FRESNO, Calif. -- Coach Pat Hill has made a career out of taking risks at Fresno State. So it came as no surprise when he decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 in his own territory protecting a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
The move paid off by about an inch, and Fresno State went on to beat Illinois 25-23 on Friday night to end the regular season the way it started, with a home victory over a team from a major conference.
"If that had gone the other way, I don't know what I'd be talking about right now," Hill said. "I have to give our kids a lot of credit. We needed a yard, and we got a yard and an inch."
Ryan Colburn threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns as the Bulldogs (8-4) overcame a 318-yard rushing night from the Illini (6-6). Fresno State also beat the Big East's Cincinnati in the season opener.
Nathan Scheelhaase ran for 131 yards and a touchdown and also threw a TD pass, and Mikel Leshoure added 142 yards rushing and a touchdown for the Illini, who ended the regular season by losing three of four games.
The Bulldogs improved to 3-6 against Big Ten teams, including last year's 53-52 win at Illinois. This game wasn't nearly as dramatic as that contest, which ended when 350-pound offensive lineman Devan Cunningham caught a deflected pass and made his way into the end zone for the winning 2-point conversion with 2 seconds left.
Fresno State just milked this one out at the end, killing more than nine minutes to nearly run out the clock with help from a key penalty and the big fourth-down conversion.
Tavon Wilson was called for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless Jamel Hamler on third-and-13 from the 7. Colburn then threw a 15-yard pass to Hamler on third-and-10, and A.J. Ellis barely converted a fourth-and-1 run from the Bulldogs' 46 with 3:17 to go.
"That's one of the things we love about Coach Hill," Colburn said. "When the chips are on the line, he wants to go after things and go after it."
Illinois finally got the ball back at its 9 with 18 seconds left but could not do anything from there.
The Illini cut a 16-point first-quarter deficit to 19-17 when they scored on the opening drive of the second half. Scheelhaase expertly moved Illinois 92 yards in 17 plays, capping with an off-balance 18-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins.
The Bulldogs responded with a touchdown drive of their own, with Colburn throwing a 21-yarder to Rashad Evans. Hill opted to go for a 2-point conversion that failed, and Fresno State's lead was only 25-17.
The decision didn't backfire when Fresno State stopped Illinois' 2-point try after Scheelhaase's 21-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter cut the lead to 25-23.
While the Bulldogs had impressive bookend wins, the middle portion of the season didn't go quite as well. They lost at Mississippi and then fell to the three top teams in the WAC: Boise State, Nevada and Hawaii. Fresno State will be going to a bowl for the fourth straight season, with the Humanitarian Bowl the most likely spot in a return to a stadium where the Bulldogs lost 51-0 to Boise State earlier this season.
"I don't want that to be the snapshot of this season," Hill said. "We had one bad night. Everyone has a bad night every once in a while, and we had a really bad night. I told the kids I want them to have a snapshot of this season by beating Illinois."
The Illini also are going to a bowl for the first time in three seasons, with the Texas Bowl being their possible destination after a rough end to the regular season.
Playing without injured leading rusher Robbie Rouse, Fresno State relied heavily on Colburn and the passing game. That got the Bulldogs off to a fast start with Colburn throwing a 27-yard TD screen pass to A.J. Ellis on the first drive and then exploiting a blown coverage for a 78-yarder to Jalen Saunders on the first play of the second possession to make it 13-0.
Leshoure's 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter helped the Illini cut the deficit to 19-10. But Illinois was unable to capitalize on a fumble by Tracy Slocum in Fresno State territory and Derek Dimke then was short on a 49-yard field goal in the final minute of the half.