In its history, Illinois football has had mixed success against its traditional Big Ten foes when playing away from Memorial Stadium. Not surprisingly, the Illini have decidedly negative results at powerhouses Michigan (11 wins, 34 losses, 1 tie), Ohio State (18-30-4) and Penn State (1-9). They also show losing records at Michigan State (9-13-1), Minnesota (12-22-2) and Wisconsin (16-23-4). Against other conference peers — Northwestern (UI leads 29-27-3), Indiana (15-14-1) and Purdue (22-22-4) — the Orange and Blue are extremely competitive when wearing visiting uniforms.
When playing in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes have dominated the Illini since 2003, winning five consecutive times. Some will find it surprising that before this latest streak, Illinois actually led the series in a convincing fashion. Heading into this Saturday’s game at Iowa, the series is deadlocked at 18-18-2.
A game that swung the trend in Illinois’ favor occurred 96 years ago.
Heading into its October 20, 1923 game against Iowa, Coach Bob Zuppke’s Fighting Illini appeared to have all the cards stacked against them. Not only were Coach Howard Jones’ Hawkeyes two-time defending Big Ten champs, they were riding a school-record 20-game winning streak.
Of the 15 UI players that climbed aboard the Thursday night train bound for Iowa, only eight of Zuppke’s troops had at least a full season of experience. The other seven, all sophomores, had played in only two varsity games. Fortunately for Illinois, two of the seven were a young fullback from Elgin named Earl Britton and a halfback from Wheaton named Red Grange.
The Illini struck early in the game on a king-size, record-setting 50-yard field goal by Britton. So impressed was Grange, the holder on Britton’s kick, that No. 77 said years later that it was his greatest thrill in football.
The second and third quarters were a punt fest that saw the two teams trade 21 total kicks. Neither team was able to move the ball with any effectiveness.
Iowa, playing before a Homecoming crowd of 19,000, tallied a touchdown on the opening play of the fourth period when Hawkeye quarterback Wes Fry tossed a 25-yard scoring pass to Dick Romey. Wrote one sportswriter, “The touchdown turned the Hawkeye stands into a mass of howling fanatics.”
It wasn’t until very late in the game that Illinois was able to mount an offensive attack. Trailing 6-3 with only five minutes remaining and starting at its own 19-yard line, Zuppke’s troops quite simply needed a miracle. That’s when Illinois’ wily mentor dug deep into his bag of tricks. First came a Britton pass to Grange that advanced the ball 29 yards to mid field. Then Zup called for a second helping of his Britton-to-Grange recipe and this time Grange galloped twenty more yards to the thirty. Unbelievably, Zuppke dialed the same number a third time and this time Grange wrestled the airborne pigskin from a tangle of Hawkeye defenders, battling his way to the three. As the clock trickled down to the final seconds, the Illini star circled around left end and into the end zone, providing Illinois with a 9-6 victory.
The victory in Iowa would ultimately trigger a phenomenal Illini finish that would see the Orange and Blue win its last five games of 1923, all of the shutout variety. Illinois’ perfect 8-0 record resulted in both Big Ten and national championships.
Sunday: Emma Milburn, track & field (20)
Monday: Meredith Hackett, softball
Tuesday: Jeff Kinney, football (50)
Wednesday: Gary Wieneke, track & field coach (82)
Thursday:Kirby Joseph, football (19)
Friday: Mark Tagart, football (57)
Saturday:Giorgi Bezhanishvili, basketball (21)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.