Football Bracket - 3 vs. 14
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OK, back to the bracket. I paused after the top half of this bracket because, well, these posts are taxing. I'm not sure I could really explain why this is the case, but it's perhaps 10 times more mentally exhausting to write these posts. I could write a 2,000-word linebacker preview for this fall in 90 minutes, but digging through my memories to write about the 1989 season takes a lot out of me. It's weird, this whole "words come into my brain and then out through my fingers" thing.
For the 3 vs. 14 matchup, we have 1989 vs. 2011. Both teams were ranked - 1989 as high as 8th; 2011 as high as 16th. Both had a high number of NFL draft picks on the roster. Both won their bowl games. The only real difference is, well, that whole six game losing streak in 2011.
Let's break 'em down.
(3) 1989 Illini
Regular season record: 9-2
Bowl result: Beat #16 Virginia 31-21 in the Florida Citrus Bowl
I said this a lot when writing the 1990 breakdown, but you need to understand where we were as a program at the time. First off, if this were today, we wouldn't have been in the Citrus Bowl. We went 7-1 in the Big Ten to finish solo second, so if this happened today, Michigan would have won the Big Ten and gone to the playoff while we'd get the second Big Ten NY6 spot (which would be the Rose Bowl if the playoff games were in two of the other NY6 games).
And we were constantly part of the national broadcast. The USC game, the Colorado game, and five of the eight Big Ten games were all picked up as national broadcasts. Just imagine a season where we're the featured game on ABC nearly every week. It really happened.
I mean, imagine tuning in to see #10 Illinois take on #8 Colorado in the CBS game of the week. All that buzz you feel tuning in to CBS on a Saturday afternoon to see Florida-Georgia - that happened for Illini football games. It really happened. It was an actual thing.
I should back up because I'm talking about games I haven't even talked about yet. Let's go through the schedule and then get to what it all meant.
Non-conference scheduling was a tiny bit different back then. Our schedule this coming September: an FCS opponent (Illinois State) followed by 2-10 UConn and 3-9 Bowling Green. Our first two games in 1989: at #5 USC, at #8 Colorado. And then it was home for Utah State before facing the Big Ten schedule.
The USC game is an all-timer. Keith Jackson on the call, ABC night game, on Labor Day (you know that opening-week game every year on Monday night? That was us). It wasn't originally supposed to be a road game. It was originally supposed to be played back in the U.S.S.R. This was ill-fated Glastnost Bowl which was to be played in Moscow. The trip was canceled (something about the Russians making nine hotel rooms available for travelers) and the game was moved to the Coliseum which made it a home game for USC.
I have vivid memories of that game, watching it with my dad in the basement. It was a clunker of a game for most of it - neither team could score a touchdown - and a 3-0 USC halftime lead jumped to 10-0 at the end of the third quarter when USC blocked a punt and returned it for a TD. They kicked another field goal in the fourth quarter and it looked like they were going to cruise to a 13-0 win. And then two Jeff George touchdown passes in the final six minutes means the Illini slip out of there with a 14-13 win.
Which was just massive. We beat Todd Marinovich and USC which not only vaulted us into the top-10, it vaulted Jeff George into the "will HE be the first QB taken in the draft?" discussion (spoiler - he went #1 overall). I'm a junior in high school and I'm fairly certain that when I get to Champaign - if I get in - I'm going to have a top-10 football program to cheer for.
That was followed by the inevitable clunker - a 38-7 loss at #8 Colorado. But then we rebound to win six in a row (hey, just like 2011) and suddenly we're staring at this scenario: #3 Michigan vs. #8 Illinois, in Champaign, with the Rose Bowl on the line. Here's my memories of that game:
I have none. I didn't watch. My high school football team was in the playoffs that year (no, I did not play football - we've been over this), and while Illinois was taking on Michigan that Saturday afternoon, I was 20 miles away watching my Bulldogs take on Rantoul HS. It remains one of my favorite sporting events of all time - my friend Scott made a one-handed catch with a minute left to keep the game-winning drive alive and the good guys won 26-25 - and so I have zero memory of us losing to Michigan with the Rose Bowl on the line. It was 1989 so I'm guessing that when the high school game was over, I flipped through radio stations until I could find a station giving out football scores. Perhaps it's a good thing I have no memory, because that could have been one of the biggest Illini wins of all time and... Michigan 24, Illinois 10.
The team would rebound and win out, knocking off #16 Virginia in the Citrus Bowl. All in all, a 10-2 season with the two losses coming to #8 Colorado (on the road) and at home to #3 Michigan. With a different schedule, honestly, 1989 could have been the 1-seed in this tournament. I mean, imagine a season where we beat Ohio State by 20 in Champaign and go to Iowa and win by 24. And that's after you knocked off #5 at their place. There's a case to be made that this was the best Illini team of all time. The quarterback went #1 in the draft, he had receivers like Mike Bellamy and Steven Williams who could catch everything, Howard Griffith had 1,100 yards from scrimmage, Darrick Brownlow (the year before he finished 2nd in the Butkus Award voting) and Moe Gardner led the defense, Henry Jones had five interceptions (including the big one that sealed the win at USC on their final drive) - that team really had everything.
So yeah, as I go through this, I'm wondering if I wouldn't have 1989 winning it all if I filled out a bracket (hey, just like the other bracket). 1983 and 2001 were great seasons, and 2007 and 1990 were a lot of fun, but man, when you go over these stats, 1989 was so, so good.
But the question here isn't "were they the best Illini team of the last 40 years?". The question here is could they beat.....
Regular season record: 6-6
Bowl result: Beat UCLA 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Weird - I'm still kind of mad about the final score of that bowl game. It's a 20-7 game, it's basically over, I'm down on the field (my first time on a field as a "media member"), and we bite on an out-and-up route and hand UCLA a free touchdown with maybe a minute left. I'm all ready to celebrate a win and now we have to sweat an onside kick. I can still remember offensive line coach Joe Gilbert screaming "ILLEGAL, ILLEGAL" as UCLA lined up with eight guys on one side of the ball for the onside kick (the officials flagged them, but we recovered it anyway). That really should have been a 20-7 final score, and right now I have no idea why I care.
Also - and I'm not sure anyone can fact check this so I'll just play fast and loose here - I'm pretty sure I remember Trulon Henry on the field for the onside kick? That was right after he was shot in the hand at a party. He missed the rest of the season but returned for the bowl game, playing a few plays with a massive (and I mean massive) bandage on his hand. It was basically a club. I think I remember (but I cannot confirm) writing something like "are we the only team in the country who runs out the hands team for the onside kick when one of the guys on the hands team got shot in the hand?".
OK, so let's talk about that season. It's basically remembered for one thing: 6-0 followed by 0-6. 6-0 and ranked as high as 16th, and then we lose six straight, go to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and play a UCLA team with seven losses. 6-0, at home, playing 3-3 Ohio State, and then... that.
Dig deeper and the season makes a little more sense. The schedule tells the story, really. Move some games around and it's your normal 6-6 season. Put Northwestern and Indiana somewhere else on the schedule besides the first two conference games and maybe it just plays out like any other 5-7 or 6-6 Illini season. Instead, it played out like this:
Open with Arkansas State and beat them 33-15. Then play an FCS team and obliterate them. Good start - 2-0.
Then #22 Arizona State comes to town. Except they're not the #22 team. We don't know it yet, but they're going to have a losing season. We think we're beating #22, which is why we jumped into the polls the next week, but we're not. (I didn't care at the time - that game was so much fun. STEVEHULL.)
The next week we hang on (barely) against Bill Cubit's Western Michigan Broncos and win 23-20. (I'm never going to scoff at barely beating a MAC team, especially not after last season, but I'm laying out why our 6-0 start was fool's gold.)
After the 4-0 start we begin the Big Ten schedule with Northwestern, who would go 6-6, and Indiana, who would go 1-11. The Northwestern game was really fun - we were down 28-10 but came back to win on a Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown run with 13 seconds left. And then Indiana was just awful (that was Kevin Wilson's first season, and he did the "play all the freshmen" thing). So, what do you know, we're #16 in the polls, bowl eligible in early October, and headed into a matchup with surprisingly 3-3 Ohio State.
Aaaand a loss. After losing to Ohio State, I was in a panic. That was my first dip into the NERDstats pool, and all of the NERDstats were indicating that our 6-0 start was a mirage, and then that turned out to be the case. Arizona State wasn't any good, Northwestern wasn't any good, even Western Michigan proved to be just a middle-of-the-road MAC team, and suddenly we came back down to earth. We lost to Purdue and Penn State back-to-back after the Ohio State loss and suddenly we're out of the polls and 6-3. There was a brief glimmer of hope when we led Wisconsin at halftime in the second-to-last game, but then we fell apart in the second half.
I've always pointed to that Wisconsin game as the reason Ron Zook was fired. One last time, it was on display: match the other team talent-wise, maybe even be better than a Wisconsin talent-wise, but mistakes cost the team the game. We lost that Wisconsin game 28-17 and all four Wisconsin touchdowns came off Illini mistakes. The stat I'll remember forever from that game: On drives where they started in their own territory, Wisconsin had 0 points. On drives where they started in Illini territory, Wisconsin had 28 points. We handed them the ball four times in our territory which handed them the game. Just take care of the ball and then hand it to a Blake Hayes to punt it away and we'd have won easily. The defense was dominating. Instead, 28-17 loss.
I don't know this for a fact, but my guess is that Mike Thomas made the Zook decision after that game. It was the perfect microcosm of "all this talent yet mistakes give the game away".
Because yes, there was talent. 2011 Whitney Mercilus was the single-most dominant performance from an individual player I've seen in my 11 years blogging about the Illini. 16 sacks to tie the Illini record. 9 forced fumbles, the second-most in NCAA history. That defense under Vic Koenning was so good. If you like NERDstats, they were 13th in SP+ defense for the year (not in the Big Ten - in the country). So good. YET, 2-6 in the Big Ten because the offense couldn't get there and the field position game-within-a-game was a disaster. So close, yet so far.
Matchup-wise, well, they'd be a nightmare for any opponent on this list. That team - the 2011 Illini team - possessed four of the top 48 picks in the NFL draft. Read that again. In the 2012 draft immediately following the 2011 season, four Illini players went in the first 48 picks, two in the first round, two in the second round. And yet, 2-6 in the Big Ten with a six game losing streak to close it out.
I do want to mention that the bowl game was awesome. As I've said many times before, the joy on that field after the game is unmatched in my time covering the Illini (well, maybe besides the field after Wisconsin or Michigan State this past season). Those players in 2011 felt the heaviness of the six-game losing streak and their coach getting fired. So to come out in the bowl game under their interim coach and put the screws to UCLA just had to feel good. That whole game felt like a redemption, from Terry Hawthorne finally getting to return punts to Nathan Scheelhaase getting out of his half-season funk. And the on-field celebration was great.
So that's our matchup. Two very talented teams - one who put it together, one who finished 7-6. Which one moves on? Vote here.