Losing in the final regular season game, Illinois takes 6-6 record into bowl season.
A non-conference football road game on the West Coast on a Friday night to end the regular season following a bye week always seemed a bad decision for Illinois football. That's what it turned out to be.
Fresno State controlled the ball for the nearly all of the final 9 minutes 31 seconds, benefited by two controversial calls, in a 25-23 victory over visiting Illinois to end any hope of the Illini gaining momentum heading into bowl season.
Illinois finished the regular season with a 6-6 record and await the official bowl announcements Sunday, but sources indicated the Illini were still headed to the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29 where they would face Baylor in essentially another road game. Nevertheless, the loss left Illinois coach Ron Zook nervous about dropping in the bowl slots and any last-minute changes.
"Oh yeah, I'm sure it will,'' Zook said. "But I don't know. I really don't. I guess there's a lot of teams in our situation coming off losses. The problem is they've got seven wins, and we've got six.''
Official bowl announcements come at 7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network and ESPN. The Illini return to bowl season for the first time since 2007.
Illinois wanted a two-game winning streak heading into bowl season, but the Illini can only blame themselves after scheduling such a series that looked like a bad idea years ago when it was announced. It looked even worse when the Illini lost to a program from the Western Athletic Conference team for the second straight season.
"This is probably a little bit harder (to take),'' Zook said. "It was a game we needed to win. The Ohio State game, the Michigan State game, we could won those games. They're good football teams. They're BCS teams. This one hurts a little bit more.''Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure gained 142 yards rushing and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase added 131 yards, but the Illini were ineffective passing the ball while connecting on just five of 16 for 61 yards. The Illini rallied from a 16-0 deficit to pull within 19-17 and 25-23. The Illini failed on a two-point conversion attempt after scoring on a Scheelhaase 21-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs (8-5) controlled the ball from the 9:31 mark of the fourth quarter until they punted with 23 seconds remaining. The Illini gained possession with 18 seconds let on their 9. The Illini ran two plays, the last one a sack by Eddie McGee, who was inserted with the hope of throwing a long desperation pass.
Trailing 25-23, the Illinois defense had Fresno State in a third-and-13 with more than 8 minutes left. The Bulldogs threw an incomplete pass, but safety Tavon Wilson was called for unsportsmanlike penalty. Later in the drive, Fresno State went for it on fourth-and-one at the Bulldogs' 46-yard line and converted with 3:13 left, but Zook challenged the call. The TV replays showed Fresno State didn't make it, but the review official didn't overturn the call.
"We came out real flat,'' Leshoure said. "I don't know if it was the different time zone. Guys aren't used to playing late. We didn't play as well as we should in the first half. We didn't deserve to win.''
A late injury to linebacker Ian Thomas looked serious. He was taken off the field on a motorized cart with his leg in an air cast, but Zook said Thomas was OK and walking in the locker room.