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Asmussen | Miracle in Minnesota keeps hope alive

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MINNEAPOLIS — Who did you have on your list of potential Illinois heroes going into Saturday's game at Minnesota.

Johnny Newton? Of course. Luke Altmyer? Absolutely. Kaden Feagin? You bet. John Paddock? Doubt it.

But there he was, the grandson of Illini great John Wright Sr., stepping up when his time came and his team needed him most.

The Ball State transfer replaced banged-up Altmyer in the closing minute and threw an improbable touchdown pass to Isaiah Williams, giving his team a 27-26 road victory.

Paddock and Williams put Illinois firmly in bowl contention with its fourth victory. The Illini (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) need two more wins in its final three but have winnable home games against Indiana (3-6, 1-5) and Northwestern (4-5, 2-4) wedged around a trip to offense-less Iowa (7-2, 4-2).

Frankly, I won't be a bit surprised if the team sweeps all three and moves up the Big Ten bowl chart.

Early in the week, I tried to call bowl officials to ask about the Illini and nobody got back to me. They will now, especially with the team pointed in a bowl-eligible direction after stunning P.J. Fleck and the Gophers (5-4, 3-3).

Why does it matter? What's the big deal about an extra game?

Well, it hasn't happened much at Illinois the past four or five decades and the back-to-back trips have been even more scarce.

The goal for Illinois coach Bret Bielema is to build a Big Ten contender. That should be the goal. Those extra bowl practices will be huge. And so will the exposure of playing in prime time in one of the Big Ten's bowl games.

The coach and his staff can communicate with prospects "Check us out in Nashville/Phoenix/Detroit. Hope you can be with us next year in our third bowl in a row." Stuff like that.

And the current players don't want their season to end in late November. A bowl bid is the only way to keep going.

"It would mean everything," said defensive end Keith Randolph Jr., who returned to the field after missing multiple games with a sprained ankle and finished with a team-high six tackles. "The first half of our season didn't go how we wanted it to be. We've got to do what we can do to get the wins."

Newton agrees.

"We look forward to our November games," said Newton, who missed the first half of Saturday's win while serving out a suspension for a targeting foul in the Wisconsin loss. "That will make or break your season. These last few games are definitely important to us and mean a lot."

Win three more, plus the bowl, and Illinois can match last season's eight wins.

"We have done so much growth in the last three or four games," Bielema said. "I think our guys feel where they are starting to get and we can only go up."

Magical moment

And the transfer portal should be buzzing about Paddock. The Cardinals starter in 2022 essentially came home to play in front of family and friends. He didn't technically grow up in C-U, but he is a legacy and that makes him an unofficial townie.

Now, he has the whopper of all stories to tell his grandkids. About the time he came off the bench cold in Minnesota and broke Fleck's heart.

Spoiling the Big Ten West title hopes of an opponent was only a bonus, not the intent.

"I'm just happy we won the game," Paddock said.

Paddock had thrown just 23 passes going into Saturday for 137 yards. He hit all three passes for 85 yards and the winning score.

Bielema had told him to stay ready and clearly he followed orders.

"Earlier this year, when he got in a game and it was kind of out of control and wasn't a great situation to come into, I said, 'Hey, what we just learned when your moment comes, you're going to be that much more prepared,'" Bielema said. "That's exactly what happened there. I didn't think it was going to be fourth-and-(11) and backed up in enemy territory with no timeouts and under a minute That's John to a T."

Bielema raves about Paddock's consistency and dedication to the game.

"His mom and dad have raised a really competitive kid," Bielema said.

Instant impact

Newton played as most expected, recording his sack early in the second half.

"I had a feeling he'd make a big impact as soon as he got in there," Bielema said. "That's classic Johnny Newton. The part that's funny for me to watch is you see these quarterbacks who have obviously seen him on film, when he gets around he literally has the ability to beat that guard or that tackle and he can close. His burst, his speed to get a quarterback is the part that I think the NFL really sees as him being different. He has something that is very unique to a player of that size."

Newton finished with three tackles and a ton of attention from the Minnesota offensive line.

"If you were there, you saw it,"Bielema said. "Johnny's a very special player."

The best news for Bielema and the Illini: Newton will be available to play the entire game against Indiana.

Word is he gets stronger as the game goes on.