CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Bret Bielema didn't see the play. The referees didn't, either.
So when outside linebacker Seth Coleman, who was inserted into the starting lineup Friday against Maryland, rushed over and told Bielema that he not only forced a fumble but recovered it, Bielema had a crucial decision to make.
Challenge the play and risk losing a timeout or back his player and potentially swing the momentum of the game?
“All I want to know is the truth,” Bielema said Friday. “I want to know the honesty of the moment. You see a lot of kids get caught up in the moment. Seth looked right at me and he was like, ‘Coach, that’s out. That’s out.’ That’s when I ran up to the official and obviously challenged the play. They were getting ready to snap the ball and they weren’t going to stop it."
Bielema's gamble paid off.
After officials reviewed a third-quarter run by Maryland's Peny Boone, it was clear that Coleman — a 6-foot-5, 235-pound redshirt freshman — indeed stripped the running back of the ball and gained possession of it.
"Johnny (Newton) held him up, so I knew, I knew he was still up," Coleman said Friday. "I was already in there, I saw (Newton) was in there already, so I just came down with (the ball)."
It was a pivotal play in a tie game, though the elation was short-lived as Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters threw an interception on the very next play. The Illini went on to lose 20-17 on a last-second field goal, resulting in a somber atmosphere among players following such a gut-wrenching defeat.
However, just as postgame interviews were wrapping up, Coleman was asked about arguably the best play of his college career and the energy it brought to Memorial Stadium.
His eyes lit up with excitement.
As both teams awaited a decision from referees on the eventual turnover call, Illinois' sideline looked as if it were having a party with players dancing around to Fast Life Yungstaz' "Swag Surfin.'" The bass of the popular hip-hop song, which also has a choreographed dance, could be felt all the way up in the press box.
"It was electric, you know what I mean?" Coleman said, smiling. "It was crazy. Everybody, the fans, everything, it was a great time."
He made sure to get in on the action, too.
"Yeah, definitely," Coleman said, moving his body from side to side. "I did a little Swag and Surf with it."
Despite the loss, Coleman had a career night. He totaled six tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup.
Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said Coleman had been building toward Friday's breakout performance for weeks, and when he replaced Isaiah Gay as a starter, he took full advantage.
"I thought Seth grew up on Friday night. It was good to see," Walters said Monday. "It was good to feel it on the sidelines. You could feel the energy on the sidelines when he was making plays, and I'm looking forward to his growth throughout the season."
Fifth-year defensive lineman Jamal Woods said he wasn't surprised by Coleman's memorable night because he's witnessed his dedication firsthand for the last three years. Friday's forced and recovered fumble, both the first of Coleman's college career, were the culmination of that.
"I know Seth’s had it since he got up here,” Woods said. “It was his time to shine. They put him on the field, and he did the defense joy. I’m happy they gave him the opportunity and he made the best out of it.”
Bielema said he finished Sunday's film review with two plays, true freshman running back Josh McCray's 38-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown run in the third quarter and Coleman's forced and recovered fumble 27 seconds later. Bielema called both plays "sparks to something special," and while he and thousands of others watched McCray's first college touchdown unfold in real time, it was the complete opposite for Coleman's turnover.
Bielema couldn't use his own eyes to assess what was happening. He relied on Coleman's instead and believes it strengthened the bond of the entire program.
"The only person who knew that he stripped the ball on that play was Seth," Bielema said Monday. " ... So when I went down to initiate that call with the official, he just looked at me, and I'm like, 'That ball is out. If you're not going to review it, I want to call a timeout and challenge it.' ... A lot of times as head coaches you have players that want to say they got an interception or they caught it or they didn't catch it and the coach will end up burning an unused or unnecessary challenge because it never really happened.
"So I really have emphasized to our guys going into fall camp that, 'We're going to teach some things along the way (about being truthful in the heat of the game), and I don't know when it's going to pop up, but when it pops up you'll know,' and that was it. That was the moment and I wanted to make sure our whole team understood that."
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