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Illinois squeaks by MTSU 27-25

CHAMPAIGN — Two of the first words out of interim coach Bill Cubit’s mouth after Illinois hung on to beat Middle Tennessee State on Saturday were “ugly win.” That’s what Cubit figured a lot of people would say about a 27-25 tussle with a directional school.

Who knows? Maybe he was right about that.

“But,” Cubit added, “I’ve never seen an ugly win. … We’re 3-1. You can say all you want, but we’re still 3-1.”

Haven’t the Illini been here before?

Of course they have. They were 3-1 under Tim Beckman in both 2013 and 2014. In case you weren’t sure, the answer is no — championship glory did not ensue either time.

Will it be different under Cubit? Is Illinois capable of building on Saturday’s gift — a 43-yard field goal attempt by MTSU’s Cody Clark that sailed wide left in the waning seconds — and bringing some actual joy here to Mudville?

There was plenty of joy when Illinois’ field-goal unit celebrated near midfield after senior kicker Taylor Zalewski’s 51-yard boot gave his team a two-point lead with 2:09 to play. Facing a fourth-and-6, Cubit made a call that could’ve blown up in his face; after all, Zalewski had made only 61.5 percent of his kicks during a difficult career at Illinois.

“I just thought he had plenty of leg from where he was at,” Cubit said.

Zalewski, who earlier missed from 38 yards, said a prayer as he ran onto the field for the kick that — who knows? — might be looked back upon as one of the most important plays of the season. His confidence was high enough.

“After that first miss, it took 30 seconds to figure out what went wrong,” he said. “Then, it was like it didn’t even happen.”

Now, many Illini fans must be wondering if their team has a prayer to beat Nebraska here next weekend.

The Huskers hosted 3-1 Illinois each of the last two years. And each of the last two years, they absolutely shredded the Illini defense.

In 2014, Nebraska amassed 458 rushing yards in a brutal 45-14 victory that had to shake the Illini’s confidence. A week later came their embarrassing loss at home to lowly Purdue.

In 2013, the Illini allowed Huskers running back Ameer Abdullah to set a career high in rushing. It was one of those defensive no-show that defined the Beckman era.

So what will happen under Cubit? Nebraska visits Memorial Stadium in a week. Finally having the home field in that Big Ten West matchup might be kind of nice.

“Hopefully,” said quarterback Wes Lunt, “it’ll be huge.”

There haven’t been many huge moments for Illinois football in recent years, but a victory over the Huskers would rev up the fan base to pre-Beckman levels. Another loss might start an avalanche of difficulty.

It could’ve been worse; would’ve been so much worse had MTSU’s Clark converted that kick.

It would’ve been ugly and then some. Given all the struggles that’ve gone on here, there’s no way that word — ugly — should be used to describe a victory.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com