Those Were The Days - Virginia
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
Craig's login isn't working so I published his CHTS yesterday. We don't give Deflef access to the publish button so I'm publishing his TWTD today. Pretty soon I'm gonna come up with a reason to publish Nathan's Postscript column under my byline on Monday and then my transformation to megalomaniac will be complete.
Illinois hosts Virginia in a grudge match after last year's disaster in Charlottesville. My friends and I had a great time there, other than the actual football game. This is an important game for Illinois to demonstrate that it can beat a team from another Power Five conference. Today's tale recalls the first time these programs met on the gridiron. BEAT THE WAHOOS.
January 1, 1990: Illinois entered the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando with a record of 9-2 after coming close to winning the Big Ten. Alas, a tough home defeat to Michigan ended the Illini's dream of a Rose Bowl. Illinois was ranked 11th in the Associated Press (AP) poll. Meanwhile, Virginia was no slouch, ranked 15th in the AP poll and champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference. This figured to be an intriguing game, televised nationally on ABC with Gary Bender and Dick Vermeil. Illinois had not won a bowl game since the 1964 Rose Bowl victory over Washington. A Florida Citrus Bowl record crowd of 60,016 awaited which included Illinois Governor Jim Thompson roaming the sidelines.
Illinois jumped on the Cavaliers early, with linebacker Bill Henkel (Decatur St. Teresa) recovering a Virginia fumble on the opening kickoff at the Virginia 36 yard-line. Five plays later, quarterback Jeff George drilled a 15-yard scoring strike to Steven Williams. After Virginia tied the game early in the second quarter, George directed Illinois on an 80-yard scoring drive capped by a George one-yard touchdown pass to Dan Donovan. George hit a 68 yard pass to Mike Bellamy (College of DuPage) on the drive. Doug Higgins (Normal Community) added a field goal later on the final play of the second quarter to give Illinois a 17-7 halftime lead.
Illinois opened the second half with an 84-yard drive capped by fullback Howard Griffith (Chicago Julian) three-yard touchdown for a 24-7 lead. This included George completing four straight passes for 71 yards. Virginia responded with another touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter, receiver Bellamy scored on a 26-yard pass from George to give Illinois a commanding 31-14 lead with 12:58 left in the game. Virginia scored a late touchdown to make the final score 31-21.
Illinois finished with 497 yards of offense including 176 rushing yards. Howard Griffith ran for 93 yards and a touchdown. In his final game at Illinois, Mike Bellamy had eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Bellamy later reflected on the game: "We knew going into the game we were going to be wide open. Jeff was throwing the ball all around. We were clicking on all cylinders." Bellamy said the team enjoyed the bowl experience. "We did Disney World and all of the amusement parks down there. It felt like what we envisioned a bowl game week feeling like." Head Coach John Mackovic credited the defense. "The thing that helped us today is that they could not get into a rhythm." George agreed. "I really thought it was over when it was 7-0, because if you know the defense we've got, all we need is a field goal." Virginia entered the game averaging 216 rushing yards per game. It had just 34 at halftime.
Jeff George was named the game's MVP, going 26 of 38 passing for 321 yards and three touchdowns. "Some days you feel hot, like you can throw anything you want, and this was one of those times," said George. He then declared for the NFL Draft and was the #1 pick overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Illinois finished the season at #10 in the AP Poll, 10-2 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten with losses only at #4 Colorado and to #7 Michigan. George looked back fondly on the season. "It seemed like we got better each week. We knew we were a good team. We just wanted to prove it today." In my opinion, the 1989 Illinois football team is the best team in school history that did not win the Big Ten Conference title.
Sources: "Looking Back At the 1990 Citrus Bowl" by Matt Daniels. Champaign News-Gazette: September 11, 2021. "George Right On Key" by the Associated Press.