vote against Zook or the school playing a regular-season game in December for the first time. Or both.

Illinois ended the season with a 3-9 record. Weeks after athletics director Ron Guenther said there would be changes but none at the top, a coaching shakeup as early as this week is expected, but apparently Zook will be back.

Although offensive coordinator Mike Schultz said he’s off to Houston on a recruiting trip Sunday, changes below Zook remained imminent as Illinois attempts to rebound from its seventh losing season in the last eight years.

“I’m proud of the seniors,’’ Zook said. “They came here when it wasn’t a popular thing to do. I felt bad we couldn’t get them over the hump in the last game. As I told them, they’re part of a foundation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the program is going up. We have to work to do, but we’re not as far away as it may seem.’’

Schultz, a target of critics earlier this season, directed an offense that improved in the last half of the season. Illinois generated 548 yards against Fresno State.

“We were extremely happy with some of the games at the end of the season,’’ Schultz said. “Bottom line today, we throw an interception for a touchdown. We get one more first down, and there’s no two-point conversion.’’

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams passed for 211 yards and three touchdowns, including a 58-yarder to junior wide receiver Arrelious Benn with 8 seconds left before halftime. When Benn chucked the ball into the north grandstand, it seemed like a farewell admission, although it didn’t look like he had much of an arm.

“I was a little bit ticked,’’ he said. “One of the guys hit my arm as I threw it. I apologize if I offended anyone. I accomplished a lot since I’ve been here. I’m glad I came here. It’s one of the best decisions of my life. I don’t regret anything.’’

Benn wouldn’t say if he’s leaning toward jumping to the NFL, but he’s considered a first-round draft prospect.

Williams, a senior, was the last Illini off the field. He strolled slowly and tried to take in as much as possible, he said: “I took my time and tried to enjoy it.’’

Running back Mikel Leshoure rushed for a career-high 184 yards plus two touchdowns on only 11 carries. With a change at quarterback and Benn expected to go, the Illini will need a go-to guy. That seems like Leshoure, who scored on touchdown runs of 61 and 19 yards and also caught a 22-yard touchdown pass.

“I know I’ll have a major role in the offense,’’ Leshoure said. “I wouldn’t say the The Man, but I will do what I have to do to make us a productive offense.’’

Illinois needs a massive overhaul on defense after it allowed 416 yards and a 67-yard touchdown drive to essentially end the game. Before the two-point conversion, Fresno State scored on a 19-yard pass to wide receiver Jamel Hamler, who stuck the ball across the goal line while diving to the ground. A review confirmed the touchdown and the two-point conversion.

Fresno State (8-4) went for the victory after it called a timeout “because we needed to end it on one play,’’ coach Pat Hill said.

Almost an hour later, Illinois offensive guard Jon Asamoah still couldn’t believe the ending.

“This big good-for-nothing I don’t know what,’’ Asamoah said. “It’s ironic. When it fell into this hands, this is what happens.’’

NOTES: Illinois rushed for 331 yards, the third time it surpassed 300 in a game this season. . . Benn’s touchdown catch was his second of the year and the longest pass play of the season for the Illini. . . Sophomore placekicker Derek Dimke remained perfect with his fifth field goal of the season, a 44-yarder.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.