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updated: 10/1/2011 9:57 PM

Illinois prevails over Northwestern

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  • Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, top, pushes through the Northwestern defense to score the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds Saturday.

      Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, top, pushes through the Northwestern defense to score the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds Saturday.
    Associated Press

 

CHAMPAIGN -- First came the Blues Brothers' rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago."

Then Frank Sinatra's "My Kind of Town" blared from the scoreboard speakers at sunny Memorial Stadium.

The cheeky postgame medley wrapped with Kanye West's "Homecoming," the Chicago-based artist's ode to his hometown.

All the while, the mocking phrase "THE STATE OF ILLINOIS' UNDEFEATED TEAM" blinked on the message board.

To say No. 24 Illinois reveled in its 38-35 Big Ten victory over Northwestern on Saturday would be an understatement.

But to say it was one of the finer games between the Illini and the Wildcats would be an understatement, too.

Just try to find one wilder.

"It's the biggest of highs and lowest of lows," said NU's Jeremy Ebert, who caught 3 touchdown passes yet wasn't the finest receiver on the field.

"All in one game."

Dan Persa and Nathan Scheelhaase took turns burning the other team's secondary -- usually in spectacular fashion -- but Persa finished the game on Northwestern's sideline while Scheelhaase finished it in Northwestern's end zone.

Scheelhaase's 1-yard touchdown sneak with 13 seconds left enabled Illinois to sweep its five-game homestand and retain the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Not only did the Illini (5-0, 1-0) rally from an 18-point, third-quarter deficit, they recovered after Jacob Schmidt's 6-yard blast gave NU a 35-31 lead with 1:15 left.

Scheelhaase, who threw for a career-best 391 yards, led the Illini 69 yards in seven snaps for the game-winning score.

He kicked off the final drive just as everyone expected -- by hitting senior wideout A.J. Jenkins for a 28-yard gain.

Jenkins wound up with an Illinois single-game record 268 receiving yards along with a record-tying 3 touchdowns.

The Scheelhaase-to-Jenkins connection worked all day because Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) refused to allow Illinois to repeat last year's 519-yard rushing performance.

"They were not going to let us run the ball," said Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. "Their safeties were low, and they just kept them low the whole game.

"On Friday nights, I meet with Coach (Ron) Zook and go through the game plan. I told him we had to throw deep to win the game.

"We're walking off the field before the game and I went over to shake his hand and tell him, 'Good luck.' And he grabbed me and said, 'Don't be cautious.' That was probably the best thing that happened to me all day."

On the game's second play from scrimmage, Scheelhaase hooked up with Jenkins (who had gotten past the safeties) on a deep "over" route for 40 yards.

As the day wore on, they clicked for 5 more completions of at least 24 yards.

That included 2 touchdown throws in a four-minute span -- a 33-yard fly pattern down the left sideline with 3:51 left in the third quarter and a 50-yard bomb on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Illinois kept picking on a pair of first-year starters: redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell and senior corner Jeravin Matthews.

"We've got some young players playing in their fourth game making some young mistakes on the road," NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We've got to coach 'em better. That's the bottom line. But they're on scholarship, too, and they've got to make plays."

Persa, making his first appearance since rupturing his right Achilles' tendon on Nov. 13, delivered enough remarkable plays to make up for his six-game absence.

Persa threw for a career-high 4 touchdowns in the opening 38 minutes but left early in the fourth quarter after tweaking his Achilles' on a scramble.

He watched from the sidelines as Kain Colter led NU for the go-ahead score and Scheelhaase answered with the winner.

"There were ups and downs," Scheelhaase said. "We knew there were going to be ups and downs. Coach Zook talked about it all week. If guys thought it was going to be an easy win, they were definitely wrong."

lwillhite@dailyherald.com

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