If there’s one thing I’ve learned this Illinois week, it’s that nobody wants to talk about or read about Illinois Fighting Illini football. I’m sure there’s many reasons, principally that ever since September of 2012, it’s a foregone conclusion that Illinois is very bad and they rarely deviate from that path. Another reason, however, may be that every now and then, your team loses to them in a really stupid way, and you’d rather not think about it.
1988: Illinois 21, #20 Indiana Hoosiers 20
As a fellow loser of many games over the last 25 years, Indiana’s losses to Illinois haven’t generally been particularly dumb. They haven’t lost to the Illini since 2011 (winning all three games), when they themselves were awful. While 1977’s loss to the Gary Moeller Illini deserves a mention only because so few teams lost to the Gary Moeller Illini (in fact, Moeller had as many ties against the league as wins with 3 each), the 1988 game has to be the dumbest. In Memorial Stadium, away from the comforts of Memorial Stadium, the 6-1-1 Hoosiers were in rare form, having knocked off Iowa to recover from their first loss of the year at Michigan, and were still alive in the conference championship race. They first cracked the AP poll after eviscerating Ohio State 41-7 and entered Champaign ranked 20th, sealing the game with a pick-six to go up 20-9 with under 3:30 remaining.
The Illini offense made quick work of advancing downfield, but faced fourth down on the 21. Undeterred, Jeff George hit Shawn Wax in the end zone to cut the lead to five, but couldn’t get the two. Illinois kicked deep and QB Dave Schnell ran a boot to the sideline, but fumbled when he cut back to stay inbounds. Illinois recovered, and George would hit current Illini RB coach Mike Bellamy on the fade with 21 seconds to go.
1965: Illinois 21, #6 Purdue Boilermakers 0
Of course I was tempted to put the 2013 game in here because that game was ALL KINDS of dumb, but Purdue was one of the worst teams in recent B1G history in Darrell Hazell’s first year and probably was surprised to lose this game by only four points. This doesn’t really fit the bill here, and there’s not many that do because the Cannon has a remarkable track record of going to the better team, or at least Purdue doesn’t often lose as the better team.
However, in 1965, Purdue took down #1 Notre Dame in week 2 before a strange tie with SMU tumbled them from the #2 spot in the polls to #9. They held off Iowa and Michigan before falling to eventual national champ Michigan State on homecoming in a 14-10 heartbreaker. Nevertheless, the Boilers just needed the right break to get to the Rose Bowl, and legendary quarterback Bob Griese was not daunted by a trip to Champaign to take on the 3-3 Illini.
Perhaps he should have been.
1986: Illinois 20, #16 Iowa Hawkeyes 16
Like the man of whom he was a Safeway Select brand knockoff (Bo Schembechler), Hayden Fry could get surprisingly worked up for such a supposedly hard man. In 1983 his Hawks were exposed for the frauds they were 33-0 by the greatest Big Ten team of all time, and though he ran up scores on Northwestern and Minnesota, he couldn’t quite fill the Illini-shaped hole in his soul. Nor was a mere 5-point win over the offending team quite enough in ‘84. He wouldn’t be satisfied until a 59-0 blowout of an up-and-down Illini squad in 1985. It was only then that he probably said something condescending and assumed the Illini were back in their rightful place under his heel.
At least that’s my theory as to why his 6-2 Hawkeyes, with losses only to Michigan and Ohio State, went into Champaign and ran 29 times for 34 yards against the 2-6 Illini. Whoops!
2005: Illinois 33, Rutgers Scarlet Knights 30
The Greg Schiano era had gotten off to a rocky start, and entering year 5 he had yet to best 5-7. Nevertheless, momentum was building every year even though in 2004 Schiano dropped to 0-2 against FCS teams at Rutgers. The 2004 ‘Gers still resembled a competitive Big East team, hanging in with West Virginia and defeating Michigan State and Vanderbilt in non-conference play. 2005 would be the year it all came together, starting with a warmup at hapless Illinois, in their first year under Ron Zook after Ron Turner had gone 4-19 his last two seasons. They took a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter and hit cruise control.
A few miles down the road, they were awakened by E.B. Halsey scoring a touchdown to tie the game at 27. They’d kick a field goal in overtime only for Pierre Thomas to win the game on Illinois’ ensuing drive. Whoops.
2007: Illinois 31, #5 Wisconsin Badgers 26
Fresh off a 12-1 debut season, Bret Bielema compiled a shaky 5-0 start that nevertheless propelled his team to the AP Top 5. Everyone but Badgers fans knew this team was clownfraudtrasch before the game, and by the time Illinois led 17-6 at the half, even the cheeseheads were beginning to suspect it. In true Wisconsinite fashion, the Badgers woke up and shook off the hangover too late to avoid being fired from their retail job. Whoops!
2007: Illinois 28, #1 Ohio State Buckeyes 21
It’s among the best Illinois victories, but it was a pretty big dicktrip for Jim Tressel that exposed how much of a problem Tresselball is when you don’t have possession and the other team can run the ball well. After their win against Wisconsin, Illinois took themselves out of the top 25 with an extremely dumb loss to Iowa and a rather dumb loss to Michigan before fighting off Ball State and Minnesota. Juice Williams completed 12 passes for 4 touchdowns, but more importantly the option tandem of Juice and Rashard Mendenhall salted the game away in the fourth quarter. Ohio State fans are still mad about this as though THIS, not shitting their pants against LSU, cost them the national title.
2009: Illinois 38, Michigan Wolverines 13
Year Two of the Rich Rodriguez era was off to a much better start than Year 1. The QB duo of Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson had defeated Notre Dame and started off 4-0, with Robinson earning his first of several September Heismans. An overtime loss to Michigan State and a 2 point loss to #12 Iowa slowed them down a bit, but Penn State caught them square on the chin. Still, at 5-3, they’d at least finish up with some wins and get to a bowl game. It was weird when they didn’t in 2008. Thank god there’s 1-6 Illinois sitting there with only an FCS win.
The game started predictably enough, with some offensive ineptitude giving way to a blown coverage where Roy Roundtree ran untouched down the field...until Terry Hawthorne ran him down at the 1. The ensuing goal line stand so profoundly affected Ron Zook that he had an epiphany. “You know what,” he thought to himself, “it’s just occurred to me that Mikel Leshoure is pretty good.” Leshoure would crush the Wolverines, who would lose the rest of their games and miss a bowl game in HILARIOUS fashion. WHOOOOOOOPS.
2010: Illinois 48, #25 Northwestern Wildcats 27
Michigan shouldn’t feel too ashamed. They weren’t the only team to not have an answer for Mikel Leshoure.
Though the 2014 winner-makes-a-bowl debacle against Tim Beckman was pretty dumb and allowing a three-score fourth-quarter comeback in 2011 fits the bill as well, this one takes the cake because Northwestern was trying to synergize with one of the most obnoxious brands in America by painting Wrigley Field purple. They couldn’t have known the danger; after all, this was before the family of Chicago Cubs ownership explicitly supported orange entities.
After playing a Northwestern soft non-conference schedule, the Wildcats attempted to win every game while trying to look like they were losing. They perfected this balance in beating Tim Brewster by one point, but then they lost to Danny Hope by three after getting too greedy and trying to win by less than one. An impressively close loss to #8 Michigan State (pre-Fitz figuring out how to take Dantonio’s lunch money every year) finally led into a dumb and bewildering 21-17 win over #13 Iowa. Things aren’t really that different nine years later, are they? Anyway, the Wildcats were 7-3 and back in the top 25. As long as they held Leshoure to only 200 or so yards, they’d get to 8-3.
Unfortunately, despite only needing to defend one end zone the whole game, this proved too tall a task as Leshoure went off for 330 yards. Whoops!
2014: Illinois 28, Minnesota Golden Gophers 24
The 6-1 Golden Gophers, in the driver’s seat for the inaugural Big Ten West, traveled to Champaign to take on Tim Beckman’s hapless 3-4 Illini, who had lost at home to Darrell Hazell to seemingly seal Timmy’s fate. For some reason David Cobb wasn’t gashing the Illini front seven, so Jerry Kill called on Mitch Leidner to win the game with his arm. He sailed a few into the upper deck as Illinois left an upper decker in the toilet that is Minnesota, with the winning drive being keyed by a Cobb fumble deep in Illinois territory. Whoops!
2014: Illinois 16, Penn State Nittany Lions 14
The Fighting SANCTIONS were having a weird year, with Northwestern blowing their doors off but eventual national champs Ohio State nearly losing to them in 2OT. Minnesota was clearly a fluke and Illinois was still trash, right? After all, they’d lost their last two badly and one more win would take them out of bowl eligibility.
Enter Reilly O’Toole. The career backup proved just capable enough after Wes Lunt was knocked out of the game, and with Mike Dudek embarrassing the Penn State defense, James Franklin had little margin for error or cowardice. On 4th and inches from his own 41 clinging to a late 14-13 lead, Franklin went full Pete Carroll and refused to just give it to (Akeel) Lynch, instead entering Late Game James Franklin mode and punting. This set up O’Toole’s hero drive which was capped off by the shakiest Illini kicker I can remember, David Reisner, sneaking the game-winner through the uprights. James Franklin is 0-1 lifetime against Tim Beckman. WHOOPS.
2015: Illinois 14, Nebraska Cornhuskers 10
The interim Bill Cubit Illini had come out roaring, but been dismantled by UNC and barely held on against Middle Tennessee. Meanwhile, Mike Riley’s kinder, gentler Huskers were 2-2, but both losses had been due to preposterous Hail Marys. With a solid running game, Nebraska was sure to bowl over the Illini and hinder their faltering offense.
Unfortunately, Mike Riley decided that with the 25mph winds, he would direct the gameplay as though he was Rian Johnson. “We’ve got to establish the PASS! See what I did there? Your expectations are SO SUBVERTED!” Poor Tommy Armstrong went 10 for 31, including a bizarre incomplete pass during a crucial clock-killing drive. With a minute to go and the wind at his back, Wild Wild Wes gripped and ripped downfield to set up one of the dumbest sequences of events I’ve ever seen. Illinois called the same exact play four times in a row, being bailed out by PI calls, until it finally worked!
Despite this debacle showing that he had no idea what he was doing other than nonsensical misdirection, he was allowed to direct two sequels before being canned. Whoops!
2016: Illinois 31, Michigan State Spartans 27
It’s hard to say what the dumbest game on this list is, but this captures such a dumb moment in time. Illinois was of course a sad husk of a team in Lovie Smith’s first year and had proven it by getting waxed by Western Michigan before losing to Darrell Hazell at home again. After Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch went down, Jeff George Jr became the quarterback that would help the Illini cover a 36-point spread against #3 Michigan and put up 17 points on Minnesota even as their secondary headhunted the Illini receiving corps out of the game. That’s still not a resume that inspires confidence.
Defending Big Ten champ Michigan State had struggled with Furman before beating Notre Dame, but then a wheel fell off against Wisconsin, and then another against Indiana, and another against BYU, and another as Northwestern won 54-40 Or Fight, and by the time Maryland knocked off the Spartans, wheels were coming off that fans weren’t even aware of. A surprisingly close game with Michigan, however, meant that perhaps the ship could be steadied.
The Spartans seemed to have shaky control until giving up the lead with 10 to go in the 3rd. A back-and-forth ensued that saw Jeff George hit Sam Mays for the go-ahead touchdown with under two minutes. The second dumb loss caused by a last-second Jeff George drive on this list, this game ended when Michigan State couldn’t convert 4th and 2 from the Illini 15 with 20 seconds to go.
Michigan State made no coaching shakeup and just resumed winning 10 games like nothing had happened.
But Wait, Where’s My Team?
Chill. If you don’t think Maryland will drop a really dumb game to Illinois eventually, welcome to College Park, young freshman.