Some seven minutes still remained in the 'Cats' Saturday dismissal of Illinois when Stacy Fitzgerald, Pat Fitzgerald's wife, prepared a chili dog and exited her box high above Ryan Field. Unfolding below her was a rarity for a group nicknamed the Cardiac 'Cats, who routinely find themselves involved in tension-filled cliff hangers, and now she was going to help celebrate a rout, which her husband's staff has come to call "hot dog games." She would celebrate it by going to that box holding the 'Cat coaches and delivering that chili dog to defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, who was free to relax as this affair meandered toward its end.
Later, after he had descended from his perch and jogged out to the field, Brown was stopped and asked about the moment. He smiled broadly and then he said, "Yeah, I had a little snack."
Bo Cisek, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior best known as the protector on the punt team, got two carries at running back. He fumbled once and netted a negative three yards. Redshirt freshman Doug Diedrick, a reserve superback, got three carries at running back. He picked up a dozen yards. Redshirt freshman Zack Oliver, the third quarterback on the depth chart, entered the game with more than eight minutes remaining, and five minutes later he was relieved by P.J. Carollo, a walk-on. "We tried to get everybody in," Pat Fitzgerald would later say. "I don't think we accomplished that. It drives me crazy at the end of games (since) you try and make sure everybody plays in games like that. But that's a very, very good problem."
Those are some other snapshots that help explain just how thoroughly the 'Cats manhandled their in-state rival on Senior Day.
When it ended, when the 'Cats finally finished off their 50-14 demolition of the Illini, they shook their opponents' hands, paid them the proper courtesies, gathered together as a team near midfield, and then burst toward the stands and the band with the Land Of Lincoln Trophy in tow. Quarterback Kain Colter had it as the fight song started and here he tried to move it up-and-down in rhythm with the song. "But that trophy's real heavy," he later said with a smile. "I didn't think it was going to be that heavy and I tried to pick it up, I was trying to do it with the fight song. But it was like a workout, so I gave it to the offensive linemen."
Then, that song over, there were Colter and corner Demetrius Dugar and safety Davion Fleming and corner Nick VanHoose and receiver Cameron Dickerson and defensive linemen Chance Carter dancing to music only they could here. "Beef It Up" was the name of the dance they were doing.
That was how Saturday closed, and all the revelry had been well-earned. But early on, at this game's start, there had been a moment of pause. This came on just its third play when, on third-and-12 from his own 20, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase rolled right and threw a little dump pass to Darius Millines. He caught the ball well short of the first down marker, but here VanHoose missed a tackle and safety Ibraheim Campbell missed a tackle and Millines picked up the real estate he needed.
Now the Illini drove down the field, just swept down the field, and with just over six minutes gone, they were up a touchdown. "As a team, we knew we'd get a great shot out of them early," Fitzgerald later said. "Obviously, it's been a long year for them. But in a rivalry game, you get a great shot. And we didn't execute very well. The way we tackled early was pathetic, and it gave them some opportunities to make plays."
Quickly, here is what followed through this one's first half. Tony Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 51 yards and the 'Cats got a 44-yard field goal from Jeff Budzien. C.J. Bryant blew up Illini kick returner Justin Green, Dickerson recovered his fumble and Colter scored two plays later. The Illini punted, Trevor Siemian threw an interception and then, in a moment that captured the utter ineptness of the Illini this day, David Nwabuisi picked off Scheelhaase in front of the Illini bench and started rumbling toward the end zone. An official rumbled with him, but there in his path was Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, whom the official sent sprawling before he dropped his yellow flag and penalized Beckman for sideline interference. Now, on the first play of the second quarter, Colter dropped and threw toward the back of the end zone. "I won't lie. It was intended for CJ (Christian Jones)," he later said. "I don't know where Tony (Jones) came from (to make the catch). It definitely wasn't in the play call. It surprised me, but when I saw the referee put his hands up, I was happy. I'll take it."
The Illini, down 10, responded with a touchdown drive of their own, but right here the 'Cats flexed and exhibited the steel that has so characterized them this season. They did that by pounding the Illini, running the ball 11 straight times and driving 79 yards for the touchdown that put them back up 10. "When you control the line of scrimmage, you have a chance to win a lot of football games," Fitzgerald later said.
"We're a spread team offense," said Venric Mark, who netted 127 rushing yards this day. "But we're also a firm believer that the game is won in the trenches. And we knew that we had to run the ball."
Now the Illini tried to run the ball, but they couldn't and they punted, and here the 'Cats drove one more time, getting another Budzien field goal to lead by 13 as they went to their locker room. Still, later, Fitzgerald would say, "We talked at halftime, we felt that was the worst half of football we'd played in a month and that the only way it was going to get fixed is if we go out there and do something about it. I think our team went out there in the second half and dominated the way we should have dominated from the start."
"We definitely stepped it up in the second half," said defensive end Quentin Williams. "We had a different attitude, a different swagger."
The 'Cats, after receiving the second half kickoff, rushed nine times, threw twice, drove 75 yards, scored, went up 20 and effectively ended this game. Never again would the Illini sniff the end zone, and here the 'Cats dominance was total. Through these 30 minutes, they held the ball for 22:30; Illinois, for just 7:30. Through these 30 minutes, they ran 43 plays; Illinois, just 17. Through these 30 minutes, they would get 15 first downs; Illinois, just four. Through these 30 minutes, they would roll up 242 yards; Illinois, just 37.
The 'Cats would never punt. ("I'm a big fan of that. That's a pretty good deal," Fitzgerald would later say with a smile.) The 'Cats six touchdowns would come from six different players, one of whom was offensive lineman Paul Jorgensen. (He lined up at tackle on the play and was ignored by the Illini even though he was an eligible receiver in the set.) The 'Cats even got a late safety when redshirt freshman Max Chapman downed Illini running back Dami Ayoola in the end zone. "We've got a motto. 'Everybody eats,'" Colter would say when asked about this distribution of wealth. "Everybody wants a taste of the end zone and to get in on plays."
Later, even in the wake of this rout over his team's in-state rival, Fitzgerald said this. "In no way, shape or form are we where we want to be," he said. "Our expectations are to be the number one graduation rate in the country and win Big Ten championships and to compete for a national championship. We're not quite there yet. That's what we're building and working toward. Those are the things that drive me and now we have the opportunity to be a champion. Wherever the bowl destination is, we do have a chance to be a champion and we'll focus on that here as we move forward."
These were not unfamiliar goals to those familiar with the 'Cat program. But here, in the interview room, was a lady who had not heard them before, and now -- with some amazement -- she asked if he really believed he could field a team capable of contending for the national title.
"Absolutely. I believe so," Pat Fitzgerald finally said. "We're a tipped ball away, we're a fourth quarter away, and we're another fourth quarter away from being in the conversation. So absolutely. Now talk is cheap. It's all about attitude and how much you're willing to invest, and our first opportunity to be champion is this upcoming bowl game. That'll be the death of this year's team and the birth of next year's. It'll happen simultaneously.
"I'm thankful for our seniors and what they've done and what they've accomplished. But we talked about putting an exclamation point on their careers. We've kind of put the line down. Now we've got to put the dot on the exclamation point. We're going to play a great team. You guys aren't going to give us a chance. We're cool with that. That's just the way it goes. We're going to play on the road, I assume in Florida somewhere. We'll play an SEC team in their backyard, be underdogs by like 75 points. Nothing new in the bowl season for us. But I promise you this. Our guys'll be fired up for it. They'll be excited for it."