"As soon as I planted my right foot, I turned around and saw the ball in the air, I knew I had to watch the ball," said Carter, a tight end from Bear, Del. "I might get hit. But I had to absorb it with my body, and it worked out perfectly."
Ryan Keiser picked off quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on the first play of the Illini's possession to preserve a 24-17 win and make Carter's grab - his only one of the contest - a game-winner. It was the first touchdown for Carter since he scored against Ohio State on Oct. 27, 2012, and the road back to the end zone was paved with injuries.
Carter hurt his left foot while scoring last season and that forced him to miss a game. He came back, but broke his right wrist against Nebraska, missed the rest of the campaign and had lingering effects of the ailment in the offseason.
"It was a pretty bad wrist injury. No excuse, but I think he's done some good things lately," coach Bill O'Brien said. "I don't think it's any fault of his own. He's a heck of a football player and he made a big catch there for us at the end."
The injuries cut into what had been a breakout season for Carter, who finished second on the team in receiving yards (453) and catches (36). The 6-3 redshirt sophomore has not filled up the stat sheet like he did last year through eight games. And once again, injuries have had something to do with it.
In the Lions' season opener, Carter hurt his left arm when one of his teammates ran into him on a fake field goal. He left the contest before making a catch, but he did not want the injury to cause him to spend more time on the sideline.
"Working all offseason on rehab, and then coming back, first game, and messing something else up, it hurt me," Carter said. "I just wanted to play. As soon as it happened, as soon as I got the diagnosis, I told myself, 'I got to play next week, I can't miss any more games. This can't happen anymore.' I just rehabbed hard and came back."
Carter did not miss any games, but was limited for the rest of the State's nonconference schedule. He said he felt 100 percent again when the Lions (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) played Indiana on Oct. 5, and he hauled in six catches for 79 yards that afternoon.
Running back Bill Belton noted that Carter may not have the statistics he did a year ago, but praised his teammate for some of the nuances of the game that go unnoticed, like pass protection and run-blocking.
The performance against the Hoosiers was the only time Carter has tallied more than 25 yards in a game this season, however. He has 14 receptions for 186 yards with four games left. Carter said he keeps what he was able to do last season in the back of his mind and strives to get back to where he was, and beyond.
A game-clinching score is a good place to start. "I'm my own biggest critic, and I think about my season every day and trying to get back to where I was last year and everything," Carter said. "Making that play definitely helped my confidence."