It was a goal-line stand with more than 20 minutes of play left, but the game was very much on the line. Trailing 21-10 with a fourth and goal from the 1-yard line, Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux ran to his left and dove for the end zone.
He was met by Illinois safety Earnest Thomas and linebacker Mike Svetina. The ball was lost from view in the scrum. Officials originally ruled the play a touchdown, and the Bearcats were back in the game.
But after an official video review, it was determined Legaux had fumbled the ball inches from the end zone. Officials explained the ball had been recovered by another Cincinnati player, and by rule, the ball cannot be advanced from that point. Illinois ball.
The Illini took possession and marched 99 yards for a touchdown and never looked back. Illinois went on to win 45-17 in front of an announced crowd of 43,031 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
“I punched at (the ball) and tried to come in with my head up,” said Thomas, who was officially given the forced fumble in the stat book. “It really took the second and third guy (Svetina and linebacker Mason Monheim) to keep him out of there. If they didn’t come, he might have still gotten in.”
Head coach Tim Beckman said he didn’t think the ball had crossed the end zone, and he was prepared to challenge the play if the officials hadn’t reviewed it.
He didn’t need to. The call was reversed and the Illini won.
But this wasn’t just a win; it was a statement. And it was a statement no one saw coming.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini passing attack picked up right where it left off last week against Southern Illinois. Scheelhaase connected with Josh Ferguson, Martize Barr, Steve Hull and Evan Wilson for touchdowns. He finished the game with 312 yards on 26-for-37 passing. His four touchdowns matched his season total from 2012.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s unit rolled in the first half, jumping out to a 21-0 lead. The Bearcats would answer just before halftime with Legaux throwing a 1-yard touchdown to Max Morrison.
Cincinnati added a field goal in the third quarter and then came the goal-line stand. The Illini would outscore the Bearcats 24-7 after that and score the final 17 points of the game.
Any attempt at a comeback was deflated when Legaux went down with a gruesome leg injury with fewer than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Illinois defensive end Tim Kynard hit Legaux in the knee just after Legaux released a pass over the middle.
Legaux’s leg bent in the wrong direction, and he crumpled onto the turf. He was down on the field for several minutes while a stretcher was brought out. His Cincinnati teammates left the bench and took a knee in silent prayer. The stadium fell silent.
Beckman was trying to reach Legaux after the play, sprinting from his spot on the sideline to where Legaux fell — somewhere around the 25-yard line.
“I wanted to get out there to him as quickly as I could,” Beckman said. “I think he was in pain, there’s no question.”
Legaux was carted off and brought straight to the hospital, Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville said. Brendon Kay, who had played some snaps earlier in the game, took over quarterbacking duties.
But the Illinois defense was too much. Linebacker Jonathan Brown finished the game with 14 tackles and half a sack. Monheim added another 10 tackles and a sack of his own.
“A lot of people counted us out,” Brown said. “But we went out and proved that we can go win football games.”
The victory was Illinois’ first win against an FBS opponent since it beat Western Michigan in Beckman’s first game as head coach on Sept. 1, 2012.
Sean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @sean_hammond.