Bedlam unfolds as Illinois fans celebrate a major upset victory over heavily favored Wisconsin. The team storms the field and hoists Illini kicker James McCourt aloft after he hammers a 39-yard field goal to give the Illini a 24-23 victory.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Thirty-one. That’s the number the Illinois football coaching staff writes on the white board for the players to see. Many of the fans filing into Memorial Stadium today know this number, as well. Thirty-one is the number of points by which pundits predict Illinois will lose to Wisconsin. That’s a tough number.
Doesn’t matter. My job as a university photographer is to tell the Illini story. There is always plenty to capture and celebrate. The weather is spectacular. It is Homecoming. Illinois has been competitive against some tough foes. I can work with that.
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Fireworks, jet flyovers and the Marching Illini help set the stage at Memorial Stadium during pre-game ceremonies for a Homecoming matchup against heavily favored Wisconsin.
Outside the stadium, I bump into legendary former Illini football coach Lou Tepper. As we chat, Tepper shouts with surprise and hugs former player Jim Klein. For those who don’t remember the game in 1993, Klein caught the fourth-down touchdown pass that gave visiting Illinois a last-minute victory over the 13th-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
Perhaps I should take that as a good omen for this game. I don’t. The Illini are in the midst of a rebuild, a project Coach Lovie Smith took on in 2016. Illini football fans really want to believe this year is the turning point for the program, but optimism takes time to build.
Coaching great Lou Tepper emotionally greets his former player Jim Klein. Tepper’s grandkids wear orange and blue.
I’m a photojournalist. My strategy is to tell the story of the game by capturing the big plays. Unfortunately for me, those plays usually happen at alternating ends of the field. If I think the defense is going to sack the quarterback, I must hustle to that end of the field to get a good angle on a shot that may or may not happen. If I think the Illini might try a deep pass, I move to that end zone and see if my guess is right. In between, I try to get as many pictures of fans, the band, cheerleaders and anything else I might see. It’s definitely a workout.
Left: The Marching Illini join the fans. Right: Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson, right, celebrates in the end zone.
Now, back to those 31 points. In line with predictions, Wisconsin jumps out to a 10-0 lead. Illinois responds with a touchdown pass to walk-on wide receiver Donny Navarro, but Wisconsin answers with a field goal. Halftime score: 13-7.
The “Block I” student cheering section entertains the crowd during halftime. It’s one of the oldest student cheering sections in the country.
While I’m outside photographing halftime festivities, the Illini locker room is anything but festive. It’s later reported that running back Reggie Corbin took command. His team was 30 minutes away from yet another crushing Big Ten loss. For Corbin, this would be the 27th loss out of 31 conference games.
“We’ve been underdogs all (our) whole lives,” Corbin tells his teammates. “We don’t need anybody else. We have each other … Give it your all!”
The defense keeps constant pressure on the Wisconsin offense. Illinois linebacker Dele Harding recovers a fumble by Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan.
What happens in the second half is legendary. After an Illinois fumble, Wisconsin quickly scores. I hear a collective groan from the stands. Corbin backs up his inspirational speech with a 43-yard Illini touchdown. The Illinois defense stuffs Wisconsin at the Illini goal line, and the offense narrows the score to 23-21. With time running out, an interception by Illinois’ Tony Adams sets the table for an improbable Illinois comeback victory.
Illinois running back Reggie Corbin breaks through Wisconsin’s defense for a 43-yard touchdown run.
Another experienced photographer on the field turns to me and says, “I don’t know where to go!” I know what he means. We’re both figuring out where to be at the end of the game.
“It’s all about the kicker,” I say. “If he makes a field goal, the story is the kicker.”
I move up the sideline close to the bench. From that angle, I can catch the kick and the kicker’s reaction with his teammates. If he makes it, he’ll turn to his bench and celebrate. I need that shot.
Smith calls a series of plays to bring the ball to the center of the field and drain the clock. Time left: four seconds.
Left: Illinois kicker James McCourt tries to win the game. Right: Head coach Lovie Smith waits for the clock to wind down to four seconds before calling a timeout.
Kicker James McCourt walks onto the field. It feels like everyone in the stadium is holding their collective breath. The kicker had already missed a 40-yard attempt. This kick would be for 39 yards. The pressure is intense.
Fighting Illini kicker James McCourt hammers the last-second field goal 39 yards through the uprights.
McCourt kicks the ball straight through the uprights. Victory. Upset. Bedlam! He turns to celebrate with the players on the field. Instead of running to the bench to celebrate, he stays put and the entire bench charges him. Actually, everyone on the field charges him.
I run in with the players, but soon hit a brick wall. These guys are huge. I’ve covered plenty of end-of-the game celebrations, but this one is out of control. I’m holding my wide-angle camera up in the air to take pictures as I try to squeeze through.
Players storm the field to “dog pile” on top of Illinois kicker James McCourt after his 39-yard winning field goal.
I’m getting pushed around as the players mob the kicker. They squeeze in tighter and tighter, and I begin to worry about staying upright. I brace my legs and arms to keep breathing room, stay on my feet and not get trampled.
For McCourt, that isn’t an option. All of the emotional and physical energy of the game is headed his way. His helmet gets snagged with teammate Griffin Palmer’s while they hug. They fall to the ground, and the team “dog piles” with nearly 10 bodies stacked on top of him. Teammate Jake Cerny sees McCourt’s eyes roll back in his head as he starts to black out. The team grabs McCourt, pulls him out of the pile and hoists him aloft.
While firing off my shots, I look at McCourt’s washed-out face.
“He doesn’t look good,” I think. Slowly, he begins to recover, realize where he is and celebrate.
The team hoists McCourt a second time into the air. This time he is able to fully enjoy the moment. “I really thought I woke up from a dream or something,” he said later. “It was really unbelievable.”
“I really thought I woke up from a dream or something,” McCourt says later. “It was really unbelievable.”
Crazed fans enthusiastically cheer the unlikely comeback victory over Wisconsin.
Believe it. According to ESPN, this win is the largest upset over a ranked team in Big Ten history.
“Our program needed to get a signature win,” Smith tells the Big Ten Network during the bedlam. “I was just hoping today was the day … and the day came.”
Now the field is full of players, fans, cheerleaders and most anyone else who can make it. They dance, hug and, finally, sing “Hail to the Orange.”
Thirty-one points. These Illini underdogs won. And, I’ve got the pictures to prove it.
Fans of all ages celebrate what ESPN calls the largest upset over a ranked team in Big Ten history.