CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Did Indiana just find its starting quarterback?
Are the Hoosiers braced for a defensive finish?
Suddenly everything seems possible in the aftermath of IU's 31-17 victory at Illinois that snapped an 11-game Big Ten losing streak, ended a five-game overall losing streak this season and set up all sorts of last-month possibilities.
The Hoosiers are 3-5 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten to Illinois' 2-6 and 0-4.
First, consider quarterback Nate Sudfeld, a talented freshman whose coming-of-age performance might have jumped him ahead of sophomore Cam Coffman, although coach Kevin Wilson wasn't ready to certify that.
“For the most part Nate did OK,” Wilson said. “I don't know if he did that much better (than Coffman). It was just the dynamics of the game today. They both have to get better and we have to keep pushing them.”
Coffman played the game's first three series and led IU to a touchdown while completing 4-of-7 passes for 64 yards. But his last pass was intercepted and that was enough for Sudfeld to get his most extended playing opportunity of the season. He played the rest of the way and finished 10-for-15 for 107 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
For the season Coffman has played in seven games and completed 134-of-216 passes for 1,384 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Sudfeld has played in five games and gone 41-for-65 for 541 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Cam has been pretty good at taking care of the ball and that's got to be our deal every week,” Wilson said. “We think they're both about the same. Cam's a little bit more experienced. But you don't want a guy making the same mistake he's done before.”
Sudfeld was set to be redshirted this season before starting quarterback Tre Roberson's broken leg ended his season and forced Sudfeld into the playing mix. He'd come in for Coffman before, but never so early (with two minutes left in the first quarter).
“I was prepared,” he said. “The coaches tell me to be ready at all times. I was a little surprised I was going in (so early).
“I wanted to do what I do in practice. Guys were making good plays for me. They make it easy for me. The coaches dial up great plays. It's easier than it looks.”
When Sudfeld wasn't thriving, the much-maligned defense was. It totaled a season-high seven sacks, impressive considering it entered the game with just 13.
“We've been working on our pass rush since January,” defensive tackle Adam Replogle said.” We're finally seeing it come along.”
Tailback Stephen Houston had three touchdowns (two rushing) and 71 rushing yards. He has scored a touchdown in nine straight games.
Wilson had never won a Big Ten game as the Hoosier coach, but that ended with a defense that finally delivered at the end. IU held Illinois to just three second half points and forced two fumbles.
The Hoosiers (3-5 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten) hadn't won a conference game since beating Purdue at the end of the 2010 season in then coach Bill Lynch's final game.
“We're coming together as one,” receiver Cody Latimer said. “If we can keep doing this, there will be no stopping us.”
Illinois was led by tailback Donovonn Young's 124 rushing yards. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was 17-for-27 for 176 yards and a touchdown. That wasn't enough to prevent a Homecoming loss.
“I'm not used to being involved in losses during Homecoming,” coach Tim Beckman said. “Give credit to Indiana. They didn't have the penalties and they didn't turn the ball over. We did those things and it cost us.”
Wilson didn't waste time in making a quarterback change. IU had four first quarter possessions. Coffman ran the first three that included a TD drive. But after an interception, Wilson switched to Sudfeld. The freshman played the rest of the game.
Illinois ripped through IU's defense on the game-opening drive, getting the final two yards on a Eddie Viliunas 2-yard catch from Scheelhaase for a 7-0 lead. IU came right back with Stephen Houston's 2-yard TD run to make it 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
Scheelhaase's 5-yard touchdown run made it 14-7 three minutes into the second half.
The Hoosiers were apparently stopped on their next possession when Sudfeld was sacked on third down. But the Illini hit him late out of bounds. That gave IU a first down. Sudfeld then hit receiver Cody Latimer with a 48-yard pass to set up Houston's 10-yard TD catch and a 14-14 tie.
Safety Greg Heban recovered a fumbled punt to set up the Hoosiers' final touchdown of the first half, a 10-yard scoring pass from Sudfeld to Houston for a 21-14 halftime lead.
Replogle forced a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Brian Williams to set up Mitch Ewald's 28-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
Illinois kicker Taylor Zalewski's 20-yard field goal made it 24-17 with less two minutes left in the third quarter.
After doing little in the second half, the Hoosiers finally got the running game going with eight minutes left. That set up Sudfeld's 17-yard touchdown pass to Shane Wynn to make it 31-17 with 5:48 left.
That left it up to the defense, which finally delivered.
“It's good to get a win,” Wilson said. “The guys played hard. I don't know if we played well, but the defense rallied up and played well down the stretch.”