CHAMPAIGN – On a day when it felt like the Big Ten Conference got flipped on its football helmet, Geronimo Allison found himself standing on a misty field wiping the tears from his eyes.
He was about to be interviewed live on the Big Ten Network and they were going to ask him how it felt to have just caught the winning touchdown in an improbable 14-13 Illini comeback over Nebraska.
“Probably the most emotional game in my life, this one and the (junior college) national championship with Iowa Western,” said Allison, whose diving catch with 10 seconds to go completed a 14-point fourth quarter comeback.
“I was standing there crying.”
Moments after the interview, Allison ran into his head coach’s bear hug, a full wraparound from Bill Cubit. More emotion and, it appeared, a few more tears.
Cubit recounted the exchange.
“He told me how blessed we both were,” Cubit said. “I told him I loved him and he told me he loved me back.
“We throw love around a lot. We have kids who haven’t heard that word a whole lot. We’ll be kind of tough on them but they know we’re there for them.”
It was difficult for Cubit to put what happened on the Memorial Stadium turf into words Saturday. He received an ovation from friends and family who crowded into his post-game media room, then opened his remarks by candidly admitting, “I don’t even know what to tell you.”
His team seemed to have squandered a basketful of chances early, missing a 51-yard field goal in the first quarter, then getting stuffed for a loss on fourth-and-one from the Nebraska 10 later in the same period.
Then, on the final play of the quarter, Taylor Zalewski missed again, this time sending a 41-yard field goal wide right.
Another fourth-down failure and at least seven dropped passes, including one in the end zone by Malik Turner, and trailing 13-0 entering the fourth quarter, there was a gloomy feeling that Illinois had blown its chance for an upset.
But that feeling did not exist on the Illini bench, Cubit said. And when it came time for one more critical mistake, Nebraska made it.
On third-and-seven from the Illini 27, and with only a minute to go and the Illini out of timeouts, Nebraska had a chance to run the ball and take at least 30 more seconds off the clock. It would have made a last-second length-of-the-field drive almost impossible.
But quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw consecutive incomplete passes, stopping the clock and giving Illinois a chance.
The Illini took advantage with Wes Lunt completing passes of 15 yards (to Sam Mays), 50 yards (to Malik Turner) and 2 yards (to Geronimo Allson) for the game-winning touchdown.
Cubit was nearly beside himself because he’s been telling his players this kind of outcome was within their grasp.
In fact, before the team took the field Saturday, he called them together and told them to close their eyes.
“I told them to visualize what it’s like with 0:00 on the clock and you walk off the field and the band is playing and people are cheering you on,” he said. “It’s unbelievable because that’s what happened.”
This is Cubit’s third year in the program but only his fifth week as interim head coach, being named on Aug. 28 after the dismissal of Tim Beckman.
He’s been around long enough to know Illini fans generally exit this kind of a game with a frown, so he’s hoping they, too, will be buoyed by Saturday’s comeback.
“It’s been like this since I have been here and a couple of years before, I believe,” Cubit said. “People talk about getting your signature win and when you don’t do it, everyone thinks the sky is falling.
“I think the Illini family out there – Illini fans, students, our kids – now see what you can do if you just keep playing as a team.
“That’s my whole goal. I can’t play, but I want to get people in those stands so everyone feels good about the orange and blue. Tonight, guess what? There are people feeling good about the orange and blue because of the resolve of our players.”
AD Mike Thomas watched the final plays from the north end zone and he pumped his fist when Allison’s game-winning touchdown was upheld on video review.
At some point Thomas will have to make a recommendation. Keep Cubit as head coach beyond this season or search for someone else.
On Saturday, Cubit made his strongest case to date that he’s the man.