In the modern history of the Big Ten (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll go with Michigan State joining in the early 1950s) only one football has gone undefeated in conference play when playing every other conference team. It wasn’t Woody Hayes Ohio State Buckeyes, or even Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines. Nope, note even Ara Parseghian’s Northwestern Wildcats of the late 1950s/early 1960s. It was Mike White’s 1983 Illinois Fighting Illini.
1983 was the first season that all Big Ten football teams played a 9-game conference schedule versus all other football teams. Starting in 1980, 8 of the 10 teams played 9-game conference schedules; with Iowa and Ohio State not playing each other. In 1983 the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes would face off; thus setting up a full 9-game round-robin.
Iowa and Ohio State - along with defending champion Michigan - appeared to be the favorites to win the Big Ten and advance to the Rose Bowl. Illinois was coming off of a 7-5 season (6-3 in conference play); however, starting quarterback Tony Eason was off to the New England Patriots as part of the NFL’s historic quarterback class of 1983. It certainly looked as though Illinois would not be competing for the Big Ten title after a season-opening 28-18 loss to rival Missouri at Faurot Field.
Following a 17-7 victory over Stanford in the home opener, the Fighting Illini began conference play facing an opening gauntlet at #19 Michigan State, home versus #4 Iowa, and home versus #6 Ohio State in their first four Big Ten games (with a trip to Madison mixed in). In a nationally televised game, Illinois defeated Michigan State 20-10; and then followed that up with a 33-0 shutout of Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes. This earned the Illinois an Associated Press ranking (#19) going into their game at Wisconsin; which the Illini won 27-15.
Earle Bruce’s Buckeyes then traveled to Memorial Stadium, in a match-up of ranked teams (Ohio State #6, Illinois #19). The Illini won the Illibuck Trophy knocking off Ohio State in their homecoming game 17-13. A 35-21 win at Purdue got Illinois to 6-1 and a #9 ranking. The October 29, 1983 game versus Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines appeared to be all that stood between the Fighting Illini and a 9-0 conference record; as their final three games were at Minnesota, home versus Indiana, and at Northwestern.
Before a national television audience on CBS (including this ‘writer’ as a high school senior) the Wolverines and Fighting Illini took the field at Memorial Stadium. Illinois wore blue jerseys on blue pants for extra motivation; as they had not defeated Michigan since 1966 (in Ann Arbor), and had not been victorious over the Wolverines in Champaign since 1957. The game was a classic contrast of Bo Schembechler’s 3 yards and a cloud of dust attack versus Mike White’s NFL-style passing offense led by quarterback Jack Trudeau. Trudeau completed 21 of 31 passes for 271 yards and the Illini defense kept Michigan out of the end zone. In the end the Fighting Illini scored a 16-6 victory with fans storming Memorial Stadium’s astroturf, and Michigan defensive coordinator and former Illinois head coach Gary Moeller refusing to shake hands with former assistant (at Illinois) Brad Childress.
Following the Michigan win there was no letdown over the final three games against Minnesota, Indiana, and Northwestern. Illinois defeated the Gophers, Hoosiers, and Wildcats by scores of 50-23, 49-21, and 56-24 respectively. This earned the Fighting Illini the outright Big Ten title, their first Rose Bowl invitation in 20 years, and more importantly the distinction of being the first (and to date only) Big Ten team to defeat all other conference teams in the same season (by virtue of their perfect 9-0 conference record).
Illinois dream season appeared to be set up for an ideal finish. The Fighting Illini’s opposition in the 1984 Rose Bowl was a 6-win UCLA team. The Bruins began the season 0-3-1 with losses at Georgia, at Nebraska, and at home versus Brigham Young (plus a home tie versus Arizona State). Following this start, UCLA righted the ship going 6-1 over their final seven games (the only loss at Arizona) earning the outright Pac 10 title and Rose Bowl invitation. In the 1984 Rose Bowl led by quarterback Rick Neuheisel (yes, THAT Rick Neuheisel) the Bruins blew out the Fighting Illini 45-9.
Despite this setback, Illinois finished the 1983 regular and post seasons with an AP #10 ranking and a place in the record books of being the only Big Ten team to earn a clean sweep of all other conference members in a single football season.
Northwestern - The Upset
Indiana - The Real Game of the Century
Nebraska - Surrender Whites
Michigan State - Earning a Rematch
Rutgers - A Program-Changing Season