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The Top Ten Illinois Fighting Illini Football Rock Fight Games of the Modern Era

College football keeps trying to evolve, but in the Heartland we don’t believe in evolution

Not that kind of Rock!!!

Sadly, the Big Ten West is entering its final season just as Illinois and Bert were coming into their MANBALL prime. Looking forward to the upcoming season made me reflect back on some of the great rock fights that Illinois has participated in over the years.

This list will cover the last 40 years. I know I said “in history,” but I only included games that I’ve seen so there won’t be references to the Pointless Game or anything older because I’m not that effing old. Check out this gem by Thumpasaurus if you want to read about real futility:

I moved to Illinois in 1983 just in time to see Illinois blow through the entire Big Ten, going 9-0 and becoming the only team in Big Ten history to defeat every other team in the conference in a single season. They also went on to claim the basketball title and 10yo me knew that Illinois sports would be dominant forever!

Thumpasaurus: I’d like to point out that this list does not include such events as:

  • the Ohio State game in 2011 where the Buckeyes won 17-7 on 1 for 4 passing
  • the snow game in Happy Valley two weeks later where Derek Dimke’s missed kick left the final 10-7
  • Bill Cubit spamming the same play until it beat Nebraska 14-13 in howling winds
  • a 14-6 win over Minnesota where the score was 14-0 for over 40 minutes

Anyway, I yield to HWAHSQB!

Without further ado, let’s see the Top Ten winners or whatever:

#14 1994 Washington State 10 Illinois 9

Illinois came into 1994 ranked #22 and opened the season against Wazzu. This was technically a home game, but I was not in attendance as the game was played at Soldier Field and was not part of the student season ticket package.

Late in the second quarter with Illinois holding a 6-3 lead, Simeon Rice forced a fumble and Illinois recovered. We promptly drove the ball down the field looking to pad the lead when Johnny Johnson returned the favor and fumbled and the Cougs grabbed the spheroid for a 76 yard scoop and score for the only touchdown of the game. Illinois would hit one more field goal and got in position for a game winning field goal, but the 57 yard attempt fell short.

Illinois would follow this up with a 42-0 trouncing of the Missouri Tigers en route to a 7-5 (4-4) finish and would cap the season off with a 30-0 demolition of the East Carolina Pirates in the Liberty Bowl. Advanced stats will tell you that this was the best team of the entire 40 year span. The average margin in the losses was 4.4 points and the victories was 25.

#13 1989 USC Trojans 13 Illinois 14

#5 ranked USC led 13-0 with six minutes to go. Jeff George threw a TD pass to cut the lead to 13-7. Henry Jones picked off a Todd Marinovich pass with 2 minutes left and George threw another TD pass to win the game.

The real interesting part of this game was that it was originally scheduled to be played in Moscow and was billed as the Glasnost Bowl. However, logistical problems prevented the teams from playing overseas and it was played at the Coliseum instead.

Illinois would finish 10-2 (8-1) with a victory of Virgina in the Citrus Bowl.

#12 2007 Iowa Hawkeyes 10 Illinois 6

Illinois was 5-1 (3-0) and ranked #18 entering the game. Juice Williams was pulled from the game in the second half and Eddie McGee promptly threw an 83-yard touchdown pass....that was called back for ineligible man downfield. McGee threw a pick in the end zone late to seal the win for the Hawks.

Illinois would finish the season 9-4 and participated (at least somewhat) in the Rose Bowl.

#11 1992 Michigan Wolverines 22 Illinois 22

This was just a weird damn game. Unranked Illinois went into Ann Arbor and nearly pulled off the upset of #3 Michigan. It ended with chicken-shit Gary Moeller not even trying for a game-winning TD that probably would’ve gotten the Wolverines a national title, but opted to go for the tie to lock down a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl trip.

How do you get to 22-22? It started innocently enough, being 7-6 bad guys at the half. Michigan scored a touchdown, but missed the PAT and it’s 13-6. Illinois scored but also missed the PAT so it is 13-12. Illinois gets a FG and the Wolverines get a TD and failed going for two and we’re 19-15. Illinois TD takes the lead and Michigan hits a short field goal with :16 for the tie. Illinois forced an astonishing 11 fumbles, recovering four in a row to end Michigan drives. Both teams felt like they pissed the game down their leg and they’re both right.

Thumpasaurus: I’m going to interject here because I read something about Michigan choosing this game to debut their new gloves, which is just incredible. The Big House reportedly booed the #3 Wolverines off the field as they clinched a Rose Bowl bid. Footage of old Michigan wins is much more readily available than that of old Michigan losses, so a deep dive on this game may be more difficult than I’d hoped for.


Illinois ended 1992 6-5-1 with a Holiday Bowl loss to Hawaii. Michigan finished 9-0-3. Yep, three ties.

#10 2023 Iowa Hawkeyes 6 Illinois 9

I realize that I have a typo on the year of this game, but c’mon, it’s probably going to be 9-6 again this year, right?

Art Sitkowski against Brian Ferentz and Spencer Petras? I’m surprised anyone got to 9, honestly.

#9 2019 Purdue Boilermakers 6 Illinois 24

Illinois was fresh off a 24-23 upset of Wisconsin going to West Lafayette to face the Boilers. 24 points is a lot for a rock fight, but with one score coming from a pick 6, I still think this one qualifies. Brandon Peters went 1-4 passing for 17 yards in the first half and followed that up by throwing 2 passes for 9 yards in the second half. Jeff Brohm insisted on throwing the ball in the middle of a monsoon and it cost his team.

Thumpasaurus: Yep, this was part of the four game stretch where Lovie Smith used up decades worth of luck to make the RedBox Bowl. This game is also noteworthy for Blake Hayes sniping the pylon with a 64 yard punt through the driving rain and later making a one-handed jumping catch of a high snap in the same rain to punt one inside the 5.

#8 2003 UCLA Bruins 6 Illinois 3

This game was U G L Y. UCLA went 11-31 passing for 77 yards. Jon Beutjer went 26-42 for 216 yards, but threw three picks. UCLA only managed 6 points by getting three on a zero yard drive after a muffed punt.

Two short years after an outright Big Ten title, Illinois would go 1-11 with their only win coming against an FCS team.

#7 1992 Ohio State Buckeyes 16 Illinois 18

Illinois had a brand new starting QB in Jeff Kinney who would notch Illinois’ fifth consecutive win over the Bucknuts and keep the Illibuck trophy in Champaign.

9 of Illinois 18 points came on defense as Eddie George coughed up a fumble for a 96 yard scoop and score and Ken Blackman tackled Robert Smith in the end zone for a safety. Eddie George had a second fumble inside the 5 yard line later in the game.

#6 1995 East Carolina 0 Illinois 7

Robert Holcombe rushed 49 times for 135 yards in a punishing performance.

Thumpasaurus: Eat your heart out, PJ Fleck.

Forty-nine rushing attempts.

#5 1995 Arizona Wildcats 7 Illinois 9

LB David James scooped up a fumble and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown, but the PAT was blocked so Illinois still trailed 7-6 with 5:15 left in the game. Arizona drove the ball into Illinois territory before Simeon Rice, who had four sacks on the day, batted a pass which was intercepted by DT Tim McCloud and Illinois drove down field for a game winning kick.

I’ll remember this game forever because a friend had asked me to be a groomsman and I said I would as long as the wedding wasn’t the same day as a home game. He apparently thought I was joking and we did not remain friends as he couldn’t believe I wouldn’t skip a football game to be in his wedding.

#4 1985 Michigan Wolverines 3 Illinois 3

#4 Michigan came to Champaign and both teams stumbled around to a 3-3 tie. Michigan drove the ball down to the Illinois 12 in the fourth quarter before Gerald White fumbled. Illinois marched down to the Michigan 20 and a game-winning field goal attempt was tipped and bounced off the crossbar to preserve the tie.

This tie cost Michigan a trip to the Rose Bowl and a chance at a natty. Illinois finished the year 6-5-1 (5-2-1) and lost to Army in the Peach Bowl.

#3 1991 John Hancock Bowl: UCLA 6 Illinois 3

This was Lou Tepper’s first game as coach after John Mackovic left Champaign for Austin, TX. UCLA managed six points on two field goals. These two FGs were after drives of 5 yards and 9 yards. Yep. Neither scoring drive featured a first down. One came after a blocked punt and the other after a muffed punt. This game really foreshadowed the Tepper era of incredible defense and inept offense and special teams.

#2 2021 Penn State Nittany Lions 18 Illinois 20

This game took the rock fight to a higher plane of performance art (Sitkowski) I mean seriously, 20-18 in 9 overtimes. That’s just beautiful!! #7 PSU was a 23.5 point favorite at home and lost to Art Sitkowski. Amazing!

Thumpasaurus: The roster that Bielema delivered to the media listed seven offensive linemen in their starting 11 on offense. He made no secret of his gameplan. This was the kind of rock fight that is won or lost on one big mistake, so at the end of regulation the Illini did something I’ve only ever seen in this game: a hurry-up offense with nothing but handoffs. They were trying to drive over 70 yards, but the risk of Sitkowski losing the game outweighed the benefits of having him throw.

They damn near got to field goal range too. Chase Brown had over 200 yards.

#1 1995 Wisconsin Badgers 3 Illinois 3

This would be the last tie in college football history as OT rules took effect in the 1995 bowl season. Illinois needed a win to secure a bowl game. Wisconsin QB Darrel Bevell was battered repeatedly all game and left with three minutes to play. He ended being taken to the hospital as his abdomen had filled with blood from a lacerated kidney.

I traveled up to Madison for this game. It was pretty decent weather for late November and as I toured the tailgates, a hospitable Badger fan asked me and my friends to join them for a beer. I polished one off and when he offered me a refill, he “accidentally” dumped the beer right on my crotch so I walked around for the next 8 hours with beer soaking my sack and ended up getting the worst case of jock itch you can imagine. This was less painful than watching this stupid game though. Illinois lined up to kick a FG as time was expiring. Where I was sitting, I had no angle to see if the attempt were good so I was watching the kicker while the ball was in the air and he jumped and stuck both hands in the air so I thought we had won the game, but alas, the kick was dead center but inches short and nailed the crossbar rather than go trough the uprights. It was a fittingly frustrating ending to a frustrating and stupid game.

Let’s send the Big Ten West out in style.