Middle Tennessee put forth a valiant effort before falling just short in a 27-25 setback at Illinois Saturday.
Cody Clark's potential game-winning field goal from 43 yards away was wide left with eight seconds remaining as Middle Tennessee's upset bid came up short.
The Blue Raiders (2-2) had a chance in the end because of resilient defensive play and clutch offensive performances, particularly in the fourth quarter, from quarterback Brent Stockstill and receivers Ed Batties and Richie James.
Stockstill continued to shine in his first season under center. The redshirt freshman signal caller completed 29-of-42 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns. Batties had a record day against the Big Ten defense. The senior receiver set a school record for single-game receptions with 13, besting the previous mark of 12 held by Kendall Newsom and Tyrone Calico. Batties also had 175 yards and two touchdowns. The 175 yards are seventh on the single-game Top 10 list.
James also had a special performance with 12 receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown. James 12 catches are tied for second on the single-game list and would have tied the standard if not for Batties' stellar outing.
Jordan Parker led Middle Tennessee's ground attack with 70 yards on 23 carries.
The Blue Raiders had 368 yards total offense, just 10 behind Illinois' 378. Most of Middle Tennessee's success was through the air with 330 passing yards. Illinois had 140 yards rushing and 238 yards through the air. The Blue Raider defense held running back Josh Ferguson to 83 yards on 20 carries.
Middle Tennessee's defense kept the Blue Raiders in the game against Illinois (3-1) by limiting its high-powered offense. The Blue Raiders limited Illinois to a 3-for-6 showing in the red zone.
T.T. Barber led the way with 14 tackles, nine solo, two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. Kevin Byard added 11 takedowns, while Trey Wafford and Cavellis Luckett added nine each.
Middle Tennessee was on the cusp of earning what would have been a huge road win.
Trailing 24-12 entering the fourth quarter, Stockstill showed the poise he has exhibited at the outset of the season and continuously found sure-handed veteran Batties to rally the Raiders. Stockstill and Batties connected for a 13-yard touchdown to pull Middle Tennessee to within 24-19, then the duo hooked up once more to give the Blue Raiders a 25-24 edge with 4:11 remaining.
The Blue Raider defense made it difficult for Illinois on its final drive. Middle Tennessee held on a third-down try and Taylor Zalewski came on to attempt a 51-yard field goal attempt. He connected for his season high to put the Fighting Illini back in front, 25-24.
Stockstill marched the Blue Raiders down the field, finding James for three catches. The Blue Raiders drove to the Illinois 26 to give Clark a chance at what would have been a career-high 43 yard field-goal attempt.
It was a competitive game throughout.
Illinois struck first when Wes Lunt connected with Malik Turner for a 5-yard touchdown on its opening drive to go on top 7-0.
Middle Tennessee answered with a 14-play, 55-yard drive that culminated with Cody Clark's 42-yard field goal to pull the Blue Raiders to within 7-3 with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter. Although the early score was key for Middle Tennessee, it could have been even better. The Blue Raiders had the ball at the Illinois 2 but a bad snap and sack pushed Middle Tennessee back to the 25 for the fourth-down play.
Both defenses played well and were controlling the game when a special teams breakdown cost the Blue Raiders. After Illinois held Middle Tennessee to a 3-and-out, it busted through the line and blocked Trevor Owens' punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown to take a 14-3 advantage with 9:07remaining in the second quarter.
Middle Tennessee rebounded with a big special teams play to turn the game just before halftime. Owens' next punt after the blocked punt resulted in a 52-yard booming beauty that was downed at the 1. A bad snap led to a fumble in the end zone, which T.T. Barber fell on for a safety to pull the Blue Raiders to within 14-5.
The Blue Raiders' offense then converted the free kick when Stockstill connected with James for a 64-yard touchdown. Clark added the point after to pull Middle Tennessee to within 14-12. The drive covered 63 yards on two plays in just 44 seconds. It was James' first collegiate touchdown.
Illinois added a field goal just before halftime following a Blue Raider fumble to take a 17-12 advantage into the intermission. The Fighting Illini made it a two-scoring game late in the third quarter when they added a 5-yard TD run to go up 24-12 after the successful extra point.
Desperately needing a score to stay in the game early in the fourth quarter the Middle Tennessee offense obliged. Batties hauled in a 13-yard scoring strike from Stockstill to cap an eight-play 72-yard drive that covered three minutes. It also pulled the Blue Raiders to within 24-19 with 11:44 remaining and set the stage for the exhilarating finish.
CAPTAINS: Today's game captains were OL Jaylen Hunter, S Xavier Walker and LB James Roberson.
BARBER GETS SAFETY: Linebacker T.T. Barber recorded his first career safety when he tackled an Illinois running back in the endzone late in the first half. It marked the Blue Raiders' first safety since getting one against Arkansas State on Nov. 19, 2011.
LONG DISTANCE: WR Richie James hauled in the longest reception of his career late in the second quarter. James brought in a 63-yard pass from Brent Stockstill for the Blue Raiders' first touchdown of the game. James' previous long catch was 21 yards at Alabama.
CAREER DAY FOR JAMES: Richie James had a career day that also landed him in the Blue Raider record books. James finished with 12 catches for 141 yards - both career highs. He also had a touchdown catch. The 12 receptions are tied for second on the single-game receptions list. The 12 receptions would have tied the school record but teammate Ed Batties set a new single-game standard with 13 catches in the game. James' previous career highs were 10 receptions and 95 yards, both against Alabama.
BATTIES GETS 100: Senior Ed Batties went over 100 yards receiving for the third time this season after hauling in a school-record 13 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois. That gives Batties four 100-yard games for his career which ties for the sixth most in school history. It's also the first time since Anthony Amos in 2012 that a receiver has posted at least three 100-yard receiving games in a season.
SCHOOL RECORD FOR BATTIES: WR Ed Batties set a new school record in receptions with 13 against Illinois. Batties broke the previous mark of 12 set by both Kendall Newson (2001) and Tyrone Calico (1999). His 175 yards are good for seventh on the single-game lists.
QUICK HITTERS: The second quarter blocked punt for a touchdown by Illinois was the first against MT since Dec. 3, 2011 (North Texas) ... OL Hunter Rogers made his first collegiate start today at right tackle for the injured Maurquice Shakir ... Kevin Byard and James Roberson played in their team leading 40th career game today ... LB T.T. Barber made his team-high 32nd straight start today ... Illinois scored on the opening drive making it the 37th time in last 116 games an opponent has scored on its first drive ... LB Trey Wafford registered his second sack of the season in the first quarter today ... Cody Clark's 42 yard FG in the first quarter was his longest of the season. It was one-yard shy of his career high ... MT entered the game having allowed just three sacks all season and gave up three in the first half ... Trevor Owens' 68-yard punt in the third quarter was the longest of his career