Those Were The Days - Northwestern
I think this is the first time in three years I've remembered to post the Northwestern TWTD. It's always Thanksgiving, and I always get busy with Thanksgiving and forget. But I haven't forgotten this year. Here's Detlef to take us back to 1988 and the Jeff George-led Illini.
Illinois hosts that team from up north this week. I hate that school so much I don't want to print its name. (Ok I will so my editors won't get mad). Maybe some Illini fans won't admit it but to me this is Illinois' biggest rival. You must beat your in-state rivals for recruiting and bragging rights. This tale recalls a critical win in a rebuilding program, much like what Lovie Smith is facing today. BEAT NORTHWESTERN.
November 19, 1988: Under first-year head coach John Mackovic, the Fighting Illini held a record of 5-4-1 which included an impressive win at Ohio State. However, Illinois needed to beat in-state rival Northwestern for the trifecta of the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, a winning record and a bowl game. Officials from the All-American Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama attended the game, planning to extend an invite to Illinois. Northwestern entered the game at 2-7-1 and looked to play spoiler. On a cold, wet day in Champaign the teams took the field before a crowd of 42,329.
Illinois received the kickoff and quickly scored. Keith Jones ran for 57 yards on his first carry. To cap off an 84-yard drive, Mackovic reached into the trick bag. Jeff George handed off to Jones, running right. He stopped and threw a wounded duck to the left to a wide-open George. George fell into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass. Doug Higgins added the extra point. "I think my speed got me open," said George, laughingly. After a Northwestern fumble, Illinois scored again when Howard Griffith ran six yards for another touchdown. Illinois led 14-0 with three minutes left in the first quarter and all seemed right.
THIS IS ILLINOIS FOOTBALL. The Illinois offense went into a deep freeze. Meantime, Northwestern converted two field goals for a 14-6 halftime deficit. Injuries piled up for our boys. This included tight end Jeff Finke (father of Michael Finke) and defensive lineman Brian Williams. Defensive linemen Mel Agee and Mo Gardner limped most of the game. The depth was so low, freshman Mike Poloskey of Joliet Central saw his first action of the season.
In the third quarter, Northwestern converted another field goal for a 14-9 score. In the fourth quarter, the teams exchanged punts but then Illinois put together a drive deep into Northwestern territory. Alas, Higgins missed a 27-yard field goal with 3:50 left and Northwestern had a chance to win the game.
With just eighteen seconds left, Northwestern faced a third down and four from the Illinois 24-yard line. Northwestern quarterback Greg Bradshaw threw to Richard Buchanan in the end zone. Illini safety Marlon Primous knocked the ball away. Now, just four seconds remained. On fourth down, Bradshaw threw to Bob Griswold, who caught the pass just short of the end zone. Primous got his hat on the football and knocked it loose. Darrick Brownlow recovered and the game was over! The Illini were going bowling! "In all my years of football, I don't think I've ever seen a player make two better plays at the end of the game," said Mackovic. "I think he just got a helmet on it," said Griswold.
Somehow, Illinois held onto a victory that on paper, it did not deserve. Northwestern had four drives go inside the Illini 25-yard line but only scored six points. Northwestern had 22 first downs, Illinois had 12. Northwestern had 375 yards of offense, Illinois had 292. Northwestern had almost 35 minutes of possession. Above all, the Illinois defense rose to the occasion, forcing four turnovers including the critical fumble at the end of the game. Brownlow and Steve Glasson each finished with 17 tackles. Keith Jones ran for 118 yards and finished the regular season with 1,108 yards. At that time, only Fighting Illini legends Jim Grabowski, J.C. Caroline and Thomas Rooks had rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season.
Illinois finished 6-5-1 after a loss to Florida in the All-American Bowl, which set up a great 1989 season.
Sources: "Silver Lining" by Linda Young. Chicago Tribune: November 21, 1988.