It had been a long time since Illinois seniors had won their season finale at their home stadium.
Head coach Tim Beckman had to look it up. The answer shocked him.
Reilly O’Toole was in middle school when the last Fighting Illini seniors walked out of Memorial Stadium for the final time as winners. On Saturday, he was on the stadium’s turf, leading the Illini and helping snap that streak. A senior himself, O’Toole came off the bench and completed 18 of 25 passes for 157 yards with a touchdown and led a go-ahead drive with under two minutes to play that iced Illinois’ 16-14 win over Penn State.
O’Toole was untouchable all afternoon as Penn State’s pressure-filled, blitz-happy defense didn’t get a hand on him. He became the only quarterback to play at least a full quarter against the Nittany Lions and avoid being sacked this season.
“I think Reilly definitely brought a little spark,” Beckman said. “I can’t say enough about Reilly O’Toole. He’s won the homecoming game for us and now he can honestly say he was the quarterback that won a game that hadn’t been won in seven years here.”
It looked like it’d be a long afternoon for any Illinois quarterback early. Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel sacked starter Wes Lunt on the fourth play of the game. Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan chased him down in the second quarter. Lunt, who broke his left fibula on Oct. 4 and returned last week, got one more series in which he went 0-for-3. Beckman made the switch after that.
Penn State players echoed head coach James Franklin’s comments that the Nittany Lions had prepared to face both Lunt and O’Toole.
“He made a difference today,” linebacker Nyeem Wartman said. “Senior Night, he came out and played really well.”
O’Toole’s brightest moment came on his team’s final drive.
With 1:48 left, the Illini needed a field goal to take the lead. O’Toole led a seven-play, 54-yard drive that ate all but eight seconds off the clock and ended with David Reisner’s go-ahead kick from 36 yards. O’Toole was 5-for-6 for 32 yards on the 11-play drive that was kept alive by a seven-yard completion to Tyler White on fourth-and-one from Penn State’s 34. He threw strikes to Mike Dudek and Marchie Murdock for gains of 25 and 17 yards to start the final drive.
“We thought O’Toole would play, prepared all week long like that,” Franklin said. “Thought it would be more as a runner and not a thrower to be honest with you, but we had prepared as if he was going to play.”
Lions lose Belton
Senior running back Bill Belton left the game early with an upper body injury.
After carrying the ball just six times for six yards, Belton exited, had his left shoulder wrapped and did not return. His absence and a second-quarter fumble by Akeel Lynch meant more snaps for reserve back Cole Chiappialle. The walk-on, special teams contributor carried the ball three times for eight yards.
Meanwhile, Lynch set career highs in carries (28) and rushing yards (139). He scored on a 47-yard touchdown run to put Penn State ahead early in the fourth quarter. Lynch said Belton experienced discomfort early in the game and tried to play through it.
“Bill’s a dynamic player, playmaker so on the offense, that definitely hurts having a guy who’s also a leader on the team out as well,” Lynch said. “He’s a real tough guy and he tried to tough it out knowing he had an injury. He couldn’t go so I had to take the load for the day.”
No change at holder
Although Chris Gulla mishandled a snap on an early Sam Ficken field goal try, Franklin expressed confidence that Gulla “gives us the best opportunity.”
“Ficken gets a lot of credit, but Gulla has been a part of that as well,” Franklin said.
Ryan Keiser was the team’s holder before a rib injury ended his season prior to the Ohio State game. Adam Geiger and Daniel Pasquariello have also held before.
Bizarre kickoff befuddles team
Illinois’ Taylor Zalewski opened the second half with a kickoff into a hard, steady wind.
The ball hung in the air then stopped all together at about Penn State’s 20-yard line where up-men Brad Bars and Garrett Sickels play. Of course their job is to throw blocks to open up running lanes for returners Grant Haley and Cole Chiappialle, so when the ball built up enough backspin, landed between them and rolled away toward Illinois’ coverage unit, it caught both players by surprise.
By rule it is a live ball and Clayton Fejedelem recovered it for the Illini.
“I’m trying to set up a block and do my best for those returners out there,” Bars said. “We always prepare … we just have to look at the film and get better from that short kick. It was just one of those things where we knew the wind was against us and it just fell in there and they got a bounce and got the ball.”