CHAMPAIGN -- Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa threatened to steal the show, but Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase owned the last act.
Scheelhaase squirmed his way into the end zone from a half-yard out with 13 seconds left Saturday to lead No. 24 Illinois back -- for the second time -- to beat Northwestern, 38-35.
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After the game, and a week of back and forth between the longtime rivals about school which is really Chicago's Big Ten team, the sophomore quarterback stood near midfield holding the Land of Lincoln trophy -- a replica of Abe Lincoln's hat the teams now play for -- as "Sweet Home Chicago" played over the PA.
"We kept believing," said Scheelhaase, whose team stayed undefeated at 5-0 (1-0 Big Ten). "We talked about that all week -- just believing in us as an offense, just believing in the defense, believing in what this team's all about, and that's what we did throughout the game.
"There were ups and downs," he added, "and we knew there would be ups and downs."
After a first half of penalties and turnovers, the Illini scored 28 points in the second half, scorching the Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) secondary for 218 yards in the third and fourth quarters. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins caught 12 balls for a school-record 268 yards and three touchdowns.
"Shocked," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, describing his reaction to his team's collapse. "(Illinois did) nothing that we didn't work on and nothing that we didn't prepare for, which is probably the most disappointing aspect of the whole day."
Persa threw four touchdown passes in his first game back after tearing his right Achilles tendon last season, but pulled himself from the game late after possibly reaggravating the injury.
Scheelhaase overcame a first half in which he threw an interception in the Wildcats end zone and pitched another ball away for a fumble that set up a Northwestern TD. And he had to engineer not one but two second-half comebacks.
The first brought the Illini back from the 18-point deficit. It was Illinois' biggest deficit of the season and largely the work of Persa, who had four touchdowns in his first game since tearing the Achilles tendon in his right leg late last season.
The second Illinois comeback started with just over a minute to play.
With Persa on the bench, the Wildcats scored a go-ahead touchdown that made it 35-31 with 1:15 to play. They converted after Tyler Scott recovered Jason Ford's fumble at the Illinois 36. Jacob Schmidt's 6-yard run capped the drive.
But Scheelhaase went to work and, as he'd done much of the second half, started looking for Jenkins. He found the wide receiver on a 28-yard completion that moved the ball to the Wildcats 41. Then the quarterback took off on his own, for 22 yards. An interference call on Wildcats cornerback Jeravin Matthews moved the ball to the 4 and, on third and goal, Scheelhaase bulled his way in.
"I think Nathan took a little step today in his own confidence level," Illini coach Ron Zook said. "Not that he worries about confidence, but he knows he can run, and now he knows he can throw."
Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 391 yards and three touchdowns -- all to Jenkins, who now has 40 catches on the season for 633 yards. That's just 113 yards short of his total for last season, when he was Illinois' top receiver.
"I think he knows he has a chance to be a pretty good receiver, one of the better receivers in the Big Ten," Zook said.
Scheelhaase's and Illinois' first-half struggles helped put them in a deep hole.
The Illini couldn't run the ball. Averaging 241.8 yards a game, Illinois had just 32 yards at halftime and finished with just 82.
"They were going to try and not let us run the ball," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "Going into the game, we thought we had to throw deep. "
Illinois also had five first-half penalties, including a questionable offensive pass interference call on Spencer Harris that wiped out his diving touchdown catch late in the second quarter.
Earlier, Scheelhaase threw a pass up for grabs from the Wildcats 4 that was hauled in on one hand by safety Brian Peters. Later, Scheelhaase tried to pitch the ball to Troy Pollard, but the back never seemed to see it and Northwestern jumped on it, setting up one of Persa's TD passes.
Persa finished just 10 of 14 for 123 yards but had the four touchdown passes.
He said after the game that his Achilles tendon started to hurt after a hit in the fourth quarter.
"I told my coach it was starting to stiffen up and, in the past, that's when steps back have happened, so it was my decision," he said. Fitzgerald initially called the move precautionary.
But Persa left his mark on the game.
With a fourth-and-5 from the Illinois 34 and his receivers covered, Persa scrambled straight back to his own 48 and waited, finally seeing Schmidt pop open on his right. Persa flung the ball toward Schmidt, who brought it down and ran for a first down at the Illini 23.
Later, Persa found Jeremy Ebert in the left corner of the end zone for an 11-yard TD pass and a 28-10 lead.
Ebert had five catches for 68 yards and three touchdowns.
But Persa's TDs and 28-10 lead they gave the Wildcats, in the end, just set the table for Scheelhaase and his first big comeback.
That ended with a 1-yard touchdown by freshman tailback Donovonn Young and put the Illini up 31-28.