A Fighting Illini rally fell short Friday night as Illinois fell to Fresno State 25-23, leaving Illinois with a .500 record on the season. Illinois will still make it to a bowl game, although they fell short of their first winning season since 2007.
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Ryan Colburn threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns to help Fresno State beat Illinois 25-23 on Friday night to end the regular season the way it started, with a home victory over a team from a major conference.
The Bulldogs (8-4) overcame a 318-yard rushing night from the Illini (6-6) to earn their 17th win since 2000 against a team from a BCS conference to tie Utah for the most by any school from a non-automatic qualifying conference. Fresno State also beat Cincinnati of the Big East in the season opener.
Nathan Scheelhaase ran for 131 yards and a touchdown and also throw a TD pass, and Mikel Leshoure added 142 yards rushing and a touchdown for the Illini, who ended the regular season by losing three of four games.
The Bulldogs improved to 3-6 against Big Ten teams, including last year’s 53-52 win at Illinois. This game wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that contest, which ended when 350-pound offensive lineman Devan Cunningham caught a deflected pass and made his way into the end zone for the winning 2-point conversion with 2 seconds left.
The Illini cut a 16-point first-quarter deficit to 19-17 after when they scored on the opening drive of the second half. Scheelhaase expertly moved Illinois 92 yards in 17 plays, capping with an off-balance 18-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins.
The Bulldogs responded with a touchdown drive of their own, with Colburn throwing a 21-yarder to Rashad Evans. Coach Pat Hill opted to go for a 2-point conversion that failed and Fresno State’s lead was only 25-17.
The decision didn’t backfire when Fresno State stopped Illinois 2-point try after Scheelhaase’s 21-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter cut the lead to 25-23.
Fresno State stopped Illinois on its net drive and then was able to kill more than 9 minutes to nearly run out the clock with help from a key penalty.
Tavon Wilson was called for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless Jamel Hamler on third-and-13 from the 7. Colburn then threw a 15-yard pass to Hamler on third-and-10 and A.J. Ellis barely converted a fourth-and-1 run from the Bulldogs 46 with 3:17 to go. Illinois finally got the ball back at its 9 with 18 seconds left but could not do anything from there.
While the Bulldogs had impressive bookend wins, the middle portion of the season didn’t go quite as well. They lost at Mississippi and then fell to the three top teams in the WAC: Boise State, Nevada and Hawaii. Fresno State will be going to a bowl for the fourth straight season, with the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, the most likely destination.
The Illini also are going to a bowl for the first time in three seasons, with the Texas Bowl being their possible destination after a rough end to the regular season.
Playing without injured leading rusher Robbie Rouse, Fresno State relied heavily on Colburn and the passing game. That got the Bulldogs off to a fast start with Colburn throwing a 27-yard TD screen pass to A.J. Ellis on the first drive and then exploiting a blown coverage for a 78-yarder to Jalen Saunders on the first play of the second possession to make it 13-0.
Leshoure’s 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter helped the Illini cut the deficit to 19-10. But Illinois was unable to capitalize on a fumble by Tracy Slocum in Fresno State territory and Derek Dimke then was short on a 49-yard field goal in the final minute of the half.
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