Those Were The Days - Minnesota
Let's go back to an era where Illinois Football was more or less the third best program in the Big Ten behind Michigan and Ohio State (yes, really). Today Detlef is taking us back to 1988, the beginning of John Mackovic's four year run of greatness. Take it away, D:
This week Illinois plays Minnesota and its annoying upbeat coach PJ Fleck, the pride of Kaneland High School. SINK THE BOAT. Several years ago for this column, I wrote solely about Illini defeats. This angered several readers so I have stayed with my usual practice of writing about Illini victories. However, this week I am changing things as a personal protest against the ridiculous overtime rules of college football. Why not have a kickoff to start overtime? Some games are meant to end in a tie, like this week's tale.
October 29, 1988: Illinois entered the game at 4-3 but a surprising 3-1 in Big Ten play under new head coach John Mackovic. Minnesota was floundering at 2-4-1 overall but crazy things always happened in this series when the game was at the Metrodome (RIP).
All week long, the Illinois coaches emphasized stopping the Minnesota rushing game. THIS IS ILLINOIS FOOTBALL. The Golden Gophers took the opening kickoff and drove 74 yards in 16 plays, lasting almost seven minutes for a 7-0 lead. Keith Jones returned the Minnesota kickoff to the Illinois 31-yard line. From there, quarterback Jeff George operated on the Minnesota defense like a skilled surgeon. He connected on four of his five passes in a 69-yard drive that ended with Jones diving over the pile from one yard out. George hit Jones twice for 24 yards and Steve Williams for 18 yards on that drive. For its second touchdown, the Illini offense capitalized on a turnover. Linebacker Darrick Brownlow smacked quarterback Scott Schaffner and safety Glenn Cobb picked up the fumble and ran it back to the Minnesota 43-yard line. Illinois tacked on a 46-yard field goal for a 17-7 halftime lead. George was 15 of 20 passing for 201 yards at the half.
In the third quarter, Illinois added another touchdown with George throwing four yard to Jeff Finke for a 24-7 lead and all seemed well. THIS IS ILLINOIS FOOTBALL. After a Brian Menkhausen punt pinned Minnesota at its own five-yard line, disaster struck. Minnesota responded with a 91-yard touchdown pass from Schaffner to Jason Bruce. It was the longest scoring play in Minnesota football history! Illini defensive back Stephen Jordan seemed like he was about to intercept the ball at midfield. However, Bruce literally grabbed the ball out of his arms and ran all the way to the end zone. "I had the ball," Jordan said. "I didn't have complete control. He was there to take it away from me." On Illinois' next play from scrimmage, George threw a pick and Minnesota took advantage with a 46-yard field goal for a 24-17 deficit.
In the fourth quarter, George had the offense moving again. But with ten minutes left, he threw a pick in the red zone which the Gophers returned to midfield. The Minnesota offense needed 12 plays until Darrell Thompson scored a touchdown from one yard out to tie the score at 24 with five minutes left.
Illinois stalled on its next offensive drive and punted. THIS IS ILLINOIS FOOTBALL. A personal foul penalty gave Minnesota the ball at the Illinois 35-yard line. The defense held but gave Minnesota a chance for the lead with 57 seconds left. Minnesota kicker Brent Berglund nailed a 46-yard field goal for a 27-24 Minnesota lead. Things looked bleak.
THIS IS FIGHTING ILLINI FOOTBALL! The Illini offense took over at its own 31-yard line with 46 seconds left. George hit Mike Bellamy for 15 yards. A couple of short passes later and Illinois had the football at the Minnesota 27-yard line with one second left. Kicker Doug Higgins trotted out to salvage a tie for the Fighting Illini. Minnesota called time out. Minnesota called another time out. "When Minnesota called the second time out, I called the team over just to tell them, let's go kick it." Higgins nailed the kick perfectly with one second left and Illinois got a tie from the jaws of a blown victory. "I was pretty relaxed," said Higgins.
"The best thing about it is we were able to bounce back at the end of the game and kick the field goal," Mackovic said. "But we didn't play our best football." George was angry. "We played a good first half, then we came out dead in the second half. I guess we just took it for granted. To be quite honest, we should have gotten beat." George finished with 343 yards passing.
Illinois finished 6-5-1 after a bowl loss to Florida. Better days were ahead in 1989.
Sources: "Illini Squeak Out Tie With Gophers" by Linda Young. Chicago Tribune: October 30, 1988.