CHAMPAIGN — James McCourt had no idea who wrapped their big, burly arms around him and hoisted him in the air. All he saw were smiling faces and elation surrounding him.
Seconds after McCourt drained a 39-yard game-winning field goal to upset No. 6 Wisconsin Saturday at Memorial Stadium, offensive lineman Alex Palczewski raced near midfield to find his kicker at the bottom of a dogpile, grabbed a hold of McCourt and picked him high above a sea of celebration from players and fans.
McCourt's kick gave Illinois (3-4) a 24-23 win over the Badgers for the first win over a ranked opponent since 2011, and Wisconsin was the highest-ranked team the Illini had defeated since 2007 when Illinois beat then-No. 1 Ohio State.
“I just saw a bunch of happy people," McCourt said. "It was something unbelievable. Honestly, it sounds weird, but I had a little bit of déjà vu when I was up there. It was something I thought I saw before. I've dreamed about this for as long as I can remember.
"It was something I’ve always wanted. I knew this opportunity would come eventually. It’s every kicker’s dream. For it to be against a nationally ranked team like Wisconsin just adds the cherry."
McCourt figures he might have passed out at the bottom of the pile. Teammate Jake Cerny told his kicker that "he saw his eyes roll back in his head." McCourt insisted that the missed 40-yard field goal in the first quarter wasn't on his mind, and that he tried to keep the same habit he would have had for an extra point. But this was bigger, and it was redemption.
“To miss one early, but then you get a chance at the end, of course, to win it like that, you dream of kicking that game-winning field goal," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said.
The win was monumental for Illinois, and the biggest of Smith's four-year tenure in Champaign. It couldn't have come at a better time. The Illini were in the middle for a four-game losing streak that included a tough home loss to Eastern Michigan, a blown 14-point lead against Nebraska, a lopsided loss to Minnesota and a loss to Michigan in which Illinois trailed by just three points in the fourth quarter.
There have been signs, and moments of flashes that showed the team's potential, but never a full game. Never against an opponent like the No. 6-ranked team in all of college football.
Smith was elated and burst onto the field with his arms raised high in the air and a smile that burst through his grizzly white beard.
“This is our signature win," Smith said. "We’ve needed a signature win. Against the No. 6 team in the country, we played them toe-to-toe. We saw so much fight. We learned an awful lot about ourselves. We’re pumped up. One of the best wins we can possibly have at this stage in our program.
“All the things we’ve gone through, losing tough games the way we’ve had, injuries, all the above of things that have happened, things that have gone against us, to step up this way and for the momentum to change, a lot of things had to happen to go our way and they did."
McCourt's kick was set up by an interception from Tony Adams to give Illinois the ball back with 2 minutes, 32 seconds left on its own 47-yard line. Adams saw the formation and knew it was his chance to redeem himself. Wisconsin (6-1) had been burning Adams on that very play all day. He knew he had to make his move. He hid behind an offensive player and hopped up to pick Badgers' quarterback Jack Coan off. Illinois moved 26 yards to set up McCourt's field goal.
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Adams' interception was the cherry on top of a strong performance from a defense that has been much-maligned for the gaudy numbers and point totals its allowed this year and in most of Smith's tenure.
“You know that was a heck of a pick," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "Obviously, you would like to have that one back. We didn’t make enough of those plays in different areas to win the game."
The Illini held Heisman-hopeful Jonathan Taylor in check, for as well as one can keep him in check. He ran for 132 yards and scored a touchdown, but had a long run of 22 yards. He entered the game averaging 137.5 rushing yards with 14 rushing touchdowns in tow.
Illinois linebacker Dele Harding led the team with 16 tackles and had a tackle for a loss. He, unlike Palczewski and most of his teammates, didn't quite make it to the pile near midfield to celebrate. Instead he dropped to both knees on the sideline, covered his face with his hands and cried. He cried about how much this win means, about how much work his team has put in since their freshman year, about the lumps they've taken and about Bobby Roundtree, the injured defensive star.
It was too much. It all meant too much.
“We fought so hard from freshman year on up, this past summer and especially doing it for Bobby," Harding said. "I broke down, man."
Then there were the turnovers, the saving grace that kept Illinois in the game all day. Smith loves turnovers, he hangs his hat on them. Jake Hansen delivered those in droves. He forced a pair of fumbles, giving him seven on the year.
When Hansen walked down the steps into the foyer of the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center, still in his gray jersey with an unlit cigar in his hand, he shouted a reminder that Illinois was 31-point underdogs.
Two-and-a-half hours after McCourt's kick flew thew the upright in the north end zone, the scoreboards in Memorial Stadium never changed.
"Illinois 24. Wisconsin 23."
It was real, and it was a momentum-shifting win for a team that desperately needed it.
“It’s so fulfilling," Hansen said. "It just gives you that confidence going forward. It lets you know that it doesn’t matter if it’s a ranked opponent. We can play with anyone."