Random Memories: The General and The Grenade

Aug 21, 2020

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I'm not kidding about "how do I even write right now?". I put my brain in a certain spot when I sit down at this keyboard, and with the events of the last 10 days, I can't get my brain to that spot. It's this combination of football being canceled, basketball remaining a giant unknown, and five months in Champaign with no sports in sight.

This is the case with Twitter as well. I've deleted at least a dozen tweets in the last week. I just had a scathing tweet about Iowa parents and their uproar about football being canceled (yet their relative silence on all of the issues surrounding Kirk Ferentz) yet I can't even bring myself to tweet it. I just don't have the energy to deal with Iowa fans in my mentions for weeks.

Today I think I found a way to break myself out of my slump. BTN tweeted a video of Ken Blackman's safety in the 1992 Ohio State game (stuffed Robert Smith at the goal line in a game Illinois would win 18-16 after Ohio State missed a 44 yard FG as time expired):

That got me thinking about the early 90's teams. And that had me tweeting about about players I'd forgotten (like Jeff Hasenstab and Aaron Shelby). And that led to someone pointing out that Ty "The Grenade" Washington pulled the pin and tossed himself into the pile on the Blackman safety. And THAT led to this post.

What better way to get my brain out of a slump than to talk about those two safeties and that defense? So with apologies to Jeff Arneson (who was the starting safety in 1992 in front of Patton who was a freshman at the time), I'm going to skip ahead to the best version of that defense: 1994.

I'll start with the rest of the defense, then I'll get to the safeties. That defense, obviously, is known for the four linebackers. I still believe this to be the case: in the 25 seasons since, there has not been a single Illini linebacker who would have started on the 1994 team. J Leman came the closest, but Butkus winner Dana Howard would have still started in front of him. Dele Harding had a great season last year, and Jake Hansen could make a push for a spot with a great season this year (IF there's a season this year), but really, not one linebacker since 1994 would push any of those guys for their starting spot.

Howard won the Butkus in 1994. Hardy won the Butkus the next year. The fact that Simeon Rice isn't in the college football hall of fame is a travesty. And John Holocek is the most overshadowed great player in Illini history. All four were drafted (Rice and Hardy were both top-3 picks, Howard and Holocek were both fifth-round picks) and they combined for 30 NFL seasons. Honestly, the closest player to cracking that rotation the last 25 years was probably Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus was a DE in 2010 and 2011 but in Lou Tepper's 3-4 scheme he would have been an outside linebacker like Rice. And in the EDGE category, Rice and Mercilus are probably 1 and 2 for the Illini in my lifetime. (Still, Rice would have won the starting job.)

In the 3-4 D, that '94 DL was anchored by Mikki Johnson. If Holocek didn't get the underrated award for that team, it would go to Mikki Johnson. What I wouldn't give for Mikki Johnson on the 2020 Illini - an immovable object shading the center. Chad Copher was the other DE, and then it was a rotation of Paul Marshall and Jason Edwards at the other DT spot.

The cornerbacks were very fast: Scott Turner (easily top-5 fastest Illini player ever, I'd think) and Robert Crumpton (from St. Louis!). Turner was a burner who spent eight years in the NFL with the {Washington Football Team} and the Chargers.

So you had our best linebacking corps ever, a stout defensive line, and really fast corners. What's left? Thumpers at safety. These two safeties were so good that they received nicknames: Ty Washington was The Grenade; Antwoine Patton was, quite obviously (Patton), The General.

My ranking of the best Illini safety duos the last 25 (er, 26) years:

5. Clayton Fejedelem and whoever (sometimes Earnest Thomas, sometimes Taylor Barton, sometimes Zane Petty)
4. Stanley Green & Sydney Brown
3. Muhammad Abdullah & Bobby Jackson
2. Justin Harrison & Kevin Mitchell
1. Antwoine Patton and Ty Washington

I wanted to squeeze Tavon Wilson in there but he A) split time between safety and corner and B) never had a true pairing that let him shine.

OK, so what should you kids know about The General and The Grenade? Well, they'd hit you. Keep in mind that this was the "don't even think about floating a pass over the middle" era of football. It wasn't headhunting like the 1970's NFL, but there was no such thing as a defenseless receiver. If a team had solid safeties, you simply didn't throw over the middle. So a big part of the game was thumping safeties.

Why was Ty Washington "The Grenade"? Because he blew people up. Forced fumbles, forced incompletions, forced alligator arms from receivers - he was an intimidating presence.

As was The General. Antoine Patton was more the "don't worry, they won't get past Patton" kind of safety. There were very few big plays against that defense - partly because the front seven was so stout, but also because nothing got past Patton.

I can still remember the Liberty Bowl against East Carolina that year. Poor ECU had no shot. Try to run and Howard and Holocek swallowed you up. Try to pass and Rice would force an early throw which Turner would bat down. Try to throw over the middle? The General and The Grenade.

The result? 9th nationally in Total Defense that season, 5th nationally in Scoring Defense. One more time in case you missed it. Illinois was 5th in scoring defense for all of college football, holding teams to 14.2 ppg. That's... substantial.

And the offense wasn't awful - 42nd in Total Offense 48th in Scoring Offense. But you know the rest. 5 losses by 22 points (lost by 6, 6, 5, 4, and 1) and what could have been a Big Ten title turned into a 7-5 season. If NERDstats were around back then, I'm guessing that team's expected wins would have been something like 9.5. I mean, I can just tell you: make the field goal against Washington State at the final whistle and get Ken Dilger to lean forward one more yard against Purdue on the final play and you're 9-3. And that's not even mentioning this play against Penn State:

I still say - get just a little more air under that throw and Shane Fischer makes a diving catch in the back of the endzone to beat #2 Penn State 37-35. (Also, somehow keep the defense fresh enough so that the final 96-yard Penn State TD drive wouldn't have been so excruciatingly clinical.)

That was our what-if season. Close enough to win every game, even against #2. Yet five losses. So, so close to an epic team.

OK now I'm not in the writing mood anymore.


illiniranger on August 21, 2020 @ 05:56 AM

this is Danny Clark erasure and must be debated...

Danny Clark is very much in the discussion for best LB since 1994. His stats are there, he was B1G Honorable Mention 3 times, and he had a much more successful NFL career than Dana Howard or J Leman. His NFL career is roughly comparable to Holocek; both played for many years and were mutli-year starters, but neither were Pro Bowl caliber players.

I would put Leman and Clark well ahead of Dele Harding or Jake Hansen. Clark was a legitimate NFL player for about a decade. He absolutely was on par with Holocek as a talent. Clark's college accolades probably suffer from being on bad teams - it's hard to be selected as a first or second team All B1G player on teams that go 0-11. Leman or Clark would have pushed Holocek for playing time. Harding and Hansen (or any other LBs since) would not.

Using a combination of stats, accolades, physical ability, and NFL performance I would rank order LBs from 1994 in the following order:

(i'm not counting Rice as he was more of a DE player)

  1. Howard (tie. All time leading tackler at ILL and i think the B1G. IIRC a 3x All B1G first team player.)
  2. Hardy (tie. The most physically gifted LB to ever play at Illinois.)
  3. Clark (tie. 3x All B1G honorable mention, lots of stats, 10 year NFL career)
  4. Leman (tie. 2x 1st team All B1G and 1st team AA. Those are a big, big deal. Huge number of tackles his JR and SR year. A great leader.)
  5. Holocek (a great player, does not have the college accolades or stats of Leman or Clark, therefore i rank him lower.) (big drop off)
  6. Martez Wilson (one great season, great stats and accolades that year, great talent, but only 1 really productive year)
  7. Johnathan Brown (four years of solid production)
  8. Dele Harding (one great season, very underrated player)
  9. Matt Sinclair (three years of solid production, fringe NFL player)
  10. Mason Monheim (four years of solid production)
  11. Delshawn Phillips (one great season, fringe NFL player)

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on August 22, 2020 @ 07:59 PM

Gotta assume the "Rice rule" you mentioned applies to Mercilus as well- definitely a pass rusher... I tend to agree with most of your assessment, but I think there needs to be a Brit Miller mention somewhere between 6-11. He got a few cups of coffee in the NFL, and even converted to Fullback. Also, was Stallings pre 1994? Cant remember...

illiniranger on August 22, 2020 @ 10:18 PM

You’re right. Miller and Stallings would slot in somewhere on that list and bump a couple guys down.

Illiniiniowa on August 23, 2020 @ 04:25 PM

I absolutely believe Holocek gets the same or better stats if he played on the Leman or Clark teams. There's just only so many tackles to go around, but he was very talented.

Jkerr63 on August 21, 2020 @ 01:10 PM

Great article Robert. It’s a shame we didn’t have more to show for that season. I L L...

skibdaddy on August 21, 2020 @ 05:59 PM

Yet another reason that the 1994 Illini football team made me a fan for life. If nothing else they were exiting!

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on August 22, 2020 @ 08:00 PM

Didn't Blackman put on like 80 pounds and become a NFL caliber OLineman?

Illiniiniowa on August 23, 2020 @ 04:27 PM

Yes, when he graduated, he was the strongest guy on the team. He came in at around 265 and got drafted as a 330 OL

Douglascountyillinifan on August 27, 2020 @ 02:22 PM

sigh That was my last year working for sports info. I was in the box assisting Musberger and the ABC crew the day of the PSU game. His son and I were low key going crazy in the first half. A few more first downs and the defense holds....Truly the "what if est" season I remember in my 50 years of going to games. Has still lives in Champaign, and his kid was a member of the D3 national champs at North Central last year. Robert, didn't Blackman move to O Line and play in the league for a year or two?

Douglascountyillinifan on August 27, 2020 @ 02:25 PM

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