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Rare Illinois victory filled with special moments

CHAMPAIGN — Sometimes, when you strip away your cynicism, check your negativity at the door and allow a few good hours to live and breathe on their own accord, it feels kind of … nice. Imagine that.

So let’s not — for the moment, anyway — look at Illinois’ 16-14 victory over Penn State in terms of what it wasn’t. No, it didn’t get the 5-6 Illini to bowl eligibility. No, it might not have saved coach Tim Beckman’s job. But phooey on that.

For once, let’s simply behold a rare Illini victory — the program’s third in the Big Ten in three seasons under Beckman — and say what really ought to be said. And that is: Bravo.

You know what Saturday was, despite the barren stands at Memorial Stadium and the absence of enthusiasm from the Illini fan base? It was a feel-good story. More accurately, it was a collection of feel-good stories that are worth sharing.

One belonged to kicker David Reisner, a former walk-on from Bartlett who had a single field goal in his career prior to this game. Well, now he has four of them. The last one came from 36 yards out to beat the Nittany Lions (6-5).

Prior to the winning kick, Reisner looked into the stands and found his father, David, a former youth football coach who’d pulled his boy off the soccer field in sixth grade and said, “Let’s go learn to kick a football.” A nod from the old man was all the reassurance Reisner needed. Reisner’s voice caught and his eyes welled up as he tried to describe what that wordless exchange had meant to him.

Likewise, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit began to crumble as he spoke of sharing what will be an ageless memory with quarterback Reilly O’Toole. The fifth-year senior from Wheaton has been a backup for his entire career at Illinois, but he got the call in the second quarter after Wes Lunt’s shaky start and led the Illini on four scoring drives. The last one covered 54 yards in 1:40.

“Being a backup for four years has been tough,” O’Toole said. “It’s emotionally and mentally draining.”

But to end it this way, with a winning drive on Senior Day? And to do it with Cubit — who has spent two years building O’Toole’s sometimes shaky confidence — in his ear?

“You can’t write [a script like] that,” said O’Toole, who called his relationship with Cubit “life-changing.”

Others had long-sought moments that will live on no matter what happens next weekend at Northwestern.

Senior running back Donovonn Young, who lost his starting job last season to Josh Ferguson and hasn’t been able to take it back, ran the ball like he hadn’t since 2012. Young gained only 64 yards, but they were angry yards, desperate yards.

The entire defense — often abused by opponents and onlookers alike — put on a performance few would’ve thought possible. The Illini, who’d given up nearly 500 yards per game coming in, held PSU to 265 yards.

“After all the negativity that has been put on us throughout the season …” began linebacker Mason Monheim, who never finished the sentence. He merely looked down at the floor and shook his head.

And, of course, there’s Beckman. Rarely complimented, often lampooned, Beckman had a good day, too. From field position to managing the clock to personnel decisions, he and his staff performed in this game.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” he said.

A few good hours. Left alone, they look mighty good.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg