Tate: Peaks and valleys

Tate: Peaks and valleys

Tell Tate your opinion here

We asked Loren Tate for his view on the tradition of Illinois football. So he did some research:

Scanning the decades, Illini football always has been a topsy-turvy panorama of memorable surprises, meaningful triumphs and frustrating inconsistencies.

No era exemplified these tendencies more than the 18-year Ray Eliot era, which was highlighted by shocking upsets that seemed to stem from his electric personality. The period was so noteworthy for inspired upsets that when Pete Elliott took over in 1960 he made a thinly veiled reference to a need for greater consistency (as opposed to occasional uprisings).

But consistency never has been the nature of things in these parts. In the 80 seasons since 1930, Illinois has won seven Big Ten championships (five undisputed) that, in all cases except 1951, had two distinct characteristics: (1) Illinois wasn't picked to win and (2) the success couldn't be sustained.

So Illinois reaches this point in history hailing the greatest star of the first half-century, Red Grange, and arguably the most renowned defensive player of his time, Dick Butkus. But in a conference long dominated by Ohio State and Michigan, even those two Illini greats could not solve the difficulty of matching success with greater success.

What follows here are some of the greatest triumphs in Illini history ... and what followed.


Voted the greatest game in Illini history, the 39-14 outburst against mighty Michigan put Grange on the Roaring '20s stage with Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, etc. Only a junior, the Galloping Ghost made Illinois the dominant football program in the nation.

A year later, when Grange was a senior, Michigan ruled 3-0 in Ann Arbor. Michigan closed ranks around returning coach Fielding Yost, stopped the cutbacks and the kick returns, and recorded its 32nd shutout between 1920 and 1925. That's right, 32 shutouts in six seasons that, not counting the explosion at Memorial Stadium, saw the Wolverines give up 85 points in 44 games. That's how unique, how inspired, how out-of-the-ordinary that 39-point outburst was in 1924.


Michigan carried a seven-game win streak and hadn't been scored on in four 1927 games when Bob Zuppke's undefeated national champs prevailed, 14-0. The points came directly from two punts. First, the Illini recovered a botched reception on the Michigan 8-yard line, and Jud Timm scored on a short pass. Later, Russ Crane blocked a Wolverine kick and Ernest Schultz fell on it for a touchdown.

In 1928, Michigan ruled again, 3-0.


Arguably the biggest pure upset up to that time, Zuppke's gang hadn't won a game prior to November when it stunned Tommy Harmon and No. 2 Michigan, 16-7. Harmon, who later won the Heisman Trophy, rushed for 72 yards and caught a TD pass, but the Illini prevailed with the help of a "sleeper play," a 48-yard pass from Jimmy Smith to George Rettinger.

In 1940, Harmon got revenge, 28-0.


While Illinois was going 3-13, Minnesota's Gophers were national champs in 1940 and 1942, and carried 12 straight Big Ten wins into a showdown in Champaign. Illinois handed Eliot his first conference win, 20-13.

This was one of two games played against Minnesota between 1924 and 1947.


Michigan was the top-rated club that Eliot's war returnees played that season, and an up-to-then mediocre UI team, having already lost to Notre Dame and Indiana, pulled a 13-9 upset. Michigan outgained the UI 332-151, but Paul Patterson ran 25 yards for a TD and end Sam Zatkoff scored the winner as the surprising Illini mounted their march toward the Rose Bowl.

Michigan ruled 14-7 in 1947.


Tommy O'Connell's late TD pass to Rex Smith in a driving snowstorm provided a 7-0 shutout of Michigan that carried Illinois to its second Rose Bowl title in six years.

What made this triumph different is that Illinois was able to repeat it against ranked Michigan teams the next two seasons.


The sophomore duo of J.C. Caroline and Mickey Bates drew national acclaim in a sensational 41-20 ground explosion at Ohio State, then ranked No. 3. Illinois shut out Ohio State in the second half and went on to share the Big Ten title.

Ohio State throttled a 1-8 Illini team the next year, 40-7.


Abe Woodson produced two of the most stirring and memorable breakaways in UI history as No. 1 Michigan State was felled 20-13 at Memorial Stadium. Illinois trailed 13-0 before Woodson erupted with a 70-yard run and an 82-yard dash with a screen pass.

The Spartans got revenge in 1957, 19-14.


With Butkus at his peak, Illinois used a rock-ribbed defense to beat two No. 4 teams, Northwestern 10-9 early and Michigan State 13-0 late, setting up the UI's third Rose Bowl success.

The Illini beat Northwestern and Michigan State again in 1964 but couldn't handle Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan.


Jim Valek's first season was highlighted by a 17-13 upset at Ohio State. David Jackson scored twice, winning the game with a dive into the end zone in the final minute.

Illinois didn't beat the Buckeyes again for the next 15 years.


Illinois broke a nine-game slump to hand first-year coach Bob Blackman a 21-17 upset win against No. 17 Purdue. John Wilson scored on two short runs, and George Uremovich capped it with a 38-yarder.

Purdue countered in 1972, 20-14.


Mike White garnered his first UI win against a ranked team, No. 16 Iowa, 24-7 as Pete Burgard scored on a fumble recovery (one of Iowa's four lost fumbles) and Tony Eason fired two TD passes to Oliver Williams.

Iowa thoroughly frustrated the Illini, 14-13, the next year.


Thomas Rooks' 21-yard dash for paydirt capped a 17-13 rally against No. 6 Ohio State, the UI's first win in the series since 1967. It was win No. 5 in a 10-game win streak that ended in the Rose Bowl.

Ohio State won a thriller in 1984, 45-38.


White called the 31-28 upset of No. 5 Ohio State "the sweetest victory I've ever had" after son Chris White booted a game-winning field with no time on the clock. Illinois led 14-0, trailed 28-14 and rallied behind Jack Trudeau's 28-for-40 passing, Ray Wilson's two TDs and Stephen Pierce's seven receptions. Later, White's deflected field goal hit the crossbar in a 3-3 tie against No. 4 Michigan.

A year later, Ohio State ruled 14-0 and the Wolverines handed Illinois its most embarrassing setback, 69-13.


The Lou Tepper era received an early lift, 18-16, with the help of two goal-line fumbles by No. 21 Ohio State and a late field goal by Chris Richardson. Jeff Arneson returned the first Ohio State fumble 96 yards for a TD, and the Illini pounced on Eddie George's bobble on the 1-yard line to stay alive and set the stage for Richardson's winner.

Ohio State won a year later, 20-12.


The remarkable fourth-down pass by Johnny Johnson to Jim Klein capped a 15-0 fourth-quarter comeback to shock Michigan, 24-21. The final march was made possible by Simeon Rice's strip and recovery against Ricky Powers with 1:13 left.

It was Michigan again in 1994, 19-14.


Trailing 27-7 in the third quarter, Illinois came roaring back with Rocky Harvey scoring two late touchdowns for a 35-29 win against No. 9 Michigan. The game wasn't over until Illinois intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the end zone at the Big House.

Michigan was back in charge, 35-31, in 2000.


Kurt Kittner & Co. downed Ohio State 34-22 en route to the Big Ten title. Kittner completed second-quarter TD passes to Walter Young and Aaron Moorehead, but Illinois trailed 22-21 in the fourth quarter at Ohio Stadium before Kittner directed a go-ahead 80-yard march.

Despite a Herculean effort a year later, Illinois dropped a controversial 23-16 overtime game to No. 2 Ohio State. The defending Big Ten champs earlier smudged the previous 10-2 season with losses to Southern Mississippi and San Jose State.


Voted the No. 3 triumph in Illini history, the 28-21 win against No. 1 Ohio State was Juice Williams' finest moment. He threw four TD passes and directed the final, win-preserving eight-minute drive.

The Buckeyes ruled in 2008, 30-20, as the Illini fell to 5-7 with late losses to Western Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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IlliniOllie wrote on August 29, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Hmm... 5 "triumphs" under the 18 years of Ron Guenther. A "triumph percentage" of under 28%? Hopefully President Hogan replaces your buddy Mr. 81-126-2 with someone who can at least get us a higher triumph percentage.

FloridaIllini wrote on August 29, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Thanks for the memories, Loren. Your article demonstrates clearly that Illini football is a history of "upsets" not a history of wins. I think Illini football is like Las Vegas. We win just often enough to keep us coming back. I'm still loyal after all these years but I think there aren't that many of us left. It's bittersweet that our best memories of Illini football are the upsets and not Big Ten titles.

JimOATSfan wrote on August 29, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Surprising how seldom anyone mentions that George Halas played for the Illini in the 1915-1918 era (+/-) and had the need to keep playing after graduation. A need that manifested into the birth of the National Football League. That might rate a statue here or there.

Perhaps our football record, which does include some great moments, is in keeping with our collective highest good. There is more to our lives than winning something. Yes it is a fun distraction on the planet these days.

Win next Saturday in St Louis and Memorial Stadium will be packed and rockin'in 2010.

Have fun - Go Illini!