Earlier in the week, I brought you the first part of our Dicktrip of the Year nominees and explained the Tressel-Meyer Trophy. In the header picture you’ll find Jim Tressel just before the Purdue Harbor game.
You probably already know what #1 is, but let’s revisit the top three anyway!
2019 was always going to be the make-or-break season for Lovie Smith as the head coach of the Fighting Illini, and his team started out strong with a 42-3 thrashing of Akron. However, an uninspiring 8-point road win over the lowly Connecticut Huskies tempered the excitement a bit. So it was back to Memorial Stadium to wrap up the softest non-conference slate the Illini had had in ages against Eastern Michigan. This was a team that had lost a lot of starters from the prior year’s Purdue-vanquishing squad and Illinois sorely needed this win, likely to be the 3rd of 4 games in which they’d be favored. It’s bowl or bust and the Illini have no margin for error.
Illinois bottled up Shaq Vann to force a three-and-out and proceeded on the most Lovie Smith drive imaginable, going 38 yards on 8 plays. At home with a massive talent advantage against a team that was mediocre within the MAC, Lovie elected to kick a 57-yard field goal instead of going for it on 4th and 3 from the 39 just under six minutes into the game. The only reason everyone forgets about this is because James McCourt drilled it. Peak Lovie had been acheived.
On the ensuing drive, Mike Glass found Randy Moss, cleverly disguised as “Arthur Jackson,” for a touchdown over Nate Hobbs. Brandon Peters responded with a touchdown to Ricky Smalling, but this was quickly answered by a 54-yard busted coverage touchdown by Matthew Sexton. Chris Creighton had seen that the run game was struggling and the Illini couldn’t play zone coverage to save their season, so Glass was now airing it out. The teams traded touchdowns again before Illini OC Rod Smith became impatient and abandoned the run, leading to two quick 3-and-outs. Illinois would get the ball back with a minute to play in the half, but a bewildered Lovie Smith had no idea what to do with his timeouts and wasted an enormous amount of time before using them. With six seconds to go, they ran Reggie Corbin up the middle against a prevent defense despite having Brandon Peters and Josh Imatorbhebhe.
Illinois trailed at halftime, but there were still two whole quarters. Nobody told Rod Smith, though, as his offense continued to throw the ball to no avail. How little avail? Peters was sacked SIX TIMES in this game! They gained 37 yards on five 3rd-quarter drives, with their longest drive of 14 yards being stopped by an interception. Glass carved up the Illini defense for a touchdown drive in the fourth to extend the lead to 31-17.
Then the Illini remembered their huge talent advantage and started running the ball! Corbin scored on a long touchdown run and the defense EVENTUALLY got them the ball back, but not before EMU killed nearly 5 minutes of clock. Peters would find Imatorbhebhe on 4th and 10 from the Illini 7 for a big gain, and then with under two minutes to go, Bhebhe would take another pass the distance, refusing to be denied a touchdown. Unfortunately, he’d left too much time.
EMU sliced through Lovie Smith’s Illini defense like a hot knife through butter, setting up a chip shot that went through with no time remaining. It was a devastating blow to the Illini, but one that the coaches had truly earned by calling a terrible game. This felt like a referendum on the entire Lovie Smith era, and the conclusion was that it was doomed to failure. My reaction is below, but check this one out for just how deep this cut.
Here’s the highlights. For the neutral observer, this was entertaining. For the Illini fan, it was torture
I think this one only fell to #3 because it would eventually prove to NOT have been the undoing of Lovie Smith at Illinois.
2: Nevada Wolf Pack 34, Purdue Boilermakers 31
You have to remember, Purdue was seen as a division contender at the start of the year. That’s just what this game was, the start to the season, and despite some injuries and some turnover the Boilermakers had been to two straight bowls and were assembling Top 25 talent under Jeff Brohm.
Not only did the Boilers score on their opening drive, they held Nevada to three 3-and-outs in their first four possessions, with the other being a punt as well. The last of those 3-and-outs came after a Milton Wright fumble gave Nevada the ball; this mistake didn’t even hurt them. Though Nevada would score on a deep strike by Carson Strong, Purdue scored a minute later when Elijah Sindelar found Jackson Anthrop for a 38-yard score. Nevada’s Quinton Conaway did all he could to stop the bleeding, pinning the Boilers at their own 1 with a 67-yard punt, but with just over two minutes left they drove the length of the field and scored again on a Rondale Moore catch.
I didn’t watch the second half of this game because Purdue’s 24-7 lead had shown me all I needed to see to know they were the real deal on offense this year and may have a defense to boot. Of Nevada’s 7 drives, only 3 had gone farther than 10 yards. On the other hand, the Boilers had 325 yards to Nevada’s 115. A 99-yard touchdown drive had to make the Boilers feel incredible going into the locker room.
It started off innocently enough. Zander Horvath muffed a punt, setting up Nevada with good field position to score a touchdown that cut the lead to 10. No matter, Sindelar simply threw two long passes to Brycen Hopkins and David Bell to restore the 17-point margin. The defense held the ensuing drive to 0 yards, and Purdue would get the ball back looking to extend their lead.
Then it was Rondale Moore’s turn to muff a punt. Purdue was veering into Illinois punt return territory. The defense held the Pack to a field goal and fielded the kickoff successfully, but Sindelar wasn’t hitting passes until he found a defender for a pick. The defense did its job and Purdue wisely chose not to field the next punt, but the lack of a running game was really starting to take its toll. Nevada, however, could run, and did so on two touchdown drives as the Boiler offense stalled.
So now it’s a tie game at 31, but Purdue has the ball with under a minute to play. Probably a pretty bad time to throw an interception in your own territory, which is exactly what Sindelar did. This set up a 56-yard game winner, which Brandon Talton sailed through the uprights.
Look at what this looks like graphically. It’s a stunning cliff. This was the healthiest Purdue would be all season, and Nevada would end up 116th in SP+ ranking. Perhaps it wasn’t just the injuries that happened during the course of the season that cost Purdue everything. Had they held on to this game, they would have ended with a 5-7 season, which seems more appetizing than 4-8, no?
1: Illinois 24, Wisconsin Badgers 23
You knew it had to be this. The Purdue collapse managed to get two first place votes somehow, but this game got 11 and nobody voted it lower than 2nd. Wisconsin has proven to be somewhat human since this game while Illinois has proven to be somewhat competitive against teams that aren’t Northwestern, but it’s hard to overstate how unlikely this game seemed at the time. Wisconsin was a 31-point road favorite. I didn’t even go to the game even though I was in Champaign for Homecoming. Catching up with old friends seemed a better use of my time.
The smallest Homecoming crowd I can find (just under 38,000) showed up to see the #6 Badgers spank the 2-4 Illini. Illinois came into this game on a 4-game losing streak kicked off by Dicktrip #3 on this list, followed up by losing a game against Nebraska despite getting four turnovers inside the Nebraska 30. After the bye week, they got crushed by Minnesota in a game that was 40-3 if you only count points scored by the offense and special teams. Then they had a weird rally after Michigan went into practice mode with a 28-0 lead. Lovie was so fired it was ridiculous. Behind the scenes, The Champaign Room was working to assemble a bunch of post-firing content because it seemed like it could happen any day now and we wanted to get ahead of the story.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, had shut out 4 of its 6 opponents. They had absolutely flattened Michigan in an almost Ohio State-ian manner, making Jim Harbaugh look dazed and confused. They’d survived Northwestern’s extremely dumb voodoo they do to teams at the end of games, and then they’d taken Michigan State to the woodshed 38-0. They were absolutely blowing everyone up. It was appropriate for Wisconsin to be favored by 31. I wrote up the bleakest game preview imaginable for Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
It started off predictably, with Wisconsin taking the opening drive for a Jake Ferguson touchdown pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Taylor had only broken loose once on that drive, but it was surely coming. Blake Hayes did some work to set up an Illini field goal attempt, but the 40-yarder was missed. Wisconsin responded with a long drive that was stuffed at the Illini 6, but they came away with a 10-0 lead.
The Badger offense churned along, but was meeting a surprising amount of resistance in the interior of the line thanks to Jamal Milan. Just as most Big Ten teams had been doing for the last two years, Wisconsin went for it on 4th and 7 in field goal range because they had no respect for the Illini defense. Jake Hansen sacked Coan and recovered a fumble that the Illini would turn into a touchdown when Donny Navarro got loose in the secondary. The Badgers took a 13-7 lead into halftime in a game that was actually relatively even. However, it just seemed inevitable that the dam would break and the Badgers would start to rack up yards.
A fumble by Bhebhe inside the Illini 20 in the 3rd quarter seemed to set up that point where the dam breaks, as Taylor would find the end zone for the first time. Chris Orr sacked Brandon Peters yet again, forcing a punt. The Badgers drove 59 yards, but missed a field goal. This seemed to provide some more life to the offense, sparking Reggie Corbin on a long touchdown run. Wisconsin churned away in response, and Devon Witherspoon was beaten by Kendric Pryor on a slant with no help behind him. The freshman managed to run down Pryor at the 3, giving the defense a chance to make a goal line stand. Paul Chryst kicked the field goal to make it a 9-point game instead of trying to demoralize the Illini from the 2 yard line. The momentum was all with the home team now.
...Not quite. Corbin was stuffed on 4th and 1, turning the ball over on downs. Wisconsin could put the game away with a touchdown, but a rare Taylor fumble was recovered by Isaiah Gay. Illinois scored another touchdown and put the game in the hands of the much-maligned Lovie Smith defense with under 6 minutes to play. Wisconsin salted away the clock, but went to the air on 3rd and 5. Tony Adams made a great read and picked off Coan in his first game since switching from safety back to his original position of corner. An epic first down run by Dre Brown helped set up James McCourt’s game-winning 39-yarder.
Now, in light of the clear gap that we can now see between Wisconsin and Ohio State, this didn’t end up costing the Badgers anything in the end. At the time, however, it was a stunning reversal of fortunes. Wisconsin was seen as perhaps capable of challenging the Buckeyes and would get their shot after pummeling hapless Illinois. In contrast to a shaky but undefeated Minnesota, Wisconsin was seen as the clear favorite to win the division. Losing to Illinois put the blood rival Gophers in the driver’s seat, especially with an Ohio State loss now a foregone conclusion. It was really only by the grace of Minnesota beating Penn State to prove the West’s legitimacy, but then losing to Iowa, that Wisconsin managed to get to the Rose Bowl with a win in the Axe game. If not for these circumstances, they would have had an insurmountable hole to climb out of, all because they couldn’t beat Illinois as a 31-point favorite.
This dicktrip breathed life into the Lovie Smith Illini and sparked a four-game win streak that took them to a bowl game. Had Wisconsin bothered to use playaction at all over the course of this game, none of that happens.