Those Were The Days - Maryland
Detlef can't really TWTD Maryland because we've never played Maryland. So this week's TWTD will have to be memories of a different game. He chose... Arkansas State? Yes, Arkansas State in 1999. Two games before the Louisville game which told us all that the turnaround was working. Here's Detlef:
This week the Fighting Illini travel to Maryland. Is this an Atlantic Coast Conference game? Your faithful scribe and the rest of the Dreaded E-Mail Clan (DE-MC) will be there! We will spend time in our nation's capital and solve the budget deficit. Anyhow, the teams have never met on the gridiron. This week's tale recalls the opening game from a very enjoyable season.
September 4, 1999: I rode Amtrak from the Joilet to meet my fellow season reservation holder in Springfield. We both hoped Illinois could make a bowl game in Ron Turner's third season. Illinois went 3-8 the previous season after the 0-11 disaster of 1997. On a sunny, warm day at Memorial Stadium, we sat in Section EE, row 39 to watch events unfold. To his credit, Ron Turner moved the team bench back to the west side of the stadium. With a 2:30 p.m. kickoff this allowed his team be in the shade late in the game.
Unsurprisingly, Arkansas State took an early 3-0 lead. But the Fighting Illini responded right away. Kurt Kittner connected on a 40-yard sideline pass to Michael Dean to set up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brian Hodges with 1:50 left in the first quarter.
The second quarter demonstrated that the Indians were not facing the same old Illini. Marc Jackson partially blocked a punt to set up a 12-yard touchdown pass to Dean. At 14-3, the beloved went for the jugular. Eugene Wilson, in his first college game, took a punt 65 yards to the house for a 21-3 lead with 6:52 left in the second quarter! It was UI's first punt return for a score since 1982 when Kirby Wilson scored vs. Minnesota. "It was pretty exciting," said Wilson. I caught the ball, got away from a guy and then I found the hole. Once I get the ball and get a couple of steps I believe I can make something good happen."
The Fighting Illini put together a solid drive to finish the half. The drive went like this: 17 yard pass to Aaron Moorehead; 14 yards to Rocky Harvey; 9 yards to Josh Whitman (did he fall down as soon as he caught it?) and 6 yards to Greg Lewis. This set up a 29-yard field goal by Neil Rackers for a 24-3 halftime lead.
Illinois continued to dominate in the second half, earning a 41-3 win and Illinois' first win in its opening game since 1992. BOGGLE! Kittner finished with 17 of 28 passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions. Rocky Harvey had 10 carries for 96 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. Steve Havard gained 53 yards on 17 carries.
"The difference between this team and the others that this one is not only more experienced, we're also more confident," said Ron Turner. "I'm not surprised we won today because of the focus these guys have had-every single one of them." Indeed, Illinois had just one penalty and no turnovers.
The seminal moment when I knew Illinois would be better occurred late in the game. For the first time since its opening drive, Arkansas State was in Illini territory. Illinois had its backups playing defense in the game. Starting linebacker Eric Guenther (nephew of His Excellency) ran onto the field during a timeout, imploring the defense to hold firm and not allow a late score. The defense stuffed the drive. Illinois finished 8-4 with a bowl beatdown of Virginia in one of the most surprising and satisfying Illini football seasons in my lifetime.
SOURCES: "Illini win easily…no lie" by Gary Reinmuth. Chicago Tribune: September 5, 1999. "Wilson has many talents" Id. Credit to Detlef's parents for the research.