ST. LOUIS - Cornelius Brown would rather be called Pig. But after his performance in Saturday’s season opener, he might, for now, have to be referred to as a hawk.
The senior strong safety, who accounted for two forced fumbles and an interception, seemed to be around the ball at the game’s most crucial moments against Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
For Brown, the team motto of “It’s all about the ball,” could not have been more appropriate.
“One of our goals is three or more turnovers a game,” Brown said. “I got to give credit to my guys though because they were the reason I was able to get those turnovers.”
Brown’s standout defensive plays were the bookends of a 40-34 victory for the Tigers. It was a game in which the Tiger defense gave up 21 unanswered points in the second half, but ultimately helped the Tigers prevail against a persistent Illinois team.
“I think we got a little too comfortable,” Brown said. “We wanted to end it, but they were a great team.”
After knocking Illini starting quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams out of the game early in the second quarter, the Tiger defense was backed up on the three-yard line. An Illini score seemed inevitable. That’s when Brown, who had no defensive touchdowns a year ago, scooped up a fumble by Illini backup Eddie McGee and sprinted the length of the field.
“I just used my instincts and picked the ball, and once I got it I was hoping that they wouldn’t catch me,” Brown said.
No one did.
The return tied the NCAA record for longest fumble recovery for a touchdown and was Brown’s first defensive touchdown as a Tiger. The fumble was not the last that Brown would recover.
Brown jumped on a McGee fumble that was forced by defensive tackle Ziggy Hood. Brown and his defensive mates held the Illini to six first downs and 122 yards of total offense in the first half as McGee tried to get settled in.
McGee eventually accounted for 303 total yards and two touchdowns. The redshirt freshman, who Brown admitted he “didn’t know was the backup quarterback,” was the catalyst for the Illini offense: an offense that pulled to within three points of the Tigers midway through the fourth quarter.
“He really stepped up,” Illini receiver Kyle Hudson said. “I thought he did a great job with the plays he made and I am really proud of him.”
The two McGee touchdowns were countered by his two interceptions, the first of which was reeled in by free safety William Moore and looked like it might have ended the game. After a missed 49-yard field goal by Jeff Wolfert, McGee drove the offense for one last chance at a tying touchdown.
Enter Brown again. He intercepted a McGee pass at the goal line that allowed the Tigers to run out the clock.
“I thought, ‘I just want to do this for my team,’” Brown said. “I just jumped up and used all my fundamentals and I was able to haul it in.”
Though Brown calls the game a total team effort, quarterback Chase Daniel believes that Brown’s play was the difference maker.
“He won it for us,” Daniel said. “He made two game winning plays for us and that’s what captains do.”