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Saturday’s football loss at Iowa (33-23) was the eighth straight Illini setback in the series, the latest disappointment for a program that has taught its modern fans to live with infrequent highs and recurrent lows.

It has always been thus. If the 1924 Memorial Stadium dedication was historic — junior Red Grange ran wild in a 39-14 defeat of Michigan — it marked the only time Illinois scored a point against the Wolverines between 1921 and 1926 (no game in 1923).

As a longtime viewer of the scene, the drastic swings have carried me into my ninth decade along the sideline. Rather than recite Saturday’s all-to-familiar shortcomings, I have compiled a decade-by-decade list of the most dramatic successes and failures that I have witnessed in person.


Highest: 1946, Illinois 16, Ohio State 7.

  • Venturing into the stands from nearby Monticello, I watched Buckeye fullback Joe Whisler send bodies flying in the Memorial Stadium mud but, time after time, the Illini resisted in the red zone. Ultimately, all OSU needed was a field goal to overcome a 9-7 deficit but a flat pass fell into Julie Rykovich’s hands and he sloshed 98 yards to save the day.

Lowest: 1947, Michigan 14, Illinois 7.

  • A home crowd of 71,119 had high expectations, only to see Illinois drop its second consecutive 14-7 decision (like the previous Saturday at Purdue) to No. 2 Michigan.


Highest: 1951, Illinois 7, Michigan 0.

  • Tommy O’Connell’s late-game TD pass to Rex Smith capped a snow-splattered day that highlighted an unbeaten season, leading to my train ride to the Rose Bowl for a 40-7 rout of Stanford. It was my misfortune to miss the Caroline-Bates show that rocked No. 3 Ohio State, 41-20, in 1953, and Abe Woodson’s breakaways to stun No. 1 Michigan State, 21-14, here in 1957.

Lowest: 1950, Northwestern 14, Illinois 7.

  • For the fourth straight year, the season finale vs. NU was a disaster. Illinois was a high-flying 7-1 and ranked No. 6 when the host Wildcats pulled the upset, knocking the Illini out of the undisputed Big Ten title (Michigan had a loss and a tie).


Highest: 1966, Illinois 28, Michigan 21.

  • In six tries, Illini coach Pete Elliott hadn’t beaten brother Bump Elliott when a 21-21 game suddenly turned on Bruce Sullivan’s 98-yard interception return in snowy Ann Arbor.

Lowest: 1963, Michigan 14, Illinois 8.

  • The eventual Rose Bowl champs suffered their only loss when Jim Warren failed to handle Mike Taliaferro’s fourth-quarter lateral, allowing Michigan to overcome an 8-7 deficit. On my way to Michigan State a week later, the game was moved due to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and I was unable to attend the historic 13-0 shutout by Dick Butkus & Co. over the No. 4 Spartans on Nov. 28.


Highest: 1973, Illinois 15, Purdue 13.

  • With only 35 wins in the decade, let’s highlight freshman Dan Beaver’s fifth field goal (in the final 24 seconds) to infuriate Boilermakers coach Alex Agase. Illinois edged Michigan State 6-3 on Beaver kicks a week later, again without a touchdown.

Lowest: 1979, Navy 13, Illinois 12.

  • Illinois seemed to hit bottom on consecutive weeks at home, literally throwing away winnable games against Navy and Iowa, 13-7. This season marked the end of Gary Moeller’s 6-24-3 era and a forgettable decade for the Illini.


Highest: 1983, UI 17, Ohio State 13.

  • The ‘80s were packed with sparklers, most notably the Thomas Rooks run to edge the Buckeyes, the 16-6 defeat of Michigan two weeks later, the Mike Bass boot in 1982 that capped a 29-28 comeback at Wisconsin and Jeff George’s touchdown passes to shock USC, 14-13, in 1989 ... a dramatic change from the 1970s.

Lowest: Jan. 2, 1984, UCLA 45, UI 9.

  • More than 100,000 packed the Rose Bowl to watch Mike White’s No. 4 Illini unravel against unranked UCLA.


Highest: 1994, Illinois 24, Ohio State 10.

  • Linebacker Dana Howard predicted victory and the Illini defense ruled at Ohio State. This marked a period in which the Illini won six of seven against Ohio State, and 10 of 19 through 2001. A 31-20 defeat of Ohio State in 1990 ignited a Big Ten title run under John Mackovic.

Lowest: 1994, Penn State 35, Illinois 31.

  • One that got away! Illinois jumped ahead 21-0 at home against the second-ranked Nittany Lions, and led until Kerry Collins spearheaded two late marches, the winning drive covering 96 yards and disappointing most of 77,000 fans in the final minute.


Highest: 2007, Illinois 28, Ohio State 21.

  • Juice Williams fired four touchdown passes and, with No. 1-ranked Ohio State desperate to get the ball back, sparked an eight-minute march to secure the victory and, ultimately, the Rose Bowl bid.

Lowest: Jan. 1, 2002, LSU 47, Illinois 34.

  • This lopsided Sugar Bowl setback ended a seven-game win streak by Ron Turner’s Big Ten champs. Like the 49-17 Rose Bowl loss to USC by Ron Zook’s 2007 club, it demonstrated Illinois was not ready for the bright lights that accompany the sport on New Year’s Day.


Highest: 2019, Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23.

  • James McCourt’s boot to edge sixth-ranked and undefeated Wisconsin was the highlight of the Lovie Smith regime.

Lowest: 2010, Michigan 67, Illinois 65 (3 OT).

  • Eleven years prior to the nine-overtime 20-18 victory at Penn State, Illinois repeatedly came close to downing the Wolverines before falling in the third overtime. Earlier in the year, Illinois lost for the sixth straight time to Missouri which, in terms of cumulative disappointment, ranks almost as high as the current 4-14 run against Northwestern.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at

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