From mockery to magic
Mikel Leshoure's record day for Illinois restores focus to football at Wrigley Field
CHICAGO -- Go figure. Illinois turned a potential circus into a spectacle.
In one potentially disastrous afternoon, the Fighting Illini and one very special running back elevated a PR stunt gone awry into a must-see performance. They walked into a purple haze at Clark and Addison on Saturday and ran off with a school record, a bowl berth, a much-needed measure of pride and, very likely, their coach's job secured.
Illinois' 48-27 victory over Northwestern, made possible by Mikel Leshoure's school- and Wrigley Field-record 330 yards rushing, rose above circumstances that threatened to embarrass both schools, the Big Ten Conference, the Cubs and whoever else was unlucky enough to be involved.
When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany correctly, but belatedly, ruled Friday that the east end zone could not be used because, um, players could potentially be mortally wounded by running into the wall that borders it at full speed -- despite the very impressive-looking high school gym pads attached to the brick -- the game sort of got lost in the shuffle.
The decision meant the teams would both be running the same way, giving new meaning to the old axiom, "Go West, young man. Go West." And, oh yeah, better watch the right corner of that end zone fellas, not more than 10 feet from another brick wall and a whole bunch of people.
Both teams would be occupying the same sideline, since there was no room for them on the other one, so if you happened to be on the goal line with your team on the far end of the sideline, you might also want to bring a pair of binoculars to pick up your coaches' signals.
"It was kind of funny [Friday]," said Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, "when [quarterbacks] Coach [Jeff] Brohm asked me, 'Did you see the delay-of-game clock?' I said, 'Yeah, I saw that one there and I saw the other one there.'
"And he said, 'Don't worry about that one. You're never going to have to look at that one.'"
The poor east end zone fans nearly fell out of the right-field bleachers in excitement when Northwestern safety Brian Peters intercepted a pass by Illinois receiver Eddie McGee on an ill-advised option in the first quarter and raced 59 yards in their direction to close the gap to 14-7.
Other than that, it was all Leshoure, who ran so free and easy in the first quarter that he looked as if he was gliding along on a lunar surface. Nope, Northwestern defenders didn't tackle a lick for most of the first half, didn't have to, because they never came close to touching Leshoure, who gained a stunning 156 yards on 10 carries with two touchdowns in the first two quarters.
Leshoure ripped off runs of 32 and 30 yards on the first two plays of the game, and added another for 70 later in the quarter. Before the day was over, he would add a 62-yarder and finally go over the 300-yard mark with a 17-yard gain with 7:31 left in regulation, surpassing the most prolific FBS rushing game this season and overshadowing teammate Jason Ford's three touchdowns.
"That definitely wasn't on my mind coming into the game," a gracious Leshoure said of his records, as he paced the Illini to a 519-yard rushing day, the most for an Illinois team since 1944.
"It looked like we had guys continually getting blocked," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The biggest story angle for the Wildcats going in, other than the playing field, was Chicago-area freshman Evan Watkins starting his first game in place of injured Dan Persa. But Watkins barely had a chance to make an impact, finishing with 10-of-20 passing for 135 yards and an interception while the Wildcats converted just 2-of-10 third downs.
Players and coaches on both teams raved about the atmosphere.
"With all the Northwestern pictures and all the purple around [Wrigley Field], we walked in with a chip on our shoulders, to be honest," Scheelhaase said. "But we loved the atmosphere. It's something I'm always going to look back on and I know the kids, especially from Chicago, will always look back on, so I would do it again a thousand times over. It was a great setting, a great everything and obviously getting a win always helps the situation."
The victory was the Illini's sixth of the season, which made them bowl eligible and soothed much of the sting that came with embarrassing, high-scoring losses the last two weeks to Michigan and Minnesota.
"[Coach Ron Zook] told us this was going to be different, that we would have to be disciplined, we'd have to be poised and everyone bought in, everyone listened because we all knew how important this game was to him," said Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson.
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Indeed, the victory would appear to erase any chance that the beleaguered Illinois coach would not return to Champaign after this season, certainly a valid discussion if the Illini, who end the regular season with Fresno State next week, had ended the season with four losses or even three of four.
Scheelhaase did not duck the subject when asked if the team wanted to win for Zook.
"Yeah," he said. "He's done so much for us this year and just who he's brought in, the new mentality he's put on our hearts, we could all kind of feel it this week that what had happened the last two weeks, whatever we had to do, we weren't going to feel that feeling again.
"He urged us this week to just think about that feeling, think about what it felt like to walk off that field losing the last couple of weeks and just to know it was in our hands to turn it around, and we wanted to do that for him."
Saving the Big Ten's dignity was an added bonus.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.