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Illini rally from 18-point deficit to beat Northwestern in thriller

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase top pushes through Northwestern defense score game-winning touchdown during second half an NCAA college football game

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, top, pushes through the Northwestern defense to score the game-winning touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 38-35. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Sept. 3 at Boston College W, 24-17

Sept. 10 Eastern Illinois W, 42-21

Sept. 17 at Army L, 21-17

Oct. 1 at Illinois 11 a.m.

Oct. 8 Michigan 6 p.m.

Oct. 15 at Iowa 6 p.m.

Oct. 22 Penn State 6 p.m.

Oct. 29 at Indiana 11 a.m.

Nov. 5 at Nebraska TBA

Nov. 12 Rice TBA

Nov. 19 Minnesota TBA

Nov. 26 Michigan State TBA

More college football coverage

Updated: January 23, 2012 3:28AM

CHAMPAIGN — After the game, while some of their teammates were pouring into the end-zone student section to celebrate, receiver Spencer Harris caught up with guard Jack Cornell.

‘‘Jack! Wow!’’ Harris said. Cornell smiled back, and they hugged.

‘‘Wow!’’ pretty much sums it up as No. 24 Illinois won a thrill ride of a game Saturday, beating Northwestern 38-35 on Nathan Scheelhaase’s one-yard sneak with 13 seconds left.

It was homecoming. It was a rivalry game for the Land of Lincoln Trophy. It was the Big Ten opener for both teams. And it was a game that had as many ups and downs as a 401(k) this year.

While the Illini celebrated, ‘‘Sweet Home, Chicago,’’ blared through Memorial Stadium, a tweak at Northwestern’s claim of being ‘‘Chicago’s Big Ten team.’’

‘‘For them to say they’re Chicago’s team, we definitely walked in with a chip on our shoulder,’’ said Scheelhaase, a native of Kansas City, Mo., sticking up for his Chicago teammates. ‘‘We wanted to get this win and establish ourselves as the state champions for all cities.’’

When the Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) went ahead 28-10 behind the sparkling return of Dan Persa, the Illini (5-0, 1-0) seemed on the brink of their first loss.

Then Scheelhaase and receivers A.J. Jenkins and Spencer Harris went to work.

Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 391 yards and three touchdowns. Jenkins pulled in a school-record 268 receiving yards — the third-most in a Big Ten game — on a career-high 12 catches. Harris added six catches for 63 yards.

‘‘It wasn’t the prettiest we’ve played this year,’’ coach Ron Zook said. ‘‘But sometimes those things happen. We didn’t run the ball like we have to run it. We didn’t a lot of things like we have to do them. But we did the things we had to do to win the game. As I told them at halftime, the score doesn’t count until it’s over.’’

Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better. And the Illini couldn’t have played it better.

Especially when Jason Ford, looking more like an Edsel, fumbled at the Illinois 36-yard line with 2:58 left. The Illini were nursing a 31-28 lead, and the defense had just huffed off the field.

When the Cats went ahead 35-31 with 1:15 left, Illinois fans were fretting. But not the Illini, who went 69 yards in six plays to regain the lead.

‘‘After the [Ford] fumble,’’ Scheelhaase said, ‘‘you’re like ‘Dang!’ It wasn’t a ‘Dang, that’s the game.’ It was ‘Dang, we could have ended it right there.’ But we kept believing. That’s the best thing we’ve been doing all year, just finding a way to win every game.’’

It was the third consecutive game in which Illinois, after trailing, had eked out a three-point win.

Northwestern stifled the Illini’s running game, which gained 118 yards after going for 519 against the Wildcats last year at Wrigley Field. But Northwestern was exposed against the deep pass.

In meetings Friday, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino had told Zook that the Illini would need to throw deep to win.

Just before Petrino went upstairs Saturday, Zook told him, ‘‘Don’t be cautious.’’

‘‘That gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Petrino said.

And it gave Illinois a wild victory.

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