Gridiron Greatness

Illini football legend Red Grange (far left) heads toward the goal line on Oct. 18, 1924. (UI Alumni Association photo)
Illinois Alumni compiles the 10 greatest moments in Illini Football.

The University of Illinois’ football program has had more than its fair share of magical moments.

Gigantic upsets. Iconic performances. Record-setting efforts.

But what are the best of the best? Which golden moment will we be talking about 100 years from now?

To find the answer, we assembled a panel of 10 Illinois football experts. Their charge was simple: Rank the top moments in Illinois football history.

We started with a list of 22 moments, and the panel whittled the number to 10. (See Short and Inchesfor those that didn’t make the cut.)

Some were obvious. Others were more of a challenge. How do you differentiate between games played 50 years apart? Is it more important to win the game to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time, or to win the bowl game itself?

BEFORE WE GET TO THE RESULTS, LET’S INTRODUCE THE PANELISTS:

Brian Barnhart—current Voice of the Illini and Tolono, Ill., native

Kent Brown ’87 MEDIA, MS ’89 AHS—current UI sports information director

Tony Clements ’72 AHS, MS ’72 AHS—former Illini football player and longtime UI Campus Recreation director

Charlie Finn ’55 BUS—Red Grange historian and former football manager

Howard Griffith ’91 LAS—former Illini running back and two-time Super Bowl winner; now a Big Ten Network analyst

Martin O’Donnell ’07 LAS, EDM ‘08—former Illini offensive lineman who earned All-America honors on 2008 Rose Bowl team

Mike Pearson—longtime Illinois sports information director and author of a comprehensive book on school’s athletic history

Loren Tate ’53 MEDIA—dean of Illinois sportswriters, still going strong at age 82, writing four columns a week for The [Champaign-Urbana] News-Gazette

Mark Tupper—longtime sportswriter and Illinois beat reporter for the Decatur, Ill., Herald & Review

Jim Turpin ’61 LAS—longtime Voice of the Illini and host of the popular Champaign, Ill., WDWS-AM radio show “Penny For Your Thoughts”

NOW FOR THE LIST:

10. Howard Takes Home Hardware (1994)
NO ILLINOIS FOOTBALL PLAYER had ever won an individual national award. Linebacker Dana Howard ’94 LAS changed all that in 1994.

Howard was attending the Butkus Award ceremony in Orlando, Fla. Standing near the award’s namesake, Dick Butkus ’65 AHS, the Illini senior heard his name called. He had no idea the honor was coming.

“It was cool being on stage with a guy who was my idol,” Howard recalls. “He was just such an inspiration. A lot of guys that came up in the Illinois system wanted to be just like Dick Butkus.”

Howard set himself up to win the award with a spectacular senior season, becoming the Big Ten’s career tackles leader. He remains the Illinois all-time leader with 595 tackles, 94 better than No. 2, linebacker John Sullivan ‘78. Perhaps Howard locked up the Butkus with his performance in Illinois’ win at Ohio State. He had 14 tackles, two sacks and an interception in a 24-10 victory.

But before the game Howard got himself into a little hot water with head coach Lou Tepper. Asked by media earlier in game week about the game, Howard said the team would play well. That turned into a “guaranteed win,” which Howard still maintains he never said.

“I knew the caliber of guys I had on my team,” Howard said. “I knew they were going to play hard. That wasn’t a question.”

9. Griffith Sets Record (1990)
IN THE SUMMER PRECEDING THE 1990 SEASON, Howard Griffith ’01 LAS met a few Southern Illinois football players on campus. They gave him a few good-natured verbal jabs about their upcoming game. On Sept. 22, he got more than even.

Griffith set an NCAA record against the Salukis, scoring eight touchdowns to break the mark held by Mississippi’s Arnold “Showboat” Boykin.

Griffith scored his first touchdown from 5 yards out early in the game. Illinois trailed 21-7 before he started a touchdown streak with 10 minutes left in the first half, racing in for a 51-yard score.

Griffith followed with touchdown runs of 7, 41, 5, 18 and 5 yards. The record score came from the 3-yard line with 1:25 left in the third quarter. His day was over except for the endless interviews after the game.

As the TDs piled up, there was talk on the sidelines about approaching the record. Griffith told head coach John Mackovic he didn’t want to run up the score on SIU, coached at the time by former Illini assistant Bob Smith. Always pragmatic, Mackovic told Griffith, “Look, you’re never going to get another opportunity like this. Let’s see if we can get it.”

It’s been almost 25 years since the record day, and Griffith clearly remembers the call on the eighth touchdown.

“It was a counter play to the right side,” he recalls. “My teammates ran over to me and picked me up. It was a surreal experience.”

Will anybody ever break the record?

“Things have to be perfect,” Griffith says. “You have to be losing, or you have to be in a shootout.”

He says his two Super Bowl wins with the NFL Denver Broncos are bigger to him than the record day at Illinois. But he hears a lot about the eight-touchdown game.

“It’s so out there,” Griffith says. “You think about the greats who played the game, and I was able to do something none of those guys [did]. … There was a lot of luck, and a lot of prayers were answered.”

8. “Juice” upsets No. 1 (2007)
ILLINOIS WAS LEADING 28-21 in the fourth quarter of the 2007 game at No. 1 Ohio State.
The Illini had possession and faced fourth and inches. Thinking defense first, Illinois coach Ron Zook originally sent the punt team out on the field.

Then, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel did Zook a favor by calling timeout.

That gave the Illinois players a chance to go to quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams ’09 LAS. They pleaded with him to talk Zook out of the punt.

Williams did help convince Zook to send the offense back onto the field. With a bit of advice: “Better make it.”

Williams was up for the challenge. He found a hole and gained enough yardage to keep the chains moving.

The Williams-led offense never gave the ball back to the Buckeyes, allowing Illinois to run out the clock for the win. That set off a wild sideline celebration, which included a defensive lineman carrying star linebacker J Leman ’06 LAS, EDM ’08, off the field on his shoulders.

Williams could have used a lift, too, after starring with both his arm and his legs. He threw four touchdown passes against the Buckeyes and ran for 70 yards in the biggest win of the Zook era.
Williams got some help from the defense, which picked off three passes by Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman.

Leman had a big game, recording 12 tackles against Tressel’s talented offense.

Ultimately, the win played a big part in Illinois earning a bid to the 2008 Rose Bowl.

7. Illini run over Huskies (1964)
IN THE 1964 ROSE BOWL, Washington was supposed to demolish Illinois, which had been described as “slow and fat.”

After a dominating 17-7 victory in front of 95,000, the Illini took a victory lap around the field.

The Huskies led 7-0 on running back Dave Kopay’s 7-yard run in the second quarter.

Kicker Jim Plankenhorn ’64 AHS, MS ’65 AHS, cut the gap to 7-3, nailing a field goal just before intermission.

Halfback Jim Warren ’63 gave the Illini a 10-7 lead with a 2-yard run in the third quarter (below), and running back Jim Grabowski ’65 clinched the win with a 1-yard run in the fourth.

Grabowski ran 23 times for 125 yards to earn MVP honors.

Superstar linebacker Dick Butkus, who would finish third in the 1964 Heisman voting, helped hold the Huskies to 130 total yards. Kopay never got going, finishing with 29 rushing yards.
Both Illinois scores were set up by defensive back George Donnelly ‘65 AHS interceptions.
6. Abe Saves the Day (1956)
BEFORE ILLINOIS SHOCKED OHIO STATE IN 2007, it had been 51 years since the Fighting Illini had beaten a team ranked No. 1.

Like quarterback Juice Williams against the Buckeyes in ’07, there was a clear star of the Oct. 27, 1956, sensational game: running back Abe Woodson ‘56.

The Illini trailed 13-0 at halftime against the Spartans before Woodson went to work.
Maybe being at home made the difference. Or maybe having Ray Eliot ’32 Ed in charge of the team made the difference. Until Ron Zook got his in 2007, Eliot was the only Illini coach to own a win against No. 1.

Michigan State helped out, fumbling twice and throwing an interception. Mistakes often lead to upsets. Woodson gave Illinois the final push.

He tied the game 13-13 early in the fourth quarter on a 70-yard run. It was his second of three TDs in the game.

Woodson saved the best for last. During the winning play, quarterback Bill Offenbecher ’59 AHS faked to halfback Dale Smith ’58 AHS before getting the ball to Woodson, who went 82 yards with the pass for the winning score.

The popular Woodson, who passed away in February, enjoyed his place in Illinois history. You had a sense he was ready to step back on the field at any time, just to show he still had the moves.

5. Illini rout Stanford (1952)
THE FINAL SCORE OF THE 1952 ROSE BOWL—Illinois 40, Stanford 7—was much closer than the numbers indicate.

Illinois trailed 7-6 at halftime and had just a 13-7 advantage going into the final quarter.
Running back Bill Tate ’53 AHS, MS ’58 AHS, gave Illinois its first lead on a 5-yard run in the third quarter.

Illinois dominated the final 15 minutes, outscoring Stanford 27-0.

Halfback Johnny Karras ’52 got the streak started with a 7-yard touchdown run. That was followed by a second Tate score, this time from 8 yards away. Halfback Don Stevens ’52 AHS scored on a 7-yard run, and end John “Rocky” Ryan ‘53 capped the blitz with a 6-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Don Engels ’53 AHS.

Tate ran 20 times for 150 yards to earn MVP honors. Karras ran for another 58.

Illinois finished with 434 yards on offense. The defense limited Stanford to 233, including just 53 on the ground. With only a 0-0 tie against Ohio State to spoil a perfect season, the 9-0-1 Illini finished third and fourth in the final national polls.

4. Illini clinch 1964 Rose Bowl (1964)
ILLINOIS WAS SUPPOSED TO PLAY AT MICHIGAN STATE on Nov. 23, 1963. But the game was delayed by tragedy—the assassination of President John Kennedy. Illinois had traveled to East Lansing for the game and had to return home.

Linebacker Dick Butkus and pals were ready to go when they went back five days later.
The defense shut out Michigan State 13-0, limiting Spartans star Sherman Lewis to 58 rushing yards.

Illinois took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter on kicker Jim Plankenhorn’s field goal. He added a second in the second quarter for a 6-0 advantage.

Running back Jim Grabowski, who led the Illini with 85 rushing yards, scored the only touchdown of the game on a 14-yard run in the third quarter.

Butkus and the Illinois defense forced mistake after mistake by the Spartans, intercepting four passes and recovering three fumbles.

A year after a 2-7 season, Illinois had earned its way back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1952.

3. Double Whammy (1983)
MIKE WHITE’S 1983 TEAM became the first and only team in Big Ten history to go 9-0 in conference play. It took a special two-game run against Big Ten powers Ohio State and Michigan and a special effort by Illinois running back Thomas Rooks ’87 LAS.

Illinois welcomed Ohio State on Oct. 15. Two weeks later, Michigan came to town.

Against the Buckeyes, Illinois took an early 10-0 lead on an interception return for a touchdown by defensive back David Edwards ’85 LAS and kicker Chris White’s ’88 LAS field goal.

The Buckeyes tied the game 10-10 on a field goal and run by Keith Byars. Another field goal gave Ohio State a 13-10 advantage in the third quarter.

Illinois took possession at its own 17 with 1:43 left in the game.

Quarterback Jack Trudeau ’86 LAS moved the team down the field, hitting wide receiver Scott Golden ’85 LAS, MBA ’87, on a pair of passes to put Illinois at the Ohio State 37.

The quarterback got the next chunk on his own, scrambling 16 yards to move the Illini to the 21. Rooks did the rest, taking the ball from Trudeau to score the winning touchdown with 1:06 left.

Ohio State’s final threat ended when Edwards intercepted a pass by Jim Karsatos. Edwards was named national defensive player of the week after his big game.

The win was the first for Illinois against Ohio State in 15 years.

On Oct. 29, Illinois beat Michigan 16-6. It was the first win against the Wolverines since 1966.

In front of the largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history, Michigan took an early 3-0 lead. But Trudeau connected with Rooks for a short touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and the Illini never trailed again.

The quarterback hit receiver David Williams ’85 for a clinching touchdown pass. Trudeau finished with 271 passing yards, and Williams caught six balls for 127 yards.

2. Rose-Colored Glasses (1947)
THE 1947 ROSE BOWL marked a pair of important firsts. It was the first bowl game in Illinois history. And it was the first year of an agreement between the Big Ten and then Pac-8 (sounds strange, doesn’t it?) to send their champions to Pasadena, Calif.

Illinois definitely got the better end of the deal. Coach Ray Eliot’s players used the reported disrespect from the press to fuel their preparation.

Illinois wouldn’t have even been in the Rose Bowl without the clutch play of halfback Julius Rykovich’48 ED. Needing a win against Ohio State to stay in the title chase, he intercepted a Buckeyes pass and raced 98 yards for a clinching score in a 16-7 Illinois win.

Once the team reached California, Rykovich kept the success going. He scored on a 1-yard touchdown run for the first score of the Rose Bowl. Halfback Claude “Buddy” Young ’48 went in from the 2, and Illinois took a 25-14 lead at half.

The Bruins might have thought they could rally, but they were wrong. Borrowing (with permission) the defensive strategy of a rival Big Ten coach, Eliot watched his team shut down UCLA in the second half and roll to a 45-14 victory.

Rykovich and Young each ran for 103 yards and combined for three TDs.The “borrowed”
Illinois defense held UCLA to 62 rushing yards and 238 overall.

1. GRANGE RUNS WILD (1924)
NO SURPRISE, GRANGE ’26 WON IN A LANDSLIDE.

All panelists picked the halfback’s Oct. 18, 1924, performance against Michigan as the greatest/best/most spectacular moment in program history. Hard to blame them.

Not only did Harold “Red” Grange single-handedly beat the Wolverines during that day in Champaign, he also added to the bubbling popularity of college football. Later, he would do the same thing for the NFL, adding legitimacy for a league that needed a boost.

As we reach the 90-year anniversary this year of Grange’s game against Michigan, the impact is still being felt.

Grange’s timing couldn’t have been better.

The game marked the dedication of Memorial Stadium. The place was packed with 67,886 fans. (One of those watching the game was a youngster from Indiana named John Wooden. Later, he would go on to dominate college basketball as the head coach at UCLA.)
But the real story was Grange and what he did to the guys from Ann Arbor.

Grange’s coach at Illinois, Bob Zuppke ’38, thought his star was the greatest in the game to that point and the greatest who would ever be. Then, Grange went out and proved his coach right.
It only took 12 minutes. Twelve minutes to beat Michigan. Twelve minutes to make Grange a national star and football legend.

Michigan began the game, kicking off to Grange at the 5. Should have kicked to somebody else. He found a gap in the Michigan coverage and raced 95 yards for the score.

Grange was just getting started.

Two possessions later, Illinois had the ball at its 33. Wisely, the ball went back to Grange, who used his speed and elusiveness to return to the end zone.

Later in the quarter, Illinois took possession at its 44. Zuppke gave the ball back to Grange, who ran through the struggling Michigan defense for a 20-0 lead.

After a Michigan fumble, Grange scored again from his own 44. Illinois led 27-0 after 12 minutes. Game over.

But Grange wasn’t done. After taking a short break, he came back in to score a fifth touchdown. He added a sixth on a pass.

It ended with Illinois winning 39-14. If there had been a Heisman Trophy (still more than a decade away), Grange would have won it on the spot. Johnny Manziel (aka “Johnny Football”)? You have nothing on the 1924 version of Grange.

The humble halfback did what you would expect after the game—deflected credit and thanked his teammates for their blocking.

Grange gained all sorts of fans, including the great sportswriter Grantland Rice, whose words are permanently linked to Grange’s legacy:

“A streak of fire, a breath of flame, eluding all who reach and clutch; a gray ghost thrown into the game that rival hands may rarely touch; a rubber bounding blasting soul whose destination is the goal—Red Grange, of Illinois.”

Late in Grange’s life, running back Howard Griffith met the legend during a Florida bowl trip. Griffith had just broken the

Illinois single-game touchdown record, set by Grange in the 1924 Michigan game.

“It was a great experience,” Griffith said. “[Red Grange] is the main reason that pro football is what it is.”

TOP 10 ALL-TIME ILLINOIS PLAYERS

JUST FOR ARGUMENT’S SAKE, HERE ARE BOB ASMUSSEN’S TOP 10 ALL-TIME ILLINI FOOTBALL PLAYERS. LET THE DISCUSSIONS BEGIN.

1. Red Grange ’26
The halfback was perhaps the most influential football player in history—college or the NFL. And there was the game against Michigan.

2. Dick Butkus ’65 AHS
The best linebacker in the history of the game has the award for his position named in his honor. As it should be.

3. Al Brosky ’53 AHS
The defensive back had a ridiculous 30 interceptions during his Illinois career, the school record by 11.

4. David Williams ’85
School’s all-time leading receiver is the latest from Illinois to enter the College Football Hall of Fame.

5. J.C. Caroline ’56
Running back had one of the most spectacular seasons in school history, leading the nation in rushing in 1953.

6. Jim Grabowski ’65
A running back and future Green Bay Packer, he entered the College Football Hall of Fame
in 1995.

7. Dana Howard ’94 LAS
School’s career leader in tackles, the linebacker was on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame but was not elected this year.

8. Simeon Rice ’96 LAS
Defensive end/linebacker and NFL star joins Howard on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot but was not elected this year.

9. Bill Burrell ’60 AHS
Two-time All-America linebacker finished fourth in the 1959 Heisman Trophy race.

10. Alex Agase ’47 AHS
A guard and linebacker, the College Football Hall of Famer earned All-America recognition at two schools.

FANS’ HALL OF FAME MEMORIES

  • The 1963 Illinois-Purdue game was played at the Boilermakers’ home stadium, so everyone [at home] was listening to radio. The Illini won decisively, and Illinois went wild. The bars were out of beer very early in the evening.

When the team members returned from West Lafayette, Ind., they were bused into Memorial Stadium in pitch-black darkness. A spotlight was trained onto a flatbed trailer, which served as a makeshift stage. People were chanting, “ROSE BOWL! ROSE BOWL!” from the one early-season victory.

Dick Butkus ’65 AHS got up to speak, and the crowd went wild. He talked about the victory being a team effort. The team, students and everyone absolutely believed we would win the Rose Bowl that year [which we did].—Harvey Checkman ’66 ENG

  • I saw Dick Butkus outside class one day and could not believe how large and muscled he was when not fully suited up for football.—Jane Palmer Derbenwick ’67 ACES
  • It was the last football game of the 1983 season, and our Alma Mater was undefeated. Only Michigan—with the coach we Illini loved to hate, Bo Schembechler—stood in the way of the Big Ten championship. The stadium was packed.

I have never heard such noise. Every time Michigan got the ball, a roar went up. We made so much noise that the Michigan team couldn’t hear the plays called, which is exactly what we intended. Bo was near to having a tantrum on the sidelines.

When Illinois scored—which happened a lot—cannons went off, the Marching Illini played, toilet paper was thrown, and fans in the balcony stomped so hard, they endangered the structure.
We won that game, defeating our most-hated rival and earning a bid to the Rose Bowl. … A half hour after the game ended, Illini fans still were screaming.—Kay Vogt Bock Wheatley ’69 MEDIA, MS ’88 MEDIA

  • It was 1946, and the Illini had just beaten Michigan—at Michigan—to virtually ensure a trip to the first Big Ten-Pac 10 Rose Bowl.

It was the good old days, when the team traveled by train. The whole Illini world was at the Champaign station at 1 a.m., waiting to welcome the team home.

Here comes this big, puffing steam engine crawling into the station with a man walking in front of the engine, swinging an old-fashioned lantern for safety’s sake. I will never forget the sight.—Jerome B. Prisyon ’49 BUS

  • The 1988 miracle comeback led by Jeff George ’91 LAS in the final two minutes against Indiana on Dads Day in the frozen rain [is one of my] all-time top 10 moments.—Karl A. Palasz ’92 BUS
  • The Illini victory over No. 4-ranked Iowa in 1983 ut the Big Ten on notice that we were a serious contender for the conference title. After the game, as we walked to our car, we encountered some Hawkeye fans who were chugging down some beer, and my brother-in-law told them, “I’d be drinking, too, if I lost 33-0!” Good laugh was had by all.

This was followed by the Illini victory over No. 6-ranked Ohio State. In addition, the victory over No. 8-ranked Michigan and “No Mo Bo” on Halloween weekend was one for the ages. It was a standing-room-only crowd, and we didn’t sit at all in the second half. The fans poured onto the field after finally beating Bo’s Wolverines. It was a crazy celebration.—Jose Martinez, EDD ‘87

SHORT AND INCHES
Moments that didn’t make the cut.

Other Illini football moments just missed the final cut. Consider the following as runners-up:

  • In a 1999 game at Michigan, Illinois falls behind by 20 points. But quarterback Kurt Kittner ’02 BUS finishes with four touchdown passes and out-duels future New England Patriot star Tom Brady in a 35-29 victory against the No. 9-ranked Wolverines.
  • Quarterback Jeff George ’91 LAS picked No. 1 in the 1990 NFL draft, becoming the first Illini
    to go No. 1 overall.
  • Illinois beats Minnesota’s “perfect team” 14-9 in 1916. Considered one of the biggest upsets in college history to that point, the Gophers had scored at least 40 points in every game.
  • Quarterback Dave Wilson ’80 throws for 621 yards and six TDs in a 1980 game at Ohio State.
  • Receiver David Williams ’85 finishes the 1984 season with a record 101 catches on way to Hall of Fame.
  • Winless Illini upset halfback Tom Harmon’s Michigan team in 1939.
  • Linebacker Kevin Hardy ’96 BUS wins the 1995 Butkus, the second consecutive Illini to earn the award.
  • Hardy as well as defensive end Simeon Rice ’96 LAS are picked second and third, respectively, in the 1996 NFL draft.