Memory Lane: Illini lose at Soldier Field

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: The last time Illinois played at Soldier Field, the result was  a real bummer.

Date: Sept. 1, 1994

Headline: UI offense loses grip

By LOREN TATE

CHICAGO — Ron Guenther's wondrous gamble, a player-supported excursion to impress Chicagoland, fizzled as the University of Illinois' inept offense laid a cracked egg Thursday night.

Washington State made full use of 10 points generated by a marauding defense, and coach Mike Price's athletes prevailed, 10-9, before 39,472 disappointed football customers at Soldier Field.

Instead of "Illini show time," it was another in a seemingly endless series of crowd-killing September setbacks, ending the Illini's brief stint in everybody's Top 25 and handing the hosts their 13th loss in the last 15 games with Pac-10 opponents. Illinois tumbled in similar manner last year to Arizona 16-14 and Oregon 13-7 in Champaign.

Just as the Arizona defense returned two fumbles for touchdowns last SepMark Fields, picked up Johnny Johnson's fumble and outran Johnson on a 71-yard jaunt with :15 showing on the clock before halftime.

That was the only touchdown in a game that found defensive end Simeon Rice leading the UI's brilliant defensive performance with five sacks, a strip and recovery, several batted passes and a blocked field goal that gave Illinois one last chance to salvage victory.

Illinois led in first downs 17-8 and total yardage 237-158, but sorely missed injured running back Ty Douthard as the backfield blocking sagged and the ground game netted 5 yards in 29 rushes. And that rushing total was brought down by only three sacks against UI quarterbacks for minus 20, the leading UI rusher being freshman Robert Holcombe with 25 yards in 12 carries.

"We achieved everything we wanted to do up here . . . except win the game," said Guenther, who as UI athletic director set up the game to create a stronger presence with Chicago fans and media.

"We accomplished a great deal in terms of marketing and advertising our product, and it was a tremendous experience. But we really needed a victory."

But in some ways, it was a no-win situation in terms of "looking good" by Chicago standards. WSU's defense, No. 2 against the rush last season and reported even stronger this year, was low the UI offense to operate. Even if the Illini had won, they would have had to accomplish it without "looking good."

WSU linebackers Fields and Ron Childs found early success with an inside blitz, and the Cougars stayed in that mode much of the time as they filled every gap and harassed Johnson as he tried to pass against isolated but highly capable one-on-one defenders in the secondary.

The Illini had numerous chances, taking the ball across midfield 10 times and reaching WSU's 15, 34, 11, 30, 10, 22, 44, 36, 46 and 34. But they mustered just three Chris Richardson field goals as the offense was thrown back or self- destructed with penalties, fumbles and negative rushes.

WSU broke ahead early when Illini Damien Platt coughed up the ball and Childs returned it 20 yards to the 15. The Cougars rammed to the 1-foot line but, on third down, Illini Kevin Hardy nailed Derek Sparks in the backfield as he took a bobbled handoff from Chad Davis. Tony Truant entered for a 20-yard field goal.

Marquis Mosely's 38-yard kickoff return ignited a promising UI counter-attack, but Richardson's low field goal bid from 37 yards was deflected by star tackle Chad Eaton. Still, Illinois kept the pressure on and Richardson came back later in the second quarter to tie it 3-3 with a 38-yarder.

Most of the game's fireworks were saved for the last 30 seconds before halftime. With Rice making a clean steal at the WSU 39, Illinois reached the 30 where Johnson, on second down, was hit by DeWayne Patterson and the ball tumbled to Fields who ran free for 71 yards.

Down 10-3 with :15 on the clock, Johnson launched a 52- yard bomb to Jasper Strong, who was fouled on the sideline for an additional 10 yards. Richardson entered at :03 for a 28-yard three-pointer.

Illinois pinned WSU back after halftime, and Richardson added a line drive 43-yarder to make it 10-9 with 26 minutes to go. But that's the way it ended as WSU's constant blitzing seemed to unnerve an Illini offense that became increasingly error-prone. Johnson couldn't get the ball in field goal range again, not even when UI cornerback Robert Crumpton deflected a Davis pass into Melvin Roberts' hands at the WSU 36.

Johnson fumbled on a safety blitz late in the fourth quarter, and the game appeared lost when Mosely fumbled away a fair catch on the Illini 20 with 2:26 to go.

But again the Illini defense braced, Kevin Hardy slicing in for a behind-the-line stop on third down, and the ever-present Rice blocked a field goal bid to get the ball back with 1:14 on the clock.

Throwing in desperation, Johnson took advantage of WSU's retreating prevent defense with sideline tosses, first hitting Jason Dulick for 8 yards and then firing to Strong for 9, 19 and 10.

Needing just a few more yards to set up a reachable field goal, the Illini were penalized five yards to the 39. When Johnson scrambled and threw wildly, freshman Bret Scheuplein entered with :01 showing and his 57-yard field goal bid was short and left of the uprights. C: Sports

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