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Saturday, December 4, 2010
Final: Fresno State 25, Illinois 23

By Adam Rittenberg

Illinois didn't have to put the game in the hands of a WAC officiating crew.

The Illini could have shown up in the first quarter rather than fall behind 16-0. They could have displayed grit on defense before the halftime break. They could have finished drives and avoided dumb penalties.

But Illinois didn't do those things, and Friday night's game turned into a nail-biter that Fresno State won 25-23.

Make no mistake: Illinois has an extremely legitimate gripe with the WAC officials at Bulldog Stadium.

With 3:17 remaining, Fresno State faced fourth-and-1 from just outside its own 45-yard line. The Bulldogs had received an unfavorable spot on a third-down pass, putting the ball about a yard and a half shy of the marker. Based on that bad third-down spot, however, there's no way A.J. Ellis reached the marker on his fourth-down run up the middle.

Illinois coach Ron Zook challenged the spot, but the officials upheld the call. I don't know what more indisputable video evidence was needed. The ball should have been moved back at least two feet.

It wouldn't have taken much for Illinois to get itself into range for a Derek Dimke field-goal try. Instead, the botched call allowed Fresno State to run out the clock.

Not to be forgotten in all this was the personal foul penalty on Illinois' Tavon Wilson for hitting a defenseless player after the Illini had stopped Fresno State near its goal line. Can't argue with that call. Wilson's got to know better in that situation.

Despite strong second-half performances from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, running back Mikel Leshoure and defensive tackle Corey Liuget, Illinois couldn't finish off the regular season on the right note.

Big Ten teams might want to avoid playing at WAC stadiums in the final game of the season. Remember Michigan State at Hawaii in 2004? Or Northwestern at Hawaii that same year?

At least Illinois, unlike Michigan State or Northwestern in 2004, still can look forward to a bowl appearance, although it won't be in Florida. Tonight's loss pretty much eliminates Illinois from consideration for the Outback, Gator or Insight bowls.

Expect to see Illinois in the Texas Bowl against Baylor.