Football Bracket - 8 vs. 9
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Very interesting matchup here. Interesting bowl games as well. 1982 took on Alabama in Bear Bryant's final game - 2010 took on RGIII the year before he won the Heisman Trophy. Both teams had several players drafted (1982 saw five players drafted including Tony Eason in the first round; 2010 saw four players drafted including Corey Liuget in the first round). 1982 led to 1983 and an undefeated Big Ten season. 2010 led to 2011 and a 6-0 start followed by... six losses in a row and Ron Zook getting fired.
Let's dig in.
(8) 1982 Illini
Regular season record: 7-4 (6-3)
Bowl result: Lost 21-15 to Alabama in the Liberty Bowl
Just as it is with basketball when I wrote up the 1981 season, 1982 is juuust outside my memory. I would have been nine years old that fall, and while I have lots of memories of the 1983 season (including the Michigan game which was everything at the time), in the fall of 1982 I was learning to sports through something else: the Cardinals World Series title. (I know, I know - that's gross to all your Cubs fans. I grew up in Illinois but I was 29 miles from Busch Stadium so my professional allegiances always crossed the river.)
That fall, I kept a scrapbook (yes, a scrapbook) of the Cardinals run through the playoffs. It was a big thing back then. The newspaper would print these player profiles with a dashed line around them for you to cut out and collect. So somewhere in the basement I have a box with my 1982 St. Louis Cardinals scrapbook with Darrel Porter on the front page.
That World Series run clicked my "on" switch for sports. I was aware and I followed sports before then - again, my mom says I learned to read by reading the Blues box score to my dad at the kitchen table in the morning, and that would have been like 1977 or so. But that run for the Cardinals in 1982 (my whole grade school was into it, my friends talked about it on the playground, I discussed it with my family at dinner, etc) was what flipped the switch. The following fall I learned that Illini Football was pretty much the best college football team on the planet and I'm now on year 37 trying to recapture that.
So 1982 was basically "this team my dad follows". Most of my memories that I'm writing within these deep dive posts are based on things I remember - 1982, besides some Tony Eason memories and a faint memory of the Pitt game, I have no real recollections.
Which means I was very surprised to learn how close that team was to a breakthrough season. Like, a massive breakthrough. The 1982 team lost five times. Here were the five losses:
- 20-3 to #3 Pittsburgh. Yes, Pitt used to be a powerhouse, especially with Dan Marino.
- 26-21 to Ohio State.
- 14-13 to Iowa.
- 16-10 to #15 Michigan.
- 21-15 to Alabama in the Liberty Bowl.
Now, any team like that is going to have games that go the other way. And the Wisconsin game that season was certainly that. If you've ever heard anything about that 1982 season, it's probably that Wisconsin game. It was the bounce pass game. Wisconsin used a trick play where the QB threw a pass to Al Toon in the flat and skipped it off the turf intentionally. It was a backwards pass, which meant it was a live ball, and Toon threw a touchdown pass to take the lead in the final minute. Thankfully, Illinois wasn't done. Tony Eason had 52 seconds to work with and got the team into field goal range. Mike Bass hit a 46-yarder as time expired and Illinois pulled out the win. Those were the days!
The next two games after that - a loss at Iowa and a loss to Michigan - are probably the games that prevent us from listing 1982 up there with the great Illini seasons. The following season would be the breakout moment, but I'm guessing you could see it all developing the year before. The thing I'm sure everyone was discussing at the time: would White be able to replace Tony Eason?
Eason is part of an interesting footnote in history. That 1983 draft is simply known as the Quarterbacks draft. Here were the quarterbacks taken in the first round:
1. John Elway to Baltimore (traded to Denver)
7. Todd Blackledge to Kansas City
14. Jim Kelly to Buffalo
15. Tony Eason to New England
24. Ken O'Brien to the Jets
27. Dan Marino to Miami
Four of those QB's played in the Super Bowl (Elway, Kelly, Eason, and Marino), and you Bears fans remember which Super Bowl Eason participated in. The game before, Eason had gone head-to-head with Marino and won, throwing three touchdowns on the road in Miami in the AFC Championship Game to lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl. In the Super Bowl... he started 0-6 and was yanked for Steve Grogan (who couldn't move the ball either as the Bears won 46-10).
The 1982 group was almost certainly Mike White's second-best team. As I wrote about yesterday, his rise and fall of wins went 3-7-7-10-7-6-4-3. But just about any Illini fan would take a 7-7-10-7 run right about now. Is that 7-win season good enough to beat another team that won seven games with a bowl win? Let's see...
(9) 2010 Illini
Regular season record: 6-6 (4-4)
Bowl result: Beat Baylor 38-14 in the Texas Bowl
This one I can do from memory. The four bowl games since I started the blog (2010, 2011, 2014, and 2019) will all be done from memory. I feel uniquely positioned to write these posts given A) the way my memory works and B) the fact that I've written at least 100,000 words about each of the teams.
2010 was the first time I attended Camp Rantoul as a fake media member. I had been before, and I wrote about 2009 Camp Rantoul on the blog, but 2010 was "I'm going to go cover this team". I wasn't allowed to interview players or coaches yet, so I simply sat in the stands, took notes in my phone, and then went back to the Super 8 in Rantoul and wrote about what I saw.
I remember seeing some hope, but I don't think I saw a bowl game (and a bowl win) coming. Now that I have a dozen training camps under my belt, I think I can better organize what means good things are coming and what means bad things are coming, but that team was still a surprise.
The biggest thing: how the offensive line came together. I think the entire "3-9 to 7-6" rebound can be traced to that. Here's how I remember it going down.
Mike Schultz is let go after 2009 and Paul Petrino is brought in as the offensive coordinator with Jeff Brohm as the QB coach. They run the Petrino family offense which has strongside tackles and weakside tackles, not right tackles and left tackles. That means when the tight end lines up on the left, the tackles and guards flip as well, so sometimes you're the left guard and sometimes you're the right guard.
This meant reshuffling the entire offensive line. Graham Pocic is moved to center and that fits like a glove. There are two solid sophomore tackles in Jeff Allen and Cory Lewis, but Lewis tears his ACL and is out for the year. That means that Ryan Palmer, who lost his starting job the year before, comes in as strongside tackle for his senior season. At guard, the coaches settle on a trio of players - senior Randall Hunt, junior Jack Cornell, and sophomore Hugh Thornton. Cornell was kind of the utility man, playing some tackle and some guard. I believe all of them started at least six games.
Allen was the anchor to the whole thing, but after so many offensive line struggles in 2009, everything just.. fit. Palmer was a revelation at strongside tackle, and having a sixth man was very helpful for an in-game ankle-twists and such, and the running game suddenly flourished. Yes, having a Mikel Leshoure is a big part of that (he was picked in the second round of the draft after the season), but the restructured offensive line is what made that season go. You could tell from the first game (a loss in the dome to Missouri where Illinois had a legit shot at the end) that everything was different.
Including the defense. Vic Koenning took a unit that had really struggled in 2009 (yet had all of this NFL talent) and made it work. The first time we saw all of that come together was the win at Penn State in early October. The Illini go into Happy Valley and dominate from the start with the defense leading the way. The Nate Bussey pick six, Corey Liuget and Glenn Foster constantly getting pressure up the middle, and the Penn State fans looked dumbfounded. The extremely close game the week before against #2 Ohio State was not a fluke - this team was for real. Illinois 33, Penn State 13.
Of course, we then went and did some Illinoising. We completely dominate Indiana and Purdue in Champaign to move to 5-3 on the season and a game away from bowl eligibility. And then two of the gut-punchiest games I can recall - the triple overtime loss at Michigan followed by the home loss to a really bad Minnesota team that had lost nine consecutive games and fired their coach. Man, those losses were... ugh. I guess I'll write about them.
The Michigan game was this weird game where nothing worked on defense. It was basically "whoever has the ball last will win". It ends tied, goes to overtime, goes to a second overtime, goes to a third overtime...
Except it shouldn't have gone to a third overtime. In the second overtime Terry Hawthorne spins in front of Roy Roundtree and gets his hand on a pass to knock it down and the Illini wi... wait, no, it deflects up into the air and right back down to Roundtree in stride and he scores and we go to a third overtime. As I wrote at the time, get a JUGS machine and build a model "arm of defensive back extending with the outside of the wrist to knock down a pass" - just get some robotics students to build a mechanical arm or something. Then fire 100 footballs from the JUGS gun at the outside of that wrist making a batting motion. Maybe two of those 100 balls deflect directly to the receiver in stride. MAYBE two. It was a simple slant pass with defenders everywhere. Almost every deflection either goes down and hits the turf or pops up to one of the defenders. This one was softened enough to fall gently to the receiver in the direction he was running.
Michigan won in the third overtime. I really need to let that go.
Then the next game week was way worse. Minnesota is riding a nine game losing streak, we have a comfortable 34-24 lead with eight minutes left, and we allow them to score two touchdowns in those final eight minutes, with the final touchdown being this slow, methodical, my-God-why-can't-we-stop-them drive that ended with the winning touchdown with 15 seconds left. With a trip to Wrigley to play Northwestern (who was ranked 25th in the coaches poll) and then a trip to Fresno State coming up, I sat there recording From The Stands wondering if we were going to lose our last four games to miss a bowl game.
We did not. Northwestern forgot how to play run defense, Illinois put up 519 rushing yards (five hundred and nineteen rushing yards), and Illinois won Northwestern's little "paint the Wrigley sign purple" odyssey 48-27. I'll remember Mikel Leshoure's rushing statistics until the day I die: 33 carries for 330 yards, so exactly 10 yards per carry. And that's pretty much how the entire game went. Every time he touched the ball, it felt like he'd pick up 10 yards.
That clinched the bowl. A week later, the worst spot in the history of bad spots cost Illinois a chance at the game-winning field goal and the Illini lost at Fresno State 25-23. I've always said - if Illinois had lost to Northwestern the week before and that fourth-down spot for Fresno State cost Illinois a bowl game, we'd still be talking about it. Instead, it meant we went from 7-5 to 6-6 (and were probably still headed to the Texas Bowl either way).
I couldn't attend the Texas Bowl. In an effort to get the Illini in a bowl game, we planned a ski trip to Colorado with our boys. Left on Christmas eve, came back on New Years Day. So I watched that Texas Bowl with my wife and kids in a condo in Frisco, Colorado. Man, that was fun. Baylor was favored, the Illini dominated, and Leshoure got the single-season rushing record late in the game. The perfect cap for a surprise season.
The question at hand: could that 2010 team knock off 1982 in this 8/9 matchup? That's for you to decide. Eason's senior year vs. Leshoure's breakout year. Go vote here.