Indiana trailed 17-16 to Illinois for most of the second half of its season-opening contest in Bloomington Friday night, and several times, the Hoosiers were given chances to regain the lead. Everything from whiffed punts, turnovers and goal-line stands on fourth down provided the Hoosiers opportunities to take advantage, but the team failed to do so.
Late in the 4th quarter, an Illini field goal put the visitors ahead 20-16 with just 2:16 to play in the game, leaving one last chance for the Hoosiers to make a statement and clinch a crucial opening night victory.
With no timeouts and 75 yards of turf between Indiana and its first Big Ten win in 636 days, Indiana capitalized in a way it had not all night with a methodical and clinical closing drive, led by quarterback Connor Bazelak and capped off by a one-yard touchdown rush by running back Shaun Shivers to clinch the victory.
Bazelak is no stranger to game-winning drives – the Missouri transfer led the Tigers to a thrilling 50-48 win over rival Arkansas in 2020, setting up a 32-yard field goal after trailing by one with 43 seconds remaining on a night that just so happened to be the same as that of IU’s most recent Big Ten win prior to Friday.
The signal caller’s experience proved pivotal in the game’s closing moments, as he completed 7 of 10 passes for 70 yards and ran it once for four yards on the final drive. With everything on the line, the quarterback was cool under pressure and willed his team to victory.
“I’m just trying to keep everyone calm, that’s our offense,” Bazelak said. “The whole game we’re running the two-minute, so we didn’t have to do anything special. We knew we had zero timeouts, but when you get in a rhythm with this offense, things really start to roll.”
On the Hoosiers’ final drive, the offense clicked in a way that it had not for the entire second half. Prior to the 2:16 mark in the fourth quarter, Indiana had just 70 total yards in the half. On its closing drive, IU marched 75 yards down the field in just 1:53.
In spite of all of its offensive struggles, Indiana had a chance to win the game late, and head coach Tom Allen had full confidence in his team, and his new starting quarterback, to get the job done when it mattered most.
“I can’t put enough words to how important this game was and how important it was to find a way to win, to go 80 yards with no timeouts,” Allen said. “Connor Bazelak was awesome, threw for 330. It’s only going to get better, it’s going to get a lot, lot better.”
While Bazelak was responsible for 74 of the 75 yards it took for Indiana to win the game, the final yard, punched in by Shivers, was the play that gave the Hoosiers the lead for good.
Shivers, who had the wind knocked out of him on IU’s first offensive play from scrimmage after a hard hit by Illini defender Devon Witherspoon, said he had to “bounce back” for the rest of the game. But with one yard between victory and defeat, the running back wanted the ball in his hands.
“I saw the signal, I got lined up, and I’m not gonna lie, I told Connor [Bazelak] ‘Connor, give it to me, I got it, I see it, I got it, give it to me, I’m gonna score,’” Shivers said. “He gave it to me and I scored, It was a good moment.”
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