Those Were The Days - Akron
It's one of the things on IlliniBoard that predates me: Detlef writing weekly Those Were The Days columns where he looks back at an Illini game gone by. Of late it's been Friday mornings, but Craig is having some techincal difficulties with Craig Has The Scout so I'm going to put TWTD up first this week. And then I'll probably write two more posts tonight. And then two tomorrow. And then FOOTBALL.
Here's Detlef to take us back to that, uh, not so exciting 1996 season. Direct all complaints to Detlef F. Detlef, Esq.
It's Year Four of the Lovie Smith Era (Error?) at Illinois! It's Bowl or Bust for Lovie in my humble opinion. The annual tradition of an Illinois football coach going bowling in his third season did not happen last season because of the worst defense I have ever seen at Illinois. At least the rushing offense was fun under Rod Smith. Illinois has become a de facto triple option team, an offense which I always enjoy watching. If the wide receivers can catch passes this year (the amount of drops last season was BOGGLING) and the defense can just be mediocre, six wins and a bowl game is doable. WHY NOT ILLINOIS!
Illinois opens the season against the mighty Akron Zips. Akron plays in the Mid-American Conference so I am already nervous. Hopefully our boys start out strong and earn a convincing win. Illinois has only met Akron once before and that is today's tale.
September 21, 1996: The Fighting Illini entered the game at 0-3 as the misery under Head Coach Lou Tepper (aka Coach Death Penalty) rolled on. Illinois started the season with a tough 20-8 loss at Michigan, followed by a 55-3 beating by USC, and then a 41-0 hammering at Arizona that featured quarterback Mark Hoesktra throwing five interceptions. Illinois was desperate for a win against a bad team that featured a dynamic defensive end named Jason Taylor. Earlier in the week, the Champaign News-Gazette published a story about how the football team's losing was affecting hotel and restaurant sales in the 217. A win would bring a little sunshine to a gloomy Memorial Stadium. Illinois entered the contest as a 26-point favorite.
The first quarter was a dismal continuation of the prior week's performance at Arizona. For those keeping score at home, the Illinois offense had now gone ten straight quarters without a touchdown. However, the Illinois offense put together a drive early in the second quarter after a poor Akron punt. Scott Weaver, back at quarterback, threw an eleven-yard touchdown pass to Jason Dulick for a 7-0 lead. Alas, Akron drove on the next possession all the way to the Illinois one-yard line. On fourth down, Akron went for it. The Akron quarterback ran a fake into the line, rolled out and threw to a wide-open Jason Taylor (now doing double duty at tight end) for a 7-7 tie going into halftime. The crowd of 48,285 had that sinking feeling.
After an early exchange of punts, Illinois got assertive on offense. This meant giving the rock to one of my all-time favorite Illini, Robert Holcombe. The Incredible Holc rumbled over the goal line for a 14-7 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter. After a strong defensive stand, Illinois again scored on a Bret Scheuplein 20-yard field goal for a 17-7 lead entering the final quarter.
On a third down at its own 20-yard line, Akron threw a pass in the flat. Illinois DB Asim Pleas picked it off at the thirty-yard line and took it to the house for a 24-7 lead that proved insurmountable. Two more touchdown runs by Holcombe made the final score 38-7. Holcombe finished with 151 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Illinois ended the game with 199 yards rushing. Scott Weaver, who was injured at Arizona, had a nice game with 17 of 28 passing for 194 yards. Jason Dulick caught six passes for 77 yards. The Illinois defense held Akron to only 155 total yards of offense.
Coach Death Penalty spread sunshine after the win. "I'm very OK with where we are right now. We have improved significantly. At 0-3 I didn't want to say that we are a terrible football team."
This was one of two wins for Illinois that season. Illinois finished 2-9 and Football Guy Ron Guenther sacked Lou Tepper and replaced him with Ron Turner.
SOURCES: Daily Herald: September 22, 1996. Chicago Tribune: September 23, 1996.