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McCourt lifts Illini over No. 6 Badgers, then lifted on teammates' shoulders

Illinois kicker James McCourt is lifted on the shoulders of his teammates following the game-winning kick in a 24-23 upset over No. 6 Wisconsin.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- James McCourt has trouble remembering what happened immediately after he hit what is easily the biggest scoring play of the Lovie Smith era at Illinois.

Following a game-winning, 39-yard field goal as time expired to complete the biggest upset of the 2019 college football season, the junior kicker did what any normal human being would do.

He passed out after all the excitement.

“So I made the kick and saw (Illinois tight end) Griffin Palmer and gave him a big hug and our helmets got stuck together and I fell (to the ground),” McCourt said. “There must have been 10 or so bodies to stack vertically on top of me and all I remember seeing is darkness.”

By the time McCourt finally came to emotionally, physically and mentally, he was being lifted up on the shoulders of teammates as fans rushed the Memorial Stadium field.

For McCourt, when asked what he saw at the moment he was lifted on the shoulders of his teammates, it was a one-word answer that hadn't been seen much at Illinois.

"I think I just saw happiness," McCourt said. "I've had 70-year-old Illinois fans already tell him how much this win meant to them."

And if he struggles to remember that, there’s video and photographic evidence that will likely last a lifetime for the kicker originally born in Dublin, Ireland.

“I think there’s a video of me getting lifted up and I must be thinking ‘what am I doing here?” McCourt said.

McCourt’s kick, which followed an improbable fourth-quarter interception, led the Fighting Illini to pull off a seemingly unbelievable 24-23 come-from-behind win over No. 6 Wisconsin. Illinois (3-4, 1-3 in Big Ten) was a 31-point home underdog when it arrived at the stadium Saturday and never had the lead until McCourt’s winning kick. The kick turned what was easily the most competitive 60 minutes of football any opponent had played this season against Wisconsin into the biggest win of this Illinois program's history in over a decade.

“This is our signature win,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. “We have needed a signature win. Against the number 6 team in the country, we played them toe to toe. We saw so much fight and we learned a lot about our guys. One of the best wins you could possibly have.”

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Wisconsin (6-1, 3-1), which had won nine straight over the Illini heading into Saturday's game, had multiple chances to escape Champaign with a road game but never managed to close out the heavily overlooked underdog. 

The Illinois run defense, which had been abused each of the last three times they’d stepped on the field, held Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor relatively in check for most of the afternoon. While the Heisman Trophy candidate found the end zone early in the second half and topped the century mark for rushing yards, Taylor wasn’t even on the field for most of Wisconsin’s final drive that ended in a disastrous interception from quarterback Jack Coan into the arms of defensive back Tony Adams.

For an Illinois program starving for something to point to for belief after losing 26 of its 30 Big Ten Conference games in Smith’s four-year tenure, the Illini made sure the 2019 Homecoming game was something to remember.

“I have been talking about how this team needs to overcome a certain amount of inertia and that was it right there,” Illinois receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe said. “It gives the momentum we needed and the belief just came as a result and because of that, we were able to finish the game. It was huge.”

Illinois got a momentum jolt from the opening kickoff as its starting quarterback returned from injury. The arrival of Brandon Peters allowed for the Illini offense to hit three scoring plays of 29 yards or more against an aggressive Badgers defense.

Peters's return from concussion symptoms was a hot and cold afternoon where the graduate transfer found Danny Navarro for a 48-yard touchdown strike for the Illini’s first points. Peters was constantly manhandled by an aggressive Wisconsin blitz scheme that ended with four sacks and never let the Michigan transfer get through his progressions in a timely manner. Peters nearly hit another long sideline throw for a score as he connected with Imatorbhebhe for what appeared to be a 73-yard touchdown. However, the apparent 14-13 lead for the Illini was erased due to center Doug Kramer being flagged for being too far downfield on the play.

The Wisconsin defense, which came into this game leading all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in practically every statistical category, held the Illini to just 188 total yards and 70 rushing yards through the first three quarters of play. In the final four drives, Illinois had 207 of its 315 total yards.

“Our last two drives ended in turnovers, it gives them a chance,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s always hard to win on the road and then you make it that much harder. Give Illinois credit. They beat us today and I’ve always had a ton of respect for Lovie and what their team is doing.”

Taylor, who got 21 yards on his first touch, was bottled up for most of the first half due to solid interior defensive line push by the Illini. However, Taylor found a groove following an early second-half turnover for a five-yard touchdown scamper to give the heavily-favored Badgers a two-score advantage. Taylor finished the afternoon with 132 yards on 28 carries and the touchdown. 

“I don’t know anybody at this level who’s fine with losing,” Taylor said. “It definitely hurts when you see that field goal goes through as time expires.”

With the improbable upset, the Illini can still salvage a postseason bowl game with a road trip to an injury-riddled Purdue squad next week for an 11 a.m. kickoff.