CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Caleb Griffin remembered nailing a winning 3-pointer as a high school basketball player. In football, he couldn't recall a moment like this.
Griffin kicked a 29-yard field goal in the closing seconds, giving Illinois a 30-28 victory over Toledo in the season opener for both teams on Saturday night.
“It's routine. I've been kicking in this stadium since I came to camp when I was 16 years old," said Griffin, who grew up about 40 minutes east in Danville, Illinois. “I came to campus when I was 18 years old and I'm 23 now, so you guys can do the math. I've kicked a lot of field goals on this field.”
None like this, though.
“I was kicking in the direction that my parents sit in,” Griffin said. “They sit in that end zone. And I just felt like that was the coolest thing that I've probably ever done.”
Luke Altmyer threw for two touchdowns. Miles Scott returned an interception 48 yards for a score, and the Illini squeezed out the win in a back-and-forth game to start coach Bret Bielema’s third season.
BACK AND FORTH
Scott’s interception return and touchdown passes from Altmyer to Pat Bryant on back-to-back possessions put Illinois on top 27-19 early in the fourth quarter after trailing by 12. But instead of staying in control, the Illini had to rally again to come away with the win.
Toledo’s Luke Pawlak kicked a 44-yarder that made it a five-point game with 9:38 remaining, and quarterback Dequan Finn put the Rockets on top with 2:59 remaining when he rolled to his right for a 1-yard touchdown to put the Rockets on top 28-27.
Altmyer helped set up the winning field goal when he hit Casey Washington with a 33-yard pass to the Toledo 36 on fourth-and-4. The Illini had the ball on the 11 with eight seconds left when Griffin booted the winner.
“Whew, I'm tired,” Bielema said as he approached the podium for his postgame news conference.
For good reason, the way this game went.
“There is a lot to be learned,” Bielema said. “You learn more Game 1 to Game 2 than at any other point in the season. You should get better. ... You play yourself in a position to win games in September, you put yourself in a position to be special in October and you win championships in November. And we didn't do that a year ago.”
Altmyer was 18 of 26 for 211 yards with an interception in his Illinois debut. The transfer from Mississippi also ran for 69 yards, after beating out Ball State graduate transfer John Paddock and Donovan Leary for the starting job.
Josh McCray ran for a touchdown. The Illini committed 10 penalties for 100 yards, but made enough plays to come away with the win after struggling down the stretch last year. They lost four of their final five games, a sour finish to a breakthrough, eight-win season.
Finn threw for 230 yards and two TDs. He also ran for 75 yards and a score.
Jacquez Stuart added 82 yards rushing. But the reigning MAC champions fell to 6-16 against the Big Ten. The Rockets’ most recent victory against the conference was over Purdue 2010.
Toledo: The Rockets gave Illinois all it could handle. They hope to repeat as MAC champions for the first time since they won three straight while going 35-0 from 1969 to 1971. No team has won back-to-back titles since Northern Illinois in 2011 and 2012.
Illinois: The Illini cut back on the penalties in the second half, committing just one, and came through down the stretch. They'll take the win, knowing they also have plenty of room to improve.
Toledo: Hosts Texas Southern on Saturday.
Illinois: Visit Kansas on Friday, their first meeting since 1968. ___
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll