CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—Illinois coach Ron Zook wanted Saturday’s visit by Louisiana-Lafayette to be a momentum builder.
He wanted his No. 24 Illini to string together crisp drives against their Sun Belt opponent, seal up gaps in their run defense and cut down on their mistakes before a bye week and the Big Ten opener on Sept. 27 at Penn State.
Zook got the exact opposite.
Illinois (2-1) strained, sputtered and, finally, squeaked past the Ragin’ Cajuns 20-17, sweating out the last six minutes of a game that wasn’t supposed to be close.
“The biggest thing is we need to play with more emotion,” Zook said. “Football is an emotional game and for some reason we’re not flying around like we’ve got to.
“You work too hard to not feel good when you win, and they don’t feel like this is a win.”
Illinois totaled 341 yards of offense against a defense that, in its only other game, gave up 633 yards to Southern Mississippi.
The Illini didn’t put the game away until Garrett Edwards recovered an onside kick attempt by Louisiana-Lafayette (0-2) with less than 20 seconds left.
Quarterback Michael Desormeaux brought the Ragin’ Cajuns to life in the last six minutes.
The left-handed senior ran for a 34-yard touchdown that made the score 17-10 with 5:30 left and, after an Illinois field goal with 1:40 left, hit tight end Erik Jones for an 11-yard touchdown that set up the onside kick.
“We came into a hostile environment to play, but our kids responded and gave our team a chance to win,” said Louisiana-Lafayette coach Rickey Bustle, who was an assistant to Zook at Virginia Tech in 1987. “That’s what we talk about every week, giving ourselves a chance to win.”
Desormeaux finished with a team-best 42 yards rushing on 14 carries and one touchdown. He completed 25 of 35 passes for 200 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
Before the late field goal, a 27-yarder by Matt Eller, Illinois hadn’t scored since Daniel Dufrene tucked the ball just inside a pylon for a touchdown with just under five minutes left in the second quarter.
Dufrene had a career-high 126 yards rushing on 19 carries and the touchdown catch from quarterback Juice Williams.
Williams entered Saturday averaging 92 yards rushing and 287 yards passing a game.
Against the Ragin’ Cajuns, he completed 13 of 25 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and an interception. He rushed 11 times for just 35 yards.
“My performance wasn’t good enough,” Williams said, echoing Zook’s assessment that the team lacked emotion. “A lot of times it’s a big play that sparks us, but we didn’t have that play today.”
Williams led the Illini on only one touchdown drive—11 plays and 96 yards — which ended with Dufrene’s 10-yard catch in the second quarter.
Williams’ top target, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, caught five passes for 74 yards.
Illini linebacker Brit Miller scored the game’s first touchdown, stripping the ball from Desormeaux with just over seven minutes left in the first quarter and running 26 yards untouched into the end zone for a 10-0 lead.
“We practice that every day in practice,” Miller said. “It’s the most boring, mundane part of practice but it paid off today”
The touchdown was Miller’s first since high school, and he celebrated with a forward roll into the end zone, a rare dose of Illini emotion and about the only celebrating Illinois did Saturday.
Louisiana-Lafayette was left with a lot of what-ifs.
What if Miller hadn’t won the backfield tussle with Desormeaux?
What if receiver Lance Kelley hadn’t fumbled at the Illinois 35 on the game’s opening drive when cornerback Vontae Davis crunched him to the turf. Kelley left the game with a broken left fibula and torn ligaments in his ankle.
And what if the Ragin’ Cajuns had turned Williams’ second-quarter gift interception to linebacker Grant Fleming into more than three plays and a punt?
Illinois was up just 10-3 when Williams tried to force the ball past Fleming to Arrelious Benn.
“It’s disappointing because at times we played really, really well,” Bustle said.
Louisiana-Lafayette running back Tyrell Fenroy carried the 14 times for 20 yards, enough to make him the school’s career rushing leader with 3,346 yards, nine better than previous record-holder Brian Mitchell.