Fresno State stuns Illinois 53-52
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—In the middle of the excitement of a rare postgame press conference appearance, Fresno State offensive lineman Devan Cunningham made sure to put in a couple of phone calls back home.
The junior guard made one heck of a highlight he wanted to get on tape.
“I called my roommate back in Fresno to record it, to tell my family to record it,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of texts saying good job, we saw you.”
After pulling down a deflected pass, Cunningham used every one of his 350 pounds to lean into the Illinois end zone for a two-point conversion that gave the Bulldogs a 53-52 win.
“That’s not exactly how the play was drawn up,” Fresno State coach Pat Hill said, “but it counts.”
The big man’s big play was the catalyst for bag full of milestones.
It helped atone for a double overtime loss at Wisconsin in the season’s second week, and it gave Hill his 100th win at Fresno State. But perhaps most important, Cunningham’s two points—his first since a short dive for a touchdown in high school—improved Fresno State to 9-3.
They wait now to find out where they’re headed for bowl season.
Cunningham’s two-point lean marked a few milestones for the Illini, too, though they didn’t leave many smiles in the home locker room. The college career of quarterback Juice Williams, the face of Ron Zook’s team since coming to Champaign, came to a wrenching close after three losing seasons in four years as starter.
“It was tough, not even so much that we lost,” Williams said, “but that it was the last time that I will walk off the field as an Illini football player.
And the loss closed up the second-straight losing campaign for the Illinois, which looked like a team on the rise when it went to Pasadena.
“I feel awful for them,” Zook said of his seniors. “I really do.”
The two teams’ 105 points set a record for 86-year-old Memorial Stadium, and they combined for 964 yards of total offense—564 of it on the ground.
But this wasn’t 3 yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Midwestern football. This was big-play running, with backs bursting through big holes and the two defenses all but absent.
Fresno State had 233 yards rushing, including 173 on 32 carries by Ryan Mathews. With just a bowl game left to play, he is the nation’s leading rusher with 151.3 yards a game.
Illinois (3-9) had 331 rushing yards and was led by sophomore Mikel LeShoure, who carried 11 times for 184 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass from Williams.
Illinois led 28-21 at halftime, and after Fresno opened the second half with 10 straight points, traded touchdowns through the third and fourth quarters.
Trailing 52-45, Colburn drove the Bulldogs 67 yards and pulled the Bulldogs within a point on a touchdown pass to Jamel Hamler with 2 seconds left. Hill called a timeout and huddled with his offense, opting to go for the win rather than kicking the extra point and forcing overtime.
“An overtime game was not in our bets interest at the time,” Hill said. “There have been games, like at Wisconsin, I felt that it was for us. But that’s a whole different conversation.”
Colburn rolled right and, under heavy pressure, flung a prayer toward Hamler just inside the goal line that was batted away and brought down by Cunningham. The lineman leaned through a crowd of players at the 2-yard line and landed on the orange end zone turf, helped by a shove from 280-pound center Joe Bernardi.
“After I caught the ball I thought to myself, ‘Oh man, the end zone is right there,”’ Cunningham said. “The guy hit me and then Joe hit me from behind, which made me go forward and I was able to get into the end zone.”
Officials reviewed the play and ruled that an Illinois defensive back had tipped the ball, not a Fresno State player, allowing anybody to catch it.
Illini athletic director Ron Guenther has said Zook’s job is safe, but also said other coaching staff changes may be needed. Zook complained after the game about Illinois’ inability to stop Fresno State, and said the problem wasn’t unique to Saturday.
“You have got to have the belief that when they are driving the football they are not going to get in, that you are going to keep them out of there,” he said. “Big plays are something that has plagued us a lot these past couple of years, and we have got to get it fixed.”