Those Were The Days - Minnesota
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How great is that photo? Found it in the Illinois archives. Bill Offenbecher is the quarterback, and the backfield consists of Dale Smith at right halfback, Ray Nitshke at fullback, and Bobby Mitchell at left halfback. The photo isn't an accurate depiction of this game, though, as Detlef will tell you in a moment. Some of the starters, including Offenbecher, were benched for the Minnesota game that year. And it worked. I should just let Detlef tell you...
This week, Illinois hosts Minnesota and its hyper-active coach, P.J. Fleck. SINK THE BOAT! Last year's loss angered me because Brandon Peters got knocked out early and the offense did not recover. Hopefully, the Illini exact revenge this year. This week's tale recalls when Illinois stunned a highly-ranked Minnesota team.
October 19, 1957: Our boys hosted the Golden Gophers on Homecoming. Minnesota entered the game ranked 4th in the country, with a 3-0 record. Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini entered the contest at 1-2, having lost at UCLA to start the season, followed by a win against Colgate (get them back on the schedule, Josh Whitman!) and a loss at Ohio State. A daunting task awaited Illinois and head coach Ray Eliot as 14-point underdogs.
Ray Eliot, master motivator, benched many of his first-string players. It worked! Illinois scored the first touchdown and did not look back. Fullback Jack Delveaux ran 31 yards to set up the first Illini touchdown. He finished with 78 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Running back Bobby Mitchell, hospitalized earlier in the week, also ran well. The blocking of fullback Ray Nitschke also proved to be critical. Minnesota also lost two turnovers before halftime, with Illinois defensive end Rod Hanson getting an interception and Mitchell recovering a fumble at the Minnesota 28-yard line that led to more Illinois points. Illinois exploded for a 21-0 halftime lead.
Quarterback Tom Haller (Lockport) directed the team smoothly all game. Haller completed seven of 13 passes. Illinois dominated the line of scrimmage, thanks to guards Bill Burrell and Joe Bellephant. End Rich Kreitling also received praise after the game. By the time the fourth quarter started, Illinois enjoyed a 34-0 lead and Eliot cleared his bench. Illinois cruised to a stunning 34-13 rout of the Golden Gophers.
Minnesota head coach Murray Warmath accepted responsibility for the loss. "When something like the Illinois game happens, the inescapable responsibility rests on the shoulders of one man alone. And I am glad to accept that responsibility. We were not surprised by any Illinois maneuver, we were simply outplayed." However, his players disagreed. "We played a terrible game," said end Perry Gehring, "and no one was to blame but ourselves."
Illinois ended the season at 4-5 with a 3-4 Big Ten conference mark. On a side note, my research for this article discovered that UIC once had a football team! The Chicago Illini, as they were known, defeated St. Procopins 46-7. This win broke a 11-game losing streak!
Tom Haller went on to enjoy a long career in Major League Baseball as a player and as an executive. He passed away in 2004.
Sources: "Gopher Coach Takes Blame" by the Associated Press. Daily Illini: October 22, 1957.