For longtime Illini football fans, Michigan and Ohio State always have held a special place.
Memories abound. The Pete Elliott vs. Bump Elliott showdowns. The 3-3 tie when Chris White’s kick bounded off the crossbar. It was 20 years ago that Simeon Rice stole the ball in Ann Arbor, and 14 years since Rocky Harvey shocked the crowd there. Veteran Illini still hate Bo. And also Gary Moeller, who coached at both places. Though the Wolverines are gone from the schedule for the next four years, there’ll be mention of the 89th anniversary of Red Grange’s stadium-dedication outbreak. It was 39-14, wasn’t it?
And who’ll bring up the Buckeyes without reviving a Woody Hayes story? NCAA records fell when Dave Wilson passed for 621 yards in The Horseshoe. The 1983 dash by Thomas Rooks ignited the UI’s 8-for-12 run against the Buckeyes. And Juice Williams played the game of his career in 2007 when Illinois erupted out of the blue to upset No. 1 Ohio State and qualify for the Rose Bowl.
Despite customary underdog status, Illinoisans lived for these contests. They had meaning, and a century of recollections swirl through Illini Nation.
The contests with Indiana and Iowa come and go, but the fourth-and-inches sneak by Williams at Ohio State sticks.
We have begun the process to bid adieu to that tradition. Yes, happenstance allows Illinois to tangle with Ohio State four of the next five years — the Nov. 16 contest will be the 98th meeting in 100 years — but the series soon will require a wreath. The games will be far less frequent with the East-West alignment that brings in Rutgers and Maryland.
With the football world changing and Illinois in a drastically weakened condition, we need a new perspective. Realistically, in 2013, Ohio State is operating at a different level. The Buckeyes have their sites set beyond the Leaders Division and toward the last BCS title game which, barring outside interference and/or some dramatic upsets, appears attainable.
Carrying 14 straight Big Ten losses, Illinois is better advised to concentrate efforts elsewhere. Where Indiana and Northwestern were once extremely vulnerable, that is changing. Where confidence once abounded against Purdue, the Illini have won in West Lafayette (the Nov. 23 site) once in 20 years, that 28-10 result in 1993 marking the end of a 10-for-12 Illini dominance in the series.
So today, instead of analyzing the deep strengths of Ohio State and Michigan as we enter 2013, let’s shift to more attainable goals. Let’s scrutinize Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue, three contributors to the 14-game skid ... even though these rivals and the Illini may look a lot different when their November dates roll around.
Wildcats at different level
After five straight bowls and a long-awaited victory, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald asserts the Wildcats “have moved to a different level ... we’ve raised the bar.”
If you hadn’t noticed, the Wildcats are doing it the old-fashioned way. They were 110th nationally in pass yardage last season and 19th in rushing with 225.5 yards per game. Both the elusive Kain Colter, who ran for 12 TDs, and fellow quarterback Trevor Siemian return.
Let me tell you about 2012. The Wildcats won 10 games, including a 34-20 windup against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The three losses went to the wire.
At Penn State, they led 28-17 with 10 minutes to go and couldn’t hold on. Against Nebraska, in a sea of red in their own Evanston stadium, they led 28-16 with 10 to go and fell 29-28. At Ann Arbor, they led Michigan 31-28 with five seconds to go and lost in overtime.
Point is, Northwestern played solid football in 13 consecutive games. That’s extraordinary. The days of Rick Venturi (1-31) and Francis Peay (13-51) are gone. Under Fitzgerald, a former Northwestern star and the “perfect fit,” they’re thinking more like Ara Parseghian.
This is the opponent with whom Illinois will end every season, hopefully in some cases at a renovated Wrigley Field. This is something Northwestern AD Jim Phillips wants, and Illini Mike Thomas favors. The game there in 2010 was extraordinary in many ways, the Illini ruling 48-27 as Mikel Leshoure ran for a school-record 330 yards.
Down through the decades, this is a game that meant more to Northwestern than Illinois, and the Wildcats often took advantage with inspirational triumphs. Since the UI’s last winning coach, John Mackovic, departed for Texas, the Wildcats lead the series 12-9. And the job of defeating them is even greater than it previously was.
At Indiana, basketball is the game and Kevin Wilson’s third football edition looks like the Hurryin’ Hoosiers. They have 19 starters back from a team that was No. 1 in Big Ten pass offense in 2012, second in total offense and awful on defense. You score and then we’ll score, OK?
“Quite honestly,” Wilson said, “our defense has been embarrassing the first two years. Our toughness needs to be better. We led the league in passing, blah, blah, blah, all that junk. But once our quarterback (Tre Roberson) got hurt, we lost five straight games. We didn’t score points commensurate with the way we moved the ball.”
Roberson figures to win the QB slot again although juco transfer Cameron Coffman threw for 2,734 yards and 15 TDs after replacing him.
Wilson offered something for those who want the glass half full. He said further:
“We’ve got a lot of guys back. We’ve got our punter back, and Mitch Ewald, our kicker, may be the best in the league. Our snapper’s a big-time player. We’ve got eight home games and a lot of positive energy.”
So, judge for yourself. Indiana gave up 163 points in season-ending losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. Wilson is striving to change a tradition that shows one winning season (7-6 in 2007) in the last 18. In an effort to improve attendance, the Hoosiers will play three early night games against Indiana State, Navy and Missouri. As with Illinois, the Hoosiers have depth concerns in the interior positions, so it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll look like Nov. 9. Usually, by that time, they’re thinking roundball.
Purdue: Tough sledding
Kent State had waded through more than a decade of non-winning seasons when Darrell Hazell, former assistant head coach at Ohio State, turned it around (11-3) in his second season there. The Golden Flashes carried Northern Illinois into two overtimes before falling 44-37 to the MAC’s Orange Bowl qualifiers.
Hazell will find the new assignment at Purdue far more demanding. The schedule is a killer, opening with the Bearcats at Cincinnati, home showdowns against Notre Dame and Northern Illinois, and early Big Ten clashes at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State. If Purdue stands better than 2-6 in the first eight games, it’ll be an accomplishment.
But take notice. Even though Purdue leaders lost hope in Danny Hope, his Boilermakers were 7-6 in 2011 and came in 6-7 last season with a near-miss 20-17 loss to 12-1 Notre Dame (Irish won with a field goal at :07) and an unfathomable 29-22 overtime loss to 12-0 Ohio State. Purdue led by eight before Ohio State rallied via a 39-yard pass, and completed a TD pass and a two-point conversion with :03 in regulation.
Maybe there’s more here than meets the eye. Nobody played Notre Dame or Ohio State better during the regular season.
“There were a lot of close games that Purdue lost,” Hazell said. “We talked a lot about finishing games. You have to be able to finish.”
They finished against Illinois, building a 20-10 lead before Nathan Scheelhaase scored with 4:01 left in a 20-17 result. The Boilermakers have eight returning starters on defense and five on offense. Hazell’s offensive line coach is Jim Bridge, who evidently felt better about Purdue’s chances after accepting the position at Illinois. He left in March.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.