Football Bracket - 2 vs. 15
It's a total joke at this point. The first-round matchups for the basketball bracket were all cranked out in a week. It was 10 days from starting that series to the final matchup. Now, it's been a WEEK since the last football post. Over-promise, under-deliver.
Another way to put it: The first matchup I wrote up - the 1-seed vs. the 16-seed got 771 votes in the poll on Twitter. That has dwindled with each post I've put up to the point where the last one I wrote - 3 vs. 14, got only 278 votes. We're at the NOBODYYY CAAARRREES stage of this series, and here I am, finally getting to the final first round matchup on April 22nd. Robert Rosenthal, Blogging Champion.
(It's still so weird to use my last name freely after going single-name for 11 years in an effort to keep some distance between my real career and my fake career.)
On to the matchup. The team where everything went right vs. the team where everything went wrong.
(2) 2001 Illini
Regular season record: 10-1
Bowl result: Lost to LSU 47-34 in the Sugar Bowl.
This is one of those "come on, everyone remembers 2001..." seasons. I assume that all Illini fans sat their kids on their laps and told them stories of Carey Davis and Eugene Wilson. And then I realize that it was 19 years ago and freshmen on campus (well, not on campus anymore) weren't even born yet.
Even if you don't remember it, you probably know the details. It's the last time Illinois won the Big Ten, and we won it outright. We would have gone to the Rose Bowl, but this new "Bowl Championship Series" thing meant that the 2002 Rose Bowl would host the title game, so we had to go to another BCS bowl (the Sugar Bowl). Where were were tiger bait.
I'll start with a very specific memory: the Penn State game. Just like all the other posts in this series, my memories are related to where I was in life at the time. It was about five years after graduation, and I had been at the same job for four of them, so I decided it was time to put down roots and buy a house. I paid $60,000 (yes, $60,000) for a fixer-upper in the city of St. Louis right on the border with Richmond Heights (as in, my neighbors across the street were in Richmond Heights, I was in the city).
I lived in said fixer-upper for a year and a half before I decided to finally fix it up. And I chose the fall of 2001 for that project. The previous owner, seeing the cracked plaster walls and ceiling, "fixed" it with wood paneling and a drop ceiling. So the nine-foot ceilings were actually eight-foot ceilings, and the walls looked like the inside of a trailer. See why it was $60,000?
Fall of 2001 I fixed all of that. I tore out the drop ceiling, tore down the paneling, tore out a few of the plaster walls which were in really bad shape, and went in with drywall everywhere. I also tore up the carpet and put in a faux hardwood floor. It was way more project than I should have taken on.
My memories of September 11th are tied to that project. I had a small TV back in the bedroom (the only room which had already been renovated), so my memories of being glued to the news after September 11th were either on that TV or listening to the radio while working on the renovations. And my memories of the 2001 Illini season are all completely intertwined with those home renovations. The largest of which is... I only attended two games because of them. And only one of those games was at home.
(I guess I'm not starting with the Penn State game.)
For Labor Day, I have a trip planned to go see the Illini in California. My friend Derek lived in San Francisco at the time, so a bunch of us traveled out to see him and then hopped over to Berkeley for the game. Brandon Lloyd took over, we demolished Cal, and I remember thinking it was so cool that I got to high-five Joe Bevis when the players came over to celebrate with the group of Illini fans in the southeast corner of the stadium. That was a very "whoa, we are GOOD" game which told the story for the season to come.
Then it's back home for a nail-biter over Northern Illinois (never take those MAC games for granted, man). I believe that's the weekend I started my project by getting a big dumpster delivered and tearing out all the paneling and the drop ceiling. Demo day!
Then, September 11th. I honestly can't remember how that changed our schedule. I know that all games were postponed the following weekend (was the Louisville game supposed to be on the 15th but got bumped to the 22nd?). Regardless, once college football returned, we beat a ranked Louisville team to move to 3-0 and move into the polls.
But my memories of this season aren't like my memories of other seasons because, for the most part, I wasn't there. That was my "radio season" where I listened to most every game on the radio while trying to figure out how to use a drywall jack and crank large sheets of drywall up to the ceiling.
Which is why your memories aren't my memories. The Brandon Lloyd catch to beat Wisconsin? I wasn't there in the sold out crowd with 70,000 others (on Homecoming, right?). The Penn State comeback? I wasn't there. I was trying to figure out how to hang a ceiling fan.
I do have very specific memories - they're just not like the other seasons. Take the Penn State game (FINALLY).
The bedroom at the house had this sun room attached. There were french doors between the bedroom and the sun room - I think the real estate flyers called it a "nursery". For those three months while I was renovating the house, I moved every piece of furniture in the house (like, every single piece) into the bedroom and I "lived" in the sun room. There was a couch, a coffee table, and a TV. I ate every meal at that coffee table, slept every night on that couch, and then walked past what looked like a storage unit in the master bedroom to get to the rest of the house (where I had plastic hanging over the doorways to prevent dust).
So I did stop working that afternoon to watch part of the Penn State game. That's why that game sticks out to me as THE game of 2001. We lost to Michigan right after the Louisville win but then went on a four-game winning streak including a blowout win AT Purdue (who was ranked at the time) the week after the Wisconsin win. So the momentum heading into that Penn State game was massive. Michigan had just lost at Michigan State the week before, so we're tied for the Big Ten lead. And we're ranked #15.
Then, we come out flatter than flat. Penn State takes a 14-0 lead almost immediately and leads 21-7 at halftime. I remember my friend Joe calling about something else and adding a very passive-aggressive "sorry your team is blowing it" as we got off the phone. He was right though - we were blowing it.
Thankfully, we had Eugene Wilson. He picked off THREE passes (yes, one player, one game, three interceptions) and brought us roaring back. We hit two fourth quarter field goals and suddenly lead 27-21 after trailing 21-7. Then, with four minutes left, a play that would forever live in Illini infamy had we not come back: Penn State returns a kickoff for a touchdown to take a 28-27 lead. If we lost that game (spoiler alert, we didn't), we'd still be talking about blowing the BCS Bowl and the Big Ten title on a kickoff return at the end of the Penn State game. Penn State's offense couldn't move the ball at all in the second half, but their kickoff return unit moved it 97 yards and now we're losing.
Thankfully, not for long. That was perhaps Kurt Kittner's finest moment as he led the team on a long touchdown drive in the final three minutes, capped off by the Rocky Harvey hurdle run where he hurdled a Penn State defensive tackle who had fallen to the ground, Rocky gets into the endzone and we retake the lead, 33-28 (we missed the two-point conversion attempt). Penn State still had a little time left, but Christian Morton picked off a pass and the Illini won.
After that, a win AT Ohio State, a shaky home win over Northwestern with the Big Ten trophy in town (thankfully, we won it), and then when Michigan lost to Ohio State, we didn't have to share it. The University of Illinois Fighting Illini, Big Ten Champions.
(And then Rohan Davey and Josh Reed made a mockery out of us in the Sugar Bowl - it was 28-0 before you could even blink - but let's not talk about that let's focus on the Big Ten title.)
(15) 1992 Illini
Regular season record: 6-4-1
Bowl result: Lost to Hawaii 27-17 in the Holiday Bowl
OK, so the first question, which I covered in the bracket post seemingly 11 months ago: how is 1992 seeded so low if they went 6-4-1 and solo 4th in the Big Ten? Solo fourth and the 15 seed in this bracket? Harsh, bro.
My argument: that 1992 season was a whisker away from 2-9. Like, a few plays away. Here were the four Big Ten wins:
And we also had a 22-22 tie with Michigan. So close to 7, 8, or 9 losses, only lost 4 games.
If you go by that SP+ chart I put up in the last post, the worst season of that entire run (1988 to 1995 when it fell off the cliff) was 1992. If there was a second-order wins stat for 1992, I'm guessing it was somewhere around 4.2. Meaning, replay all the games with the same statistics and we're probably going 4-7.
The next season, 1993, was better statistically, better via the eye test... and finished 5-6 and out of a bowl. Man, what a strange era. Here's my five years as a student:
1991: 6-5 with a team that should have won 7 or 8 games.
1992: 6-4-1 with a team that should have only won 4 games.
1993: 5-6 with a team that should have gone 7-5.
1994: 6-5 with a team that should have won 9 games.
1994: 5-5-1 with a team that really probably didn't deserve the 5 wins because the ship was taking on water.
Illinois Football - not comfortable unless we're living right on the 5-win/6-win bubble.
I'm probably not giving the 1992 team enough credit here. I mean, we did beat a ranked Ohio State team at Ohio State and then we tied #3 Michigan at Michigan. I guess you can just blame Lee Gissendaner (I probably spelled his name wrong but I don't want to look it up). We let an awful - AWFUL - Northwestern team come into Champaign and beat us on Homecoming. Not just beat us - put together a massive comeback. I've never heard the stair towers more quiet as people filed out.
I can probably do this from memory. The score here says 27-26, so that means we were up 26-6 in the fourth quarter before giving up 21 unanswered points to lose. That thing we just did to Michigan State last season where we trailed 31-10 entering the fourth quarter and then came all the way back to win? Northwestern did that to us in 1992, trailing 26-6 and then coming all the way back to win.
And the star was some no-name WR named Lee Gissendaner. He grabbed the winning TD with maybe 30 seconds left and we filed out of the stadium completely stunned. 1992 Northwestern was to 1992 Illinois as 2019 Illinois was to 2019 Michigan State, so it was this massive "there's no WAY that just happened" stunned silence.
Actually, that's probably not a good comp. Illinois was 3-9, 2-10, and 4-8 (9-27) the three seasons before beating Michigan State. Northwestern was 0-11, 2-9, 3-8 (5-28). And that was the 6th win for Illinois this past season - it was only the second win for Northwestern during a 3-8 season. They were bad bad bad bad bad and we lost to them by blowing a 26-6 lead in the fourth.
That game alone is probably why hearing "1992 Illinois football" is a gut punch for me. There are two main memories: that game, and the tie at Michigan when Michigan fumbled TEN TIMES. 10. Ten times. They recovered 6 of their 10 fumbles but lost four of them, and when you combine that with two interceptions (six turnovers - SIX), what should have been a 41-6 Michigan win became a 22-22 tie.
But wait, there's more.
That wasn't even the luckiest game of the year. That would be the game at Ohio State where tOSU dominated but Illinois won because Ohio State fumbled twice inside the 10 (one of them was returned 95 yards for a touchdown) AND they missed the game winning field goal as time expired giving Illinois an 18-16 victory. As I recall, yards in that game were something like 450-260 yet Illinois won because Eddie George coughed it up twice at the goal line.
(He would later get his revenge.)
There's no play in football like the 90+ yard fumble return. You're about to punch it in to make it 17-3 or whatever and suddenly it's 10-10. And that was basically the entire season. Missed game-winning field goals and 10 fumbles and six wins out of nothing.
Now that I've completely undersold it, could that team beat 2001? Well, go vote and let me know. If you even care anymore.