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Forty years ago, Illinois and Northwestern played the worst football game of all time

The Pointless Game turns 40

Northwestern punter Sam Polus (89) tries to get off a pass after recovering a bad snap from center against Illinois during scoreless tie in Champaign

The final week of the regular season is upon us, and that of course means that for each of the Big Ten teams, this week features, to borrow a phrase from the XFL, The Big Game At The End Of The Season. For Big Ten West champion Northwestern, that means hosting the Illinois Fighting Illini for what will probably be another humiliating blowout of Lovie’s boys. As an expected blowout, it’s not likely to be especially memorable for being particularly good or bad.

Some bad games stick with us. The M00N game, for instance, or the scoreless regulation tie of Wake Forest and Virginia Tech a few years ago, or Auburn’s 3-2 victory over Mississippi State. However, in 1978, age-old non-rivals Illinois and Northwestern kicked off the season with the battle for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, and forty years later, football deviants should know more about what I firmly believe to be the worst football game ever played. Paddy Driscoll, Red Grange, Otto Graham, Dick Butkus and every other legend to ever play in this series surely vomited blood (or spun in their graves) when the two teams, who would combine for a 1-18-1 record in their other twenty games, concluded a scoreless tie.

Allow me to walk you through everything you could ever want to know about this legendary game.

A Once-Proud History

In 1962, the Wildcats, led by future Notre Dame legend Ara Parseghian, went to Columbus and humbled Woody Hayes’ #6 Ohio State Buckeyes before steamrolling the Fighting Irish 35-6. They would rise to the #1 spot in the AP poll before losing to Wisconsin and Michigan State, but would finish the season #16 in the coaches’ poll at 7-2. On the way, they crushed Pete Elliott’s Fighting Illini 45-0.

The next year, Illinois would shut out California before grinding out a 10-9 victory against #4 Northwestern. A stifling defense led by Dick Butkus propelled Illinois to the #2 spot in the AP poll before a loss to Michigan knocked them out of the top 3, but they would still go on to win the Big Ten and defeat Washington in the Rose Bowl.

How did these two proud programs go from flirting with the top of the college football world to the belligerents in the worst football game of all time in a mere fifteen years?

The Gears Of Awful Football Churn Towards Oblivion

Illinois’ path to ruin can be summed up in two words: slush fund. More details can be found here, but in short, Pete Elliott’s last season in 1966 (led by future athletic director Ron Guenther at guard) would be followed by the revelation of a laughably well-documented network of bagmen providing a higher standard of living for student-athletes. Any good bagman knows not to leave a paper trail, but Illinois’ bagmen were not very good. When the University president was told of these things, he immediately threw Illinois upon the tender mercy of the NCAA, who decided instead to nuke Illinois from orbit. The fallout would see coach Jim Valek post an 8-32 record including an 0-10 mark in 1969 before being dismissed after 1970. Dartmouth coaching legend Bob Blackman was tapped to lead the Illini into the 70’s, posting 5 or 6 wins in six of his seven seasons, but ultimately proved incapable of closing the enormous gap between Illinois and the “Big 2” of the 1970s.

Northwestern, on the other hand, had a slow slide into the abyss that is largely attributed to the university administration’s indifference to the football program and refusal to commit to it any substantial resources. In fact, Parseghian’s departure was due to repeated clashes with athletic director Stu Holcomb, who finally decided not to renew the coach’s contract after the 1963 season. In Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame (barf), Jim Dent details Parseghian’s frustration with prohibitive academic standards and limits on resources and scholarships, and also quotes him as saying of his departure, “I took them to the top of the polls in 1962, and that was not good enough for Northwestern.”

Three-time Fighting Illini All-American Alex Agase was named the next Wildcats head coach, and after six losing seasons he was named FWAA Coach of the Year after posting a 6-4 record in 1970. A 7-4 campaign followed, but he would go 2-9 in 1972 before leaving for Purdue, where he would have four losing seasons but sink #1 Michigan in Purdue Harbor in 1976. The Wildcats would strike back by poaching Indiana’s John Pont, who had LED THE HOOSIERS TO NINE WINS, A BIG TEN TITLE AND A ROSE BOWL BERTH in 1967. After going 10-22 over three years, Pont assumed the athletic director chair, where he would plunge Northwestern into an era of ruination not seen before or since.

The Chessboard Is Populated

Cecil Coleman, the Illinois AD, had tired of Coach Blackman’s inability to gain any ground on Michigan and Ohio State. It was time to chase the Big 2, and he took what he thought was a big step towards this goal by hiring Michigan defensive coordinator Gary Moeller on the recommendation of Bo Schembechler. Moeller’s hire was seen as a sign that Illinois was ready to get serious again, but his philosophy of “three yards and a cloud of dust/stop the run” had poor early returns, and Illinois would suffer two straight shutouts in November to drop to 3-7 heading into the final game.

Northwestern, on the other hand, had followed up a 1-10 campaign in ‘76 by losing their first ten games of ‘77, scoring double digits in only three and coming within a touchdown of only Minnesota. Coach Pont was 11-43 in Evanston when Moeller’s Illini came to town having won the previous three matchups by a combined 104-27. However, in Pont’s final game as head coach, the Wildcats pulled off a 21-7 upset.

While the Fighting Illini coaches and players had to simply accept this humbling defeat, Northwestern made a coaching change, with Pont stepping aside to focus on the AD job. As a replacement, he selected 31-year-old Illinois offensive coordinator Rick Venturi, whose high-flying passing attack had seen Illini quarterback Mike McCray pass for 418 yards...for the whole 1977 season. Venturi was of course a former Northwestern player, but it’s nevertheless interesting to hire the offensive coordinator of the only team Northwestern beat and the only one they held under 13 points.

Setting The Stage For Glory

Now’s finally the time where I get to use my newspaper archives.

The humiliating loss to the Wildcats had left a bad taste in the mouths of the Illinois players and fans. In the Friday, Sept. 8 issue of The Chicago Tribune, Bill Jauss asked Illini defensive back John Venegoni and linebacker John Gillen what it was like to live with the defeat.

“I had a very long summer,” Venegoni recalled... “Back home, people look at that game to see which is the better school. That game is for the pride of Illinois. Some of the kids we went to school with, and some of the parents, constantly kept telling me ‘The only game Northwestern won...and they beat you 21-7!’”

“That was a sour defeat last year,” said Gillen. “People at home, though, kept at me with, ‘Here’s Northwestern, in the cellar of the Big 10, and you lost to them!’”

“We’re going in to win. We’re not thinking ‘What if we lose?’”

-”NU, Illini rev up a rivalry,” Bill Jauss, The Chicago Tribune, 9/8/1978

Outside of the families of the players, however, there wasn’t much excitement around this game. Said Mattoon’s Journal Gazette, “One might think a football game between Illinois and Northwestern, last year’s Big Ten doormats, a rather ho-hum contemplation.” The Journal Gazette did concede, however, that it “could make for an interesting afternoon of football,” before describing the matchup as pitting “a very young, Elmer Gantry-type coach who preaches wide-open football against his former boss,” and citing Coach Moeller:

“I’ve been told to expect the unexpected,” Moeller said. “That’s their motto, isn’t it?”

-”Illini, Northwestern clash should be interesting”, Journal Gazette, 9/8/1978

Further investigation of Moeller’s remark yielded the following from the pages of the Tribune:

Sure enough, Northwestern’s slogan heading into a four-year stretch in which they won a single game was “Expect the Unexpected,” and it can’t be said that they failed to deliver on that promise.

Anyway, the 1978 contest had been scheduled for November 21st, but Coleman rescheduled the game to opening weekend because he felt he had a much better chance of attracting a big crowd to Memorial Stadium in early September than during the Michigan vs. Ohio State game that always decided who played in the Rose Bowl in those days. There was also the advantage of having this game be played during late summer weather as opposed to frigid, windy November weather, and that the winner would leave with a 1-0 record instead of, say, a 1-10 record.

The Day Of Reckoning

At last, the time had come for two once-proud programs now become doormats to see whose hope for the future was better founded. As far as the game being played in warm conditions, Coleman got his wish as 92F air temperatures produced a temperature of 116F on the surface of Memorial Stadium’s Astro-Turf. The hoped-for attendance bump didn’t really come, as 40,091 showed up to sweat it out. Two Illini offensive linemen reported losing 12 pounds each over the course of the game, making this the complete opposite of the famous NFL Ice Bowl in 1967 in many ways.

A very telling thing is that I was unable to find a recap of anything that happened in the first quarter, but I can certainly tell you no points were scored in that time, nor did either team threaten to score. Early in the second quarter, however, the header image for this article was snapped when Northwestern punter Sam Poulos fumbled the snap and then tried to throw a pass, but was called for intentional grounding, giving Illinois the ball at the Wildcats’ 17 yard line. With Moeller’s stifling defense shutting down what was supposed to be a Mike Leach-caliber passing attack, one score could be the difference...but Cliff Jones shanked a 26-yard kick to the right after the offense failed to advance.

Though quarterback Kevin Strasser would throw 33 passes for Northwestern, the vertical passing game that had been promised was absent. Instead, the Cats lived on the outskirts of Checkdown City in a suburb called Three-Yard-Outsburg. Though not scoring, they pinned Illinois back inside their own 20. With the first half running out, Moeller’s ground & pound offense rumbled to the Northwestern 18. Having been burned by Cliff Jones once before, Moeller elected to go for it on 4th and 4 from this spot. Quarterback Rich Weiss, in his first start, found good coverage past the sticks as he rolled out and elected to tuck it and run. After he was stopped a yard shy, a three-year-old boy in Orland Park spoke his first complete sentence. “Should have run speed option to the short side of the field,” said young Patrick, much to the surprise of the Fitzgeralds. Northwestern would take over and drive to the 35 of Illinois before two sacks ended a scoreless first half. Both teams took shelter from the sweltering sun to the song of the boo-birds for halftime.

The Second-Half Quest for Meaning

With both defenses rejuvenated following a halftime cool-down, the 10.5-point home favorite Fighting Illini mounted a methodical drive in the third quarter. First, they passed the fateful place where Weiss had been stopped just shy of the first down. Then they passed the spot from which Jones had missed the early field goal. Illinois symbolically advanced the ball past each of their prior failings all the way to the two yards line, when Vincent Carter fumbled a toss from Weiss that was recovered by Northwestern’s Dean Payne.

Not to be outdone, Northwestern would squander a scoring opportunity of their own when they took that drive into what they thought was field goal range only for kicker and Bill Carmody center in another life Nick Mirkopulos to miss a 47-yarder.

One man who had played exceptionally well was Illini punter Dave Finzer, who had made life difficult for the ‘Cats with two punts downed at their two yard line, including a 68-yarder. The Northwestern 2 yard line seems to have great significance in this game. The Rumbling Illini, who rushed 52 times compared to only 13 passing attempts, drove again to the Northwestern 18. Moeller’s offense stood where they’d been twice before; after his team lost yardage, he had a decision to make. Whose mistake would have its ghost exorcised on fourth down, Weiss or Jones?

He chose a third option. Finzer wasn’t the regular placekicker, but his foot had been the extremity that had contributed most to Illinois’ control of the game, and it was to this point unsullied by failure. A mere 35 yard attempt with little wind would cement the legend of Dave Finzer forever. Naturally, he missed it wide right.

Strasser led Northwestern back down the field, reaching the Illinois 30. Venturi knew Illinois would eventually break the tie if given enough chances inside the 20, and at long last Strasser was looking he was picked off by Earnest Adams.

The score remained love all.

The Grand Finale

Illinois could not convert this chance late in the fourth quarter and thus they unleashed Finzer’s sixth punt of the day. His yardage would total 235 for a 39.2 average. He outgained Northwestern’s entire offense by 15 yards. His Wildcat counterpart, Poulos, punted nine times for 337 yards, which eclipsed Illinois’ 294 offensive yards. In total, the game had 572 yards of punting and 514 yards of offense.

Mere minutes remained in this epic punters’ duel and Venturi’s offense needed to move quickly out of the shadow of their end zone. In his haste, Strasser threw another interception that was returned to the 31 with under two minutes remaining. This seemed like a fatal blow when Illinois advanced to the 25 with under a minute to go. The conservative Moeller dialed up the thirteenth pass of the game for Weiss, who found Eric Rouse at the 14. Rouse secured the ball, made a Football Move and turned upfield, where he was apprehended by the defense and stripped of his cargo. Northwestern’s Pat Geegan recovered the fumble with 23 seconds to go and here the game ended.

The Aftermath

The scoreless tie was the first for Illinois since a 1951 stalemate against Ohio State on their way to a Rose Bowl victory and a national title. The 1978 Fighting Illini, however, would come up just short of the national title. Asked about the botched play on Northwestern’s doorstep, Moeller had this to say:

“We ran the wrong way on that play. It was supposed to go right.”

Suddenly, there was a scene on the sidelines of coach John Cooper’s Tulsa Golden Hurricane football game. A junior linebacker heard Moeller’s voice in his head and was compelled to look to the northeast. Though he was an All-American at linebacker, young Lovie Smith realized it was his destiny to become this man instead.

Illini linebacker John Sullivan believed the mutual offensive ineptitude saved lives. “If either offense would have been able to maintain ball control, [the hot conditions] would have been unbearable for the defense.”

The ridicule came hard for the Fighting Illini, who had been eager to get the foul taste of the 1977 loss out of their mouths but instead showed neither improvement nor regression nor much of anything. The headline from Moline’s The Dispatch read, “Illinois, Northwestern too inept to score.” In Bloomington, The Pantagraph declared, “Scoreless tie...that’s entertainment?” The Chicago Tribune summed it up with “NU, Illini show nothing in opener.”

Here’s the box score, via the Decatur Daily Review:

As is still the case today, Northwestern’s columns had an amusingly positive view of the day’s events. Robert Markus’ Tribune column, headlined “Northwestern gets an ‘A’ on defense,” quoted Venturi as saying “This has to be the best defensive game I’ve been associated with in my whole career.” Of course, this was after Markus started the column with this summary of the game:

Nobody knew quite how to act. It was a little like finding out your worst enemy is sick. You know you shouldn’t be glad but it’s pretty hard to summon up any remorse, either.

Of course, the tie was also described as “a gift from above,” contrary to what “this winning-oriented society” will tell you:

Sometimes Teddy Greenstein sees this face when he looks in the mirror

Illinois would fail to score until their third game of the season. In their fourth, they actually managed a victory and two games later tied Wisconsin to get to 1-3-2. They would be spanked thoroughly in their remaining games and Moeller would be fired after a 2-8-1 season in 1979, but not before defeating Northwestern for his final victory with Illinois. Mike White and John Mackovic would bring some success in the 1980’s, but after Mackovic’s recruits left there would be three winning regular seasons among 23 seasons between 0 and 6 wins.

Northwestern traveled to Iowa and their 20-3 loss would be as close as they’d get to winning for the rest of the season. In 1980, Northwestern reset the athletic department, ousting Pont and firing Venturi with a record of 1-31-1. They would wander until Gary Barnett invented football in 1995, and have been steadily unpredictable ever since.

And thus here we are forty years later. The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk has been replaced with the Land of Lincoln trophy, coaches and players have come and gone, the game has been played at four different venues and the level of play has been wildly variable. There’s not much at stake in this year’s edition of the matchup, with Northwestern having a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game clinched and Illinois coming off a 63-0 loss to Iowa that eliminated them from bowl contention. It’s a somewhat meaningless endeavor, but it’ll never quite earn the summary given to the 1978 game by the Chicago Tribune: