Those Were The Days - Michigan State
I'm glad that Detlef picked 1992 for this one. It remains the most Tried To Give The Game Away But They Wouldn't Take It game I've ever seen. Wait until you hear some of these details. Especially the final Illini drive and the final Michigan State drive. It was almost like we had money on Michigan State winning but Michigan State had money on Illinois winning.
I'm giving too much away in the intro. I should let Detlef tell you the story...
On Saturday Illinois hosts Michigan State. Play hard, Fighting Illini! Hey, it's the return of Daniel Barker to Memorial Stadium! This week's tale recalls when Illinois was fighting for a bowl berth and tried really hard to give it away.
November 21, 1992: Illinois needed its sixth win to be invited to the Holiday Bowl. It had been a strange season for the beloved. This included losing at Houston with Dana Howard (East St. Louis) suspended for a frat fight; a third straight win in the Horseshoe when Eddie George fumbled and Jeff Arneson took it 96 yards for a score; blowing a 21 point lead in the fourth quarter and losing to Northwestern on Homecoming; and despite being 28 point underdogs, tying Michigan. UI should have won but Chris Richardson missed a PAT when he kicked the football under the crossbar! In 1992 I was a junior at Illinois and I attended with a friend from Joliet. In exchange for buying him a ticket, he agreed to take me home for Thanksgiving after the game.
It was your typical gray, cold November day in the 217. Sadly, there was a pall over Memorial Stadium. The previous evening, Lou Henson Jr., coach of the Parkland Junior College men's basketball team, died in a car crash on Interstate 74. A color guard played "Taps" before the game and fired a 21 gun salute.
The game kicked off before a meager crowd of 40,552. Michigan State took the opening drive all the way to the Illini goal line. However, Todd Leach recovered a Spartan fumble after Filmel Johnson laid the smack down. Illinois struggled offensively in the first quarter; the run game failed to materialize (total of just 22 rushing yards for the game). In the second quarter, MSU led 3-0 when Jason Verduzco directed a scoring drive with 7 of 8 passing for 55 yards. From the Spartan eight yard-line, Darren Boyer scored to make the game 7-3 at halftime. As an example of MSU's bumbling, Verduzco threw an incompletion on a critical third down on the scoring drive. However, the Spartans had too many men on the field and the drive continued. Michigan State got flagged six times for 60 yards.
Verduzco got the Fighting Illini on the scoreboard on its first possession of the third quarter. He was five of six passing for 68 yards, capped off with a eight-yard pass to John Wright Jr. (St. Joseph-Ogden) for what seemed like an insurmountable 14-3 lead. Further proof of UI's luck (or MSU's incompetence) continued in the second half. Verduzco threw an interception to a MSU linebacker, who started running with the ball, fumbled it, and UI recovered. MSU got an early fourth quarter touchdown, cutting the lead to 14-10.
Illinois seemed in position to clinch its ticket to San Diego. With 2:14 left, the boys needed a first down to ice the game. But on third down, Verduzco threw a pass right at a MSU defender, who thankfully dropped it. On fourth down, Forry Wells (Belleville East) had his punt blocked and MSU recovered at the UI 18. MSU ran a draw on first down; Howard snuffed it out for a two-yard loss. MSU threw a screen pass on second down which UI again stopped, for a five-yard loss. A third down pass went incomplete. So on fourth down and 17 to go from the UI 25, MSU had to pass. Quarterback Jim Miller threw to Mill Coleman, who made a terrific diving catch-at the UI nine-yard line. One yard short, ball game, San Diego BABY!!!!!!!!!!! "We didn't really stop him," said UI cornerback Filmel Johnson. "He stopped himself."
The Spartans rued their mistakes: 60 penalty yards, two fumbles and an interception thrown. MSU held the ball for 35 minutes but scored only ten points, a testament to the UI defense. Further, UI held MSU to 102 yards rushing. Verduzco's leadership saved the day: 17 of 23 passing for 156 yards and a touchdown. "It was not one of Jason's best days, but he was accurate and put two touchdowns on the board," said Michigan State head coach George Perles.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini enjoyed the tense victory. "Someone was certainly smiling on us from above," said Head Coach Lou Tepper. The bowl invite marked Illinois' fifth straight bowl appearance, a school record. Illinois, the nation's scariest 6-4-1 team, got ready to meet Hawaii. Perhaps Holiday Bowl team selection chairman Vinnie Vinson said it best: "My God, you guys play it close to the line." Indeed, UI's last four games (three wins and a tie) were decided by a total of eight points.
Sources: "Verduzco, defense, luck net bowl trip" by Andrew Bagnato. Chicago Tribune: November 22, 1992. Credit to Detlef's parents for research and Mrs. Detlef for editing.