- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - You might think the Nebraska game back in late September is a memory Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole would like to forget.

The Illini lost 45-14. O’Toole, starting for the injured Wes Lunt, finished with three interceptions.

But as O’Toole gets ready to lead Illinois (6-6) at the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, he says there was a moment in that lopsided loss that made the team’s 3-2 finish - most of it with O’Toole under center - possible.

Tied 7-7 in the first quarter of a game they believed they would have to score a lot to stay in, the Illini had a third-and-goal at the Nebraska 4. O’Toole tried to force the ball to a receiver in the end zone but found Cornhusker cornerback Daniel Davie instead. The interception swung momentum Nebraska’s way, for good.

“I was trying to do too much,” O’Toole said. “We got to the red zone and you can’t turn the ball over down there - be OK with a field goal.”

“I hadn’t played a full game in a really long time,” he added, “so I think that helped a lot.”

After playing in 10 games his freshman season, O’Toole’s time at Illinois looked promising.

Sure, he had well-respected sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase ahead of him on the depth chart. But the mobile O’Toole figured to sub a good bit for Scheelhaase when injuries happened while he waited for a senior season that would be his.

It didn’t work out that way.

O’Toole played seven times as a sophomore, six as a junior and, this season, found himself behind Wes Lunt. Few thought O’Toole would see much playing time behind the transfer from Oklahoma State, a player whose arm has NFL potential.

“I think he was just kind of content,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said of O’Toole. “I think there were some confidence issues.”

O’Toole came to Illinois with a handful of state player-of-the-year awards from newspapers, fresh off two state championships at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.

But at a Big Ten program, even a middle-of-the-pack school like Illinois, just about everyone who sees the field was all-this or all-that - accustomed to winning.

So O’Toole played and practiced mostly in the shadows. A great teammate and great guy, his coaches and the other Illini say. “He’s just a likable (guy),” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said - just not the guy.

But Lunt’s injuries, including a broken leg, opened the door for O’Toole. Like a good relief pitcher, four years of playing regularly off the bench has taught him to always be ready, he said.

“You owe it to your teammates,” O’Toole said. “You’re one play away from playing.”

And even after Lunt returned late in the season, the team found that O’Toole’s ability to run - something Lunt lacks - kept defenses honest and gave the Illini a spark they’d been missing.

He ran and passed for just enough to get Illinois past Minnesota when the season looked like it was about to implode. Then O’Toole led the Illini past Penn State and Northwestern to get to six wins and bowl eligibility.

The last two were high-pressure games for O’Toole, freshman receiver Mike Dudek said.

“(He) knew that if he didn’t win, his career, his season, would be over,” Dudek said.

Illinois faces Louisiana Tech (8-5) on Friday, a team O’Toole has played before. It was in 2012, in the mop-up role he knows too well. He relieved Scheelhaase in a 52-24 loss that started a nine-game losing streak for the Illini.

This time, he’ll be the starter, the kind of career finish that a football coach finds hard to resist.

“I think he deserves it,” Cubit said. “I think it’s kind of what college football is all about.”

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: twitter.com/davidmercerap

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