Saturday, October 19, 2019

Green: The People’s McCourt provided an unforgettable homecoming in Champaign

Photo Credit: Geno Green

By: Geno Green
Twitter: @TheGenoGreen

Adversity can either make or break you. 

For Illinois Fighting Illini coach Lovie Smith, adversity has been the norm in three-plus seasons in Champaign with one disappointing loss after another, which totaled to an 11-31 overall record going into Saturday’s game against big, bad No. 6 Wisconsin on homecoming weekend at Memorial Stadium.

The fans slowly started to no longer believe that change could happen, but on a brisk and steady fall afternoon, hope would be restored— for at least a week thanks to an unlikely hero.

Placekicker James McCourt will forever be etched in Illini lore after converting a 39-yard field goal as time expired to give their team and fan base hope in a 24-23 win over the Badgers.

While McCourt’s field goal, which led him to be on the bottom of the pile of an enormous celebration, one must look back to the second quarter at the 3:13 mark. The Illini looked to get on the board after being in prime field position at the Badgers’ 40-yard line off a short punt and managed to move 18 yards on the drive. McCourt looked to be in a solid spot to convert from 40 yards out, but failed as the kick went wide right.

Even with the failed conversion, McCourt knows the game would have set a different tone and likely not playing a critical role in the final outcome.

“Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about that kick,” McCourt said. “Obviously, I wanted that back. I can’t put it into words because having that kick in the first quarter would have been nice and would have made for a different game.”

Down 7-0 at the 3:13 mark in the second quarter, the constant dread of another inevitable loss against a ranked opponent set in. Illinois fans had every right to fear for the worse given it had been 12 seasons since it last beat a top 25 team, which came on Nov. 10, 2007 at top-ranked Ohio State.

McCourt’s luck went from bad to worse as he kicked the football out of bounds after Illinois scored a touchdown on its previous drive, which gave Wisconsin possession and a field goal make to go up 13-7 at halftime. Things started to look bleak with Illinois’ kicking game and even some fans wanting backup kicker Caleb Griffin to warm up.

While the Illini were able to climb back into the game in the second half after being down 20-7 to the Badgers, McCourt would only be able to convert extra point attempts off of touchdowns. With Wisconsin looking to be in full control of the game at 23-21 and a little under three minutes left in regulation, quarterback Jack Coan threw an interception to Tony Adams and put Illinois in quality field position at its own 47-yard line— which put McCourt in a possible position to avenge the earlier miss for all of the marbles.

Illinois worked the posession as time started to grate away like parmesan cheese and would hit the spot into McCourt’s range at the Wisconsin 23-yard line with 28 seconds left.

A couple of yards and 24 seconds later, the spotlight would be back on McCourt as 39 yards stood in between disappointment and the thrill of victory. Once the kick aligned right down the middle through the goal posts, the inevitable tension of failure turned into Illinois’ fans “Miracle On Ice” moment as fans showered the field and the players coming after McCourt like a 12-ounce can of White Claw hard seltzer.

While the raw emotion took over for some of the Illini players, coaching staff and athletic director Josh Whitman, McCourt would be overcome by the moment, but not by choice as numerous teammates piled on top of him, which left the placekicker gasping for oxygen for a brief moment.

“Honestly, I think going through my head was wanting some oxygen, because I was passed out on the bottom of the pile supposedly,” McCourt said. “[Offensive Lineman] Jake Cerny said that my eyes were rolled back to my head, so I got lifted up and thought I woke up from a dream. The scene was unbelievable and I could not describe it.”

The nightmare morphed into a dream for McCourt as he is the talk of the college football nation and for Illinois, it can bask in all of the glory on a homecoming weekend unlike any other.