Football Bracket - 5 vs. 12
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I really thought I'd catch more heat for seeding the 2007 Rose Bowl team at #5. That's my personal belief - that 2007 would be behind 1983, 1989, 1990, and 2001 - but that team is so revered that I expected some backlash. Didn't really receive any. Which just might mean that no one is reading.
Today's matchup places that Rose Bowl team against the 1985 Peach Bowl team. Right to it.
(5) 2007 Illini
Regular season record: 9-3 (6-2)
Bowl result: Lost to USC 49-17 in the Rose Bowl.
This is kind of like writing about the 2005 basketball team. Who doesn't remember 2007 Illini football? Oh, right, current freshmen were 5 or 6 at the time.
The thing I always tell people about the 2007 season: it was one big collection of "we didn't know, and then, all of the sudden, we knew". I'll attempt to explain this.
If I told you in August that this team was going to the Rose Bowl, you would have called me insane. Everyone would have thought it to be insane. We had eight total wins the previous FOUR SEASONS.
But as late as early November, you would have still thought the idea that this was one of the great Illini seasons of all time to be completely insane. Much like this season, the fanbase was fully focused on "just get that sixth win and somehow get us in a bowl for the first time since 2001". And while focusing on that, we missed the fact that we were about to beat #1 on the road and go to the Rose Bowl.
I remember it like this:
- Before the season, I was optimistic. On the old IlliniBoard Football Forum, I predicted seven wins. All those seniors, a solid November - I was optimistic in August (when am I not?).
- Then we lose the opener to Missouri. And even though we played them tough and could have won, it felt like "same old Illinois" again - close but not good enough. We followed that up with a sloppy 21-0 win over Western Illinois (night game, right?) and if someone had asked me about my 7-5 prediction, I would have told them I'm tossing it out the window. It's just not there.
- We then beat Syracuse and Indiana, both on the road. Now we have three wins after two consecutive 2-win seasons and I start to think that 6-6 might actually be possible. The Rose Bowl? Don't make me laugh, but I seriously think we can get to six.
- Then, two stunners. We beat #21 Penn State in the Arrelious Benn Is The Greatest Freshman Of All Time game followed by beating #5 Wisconsin. Suddenly, we're 5-2, ranked 18th, and one win away from a bowl game. Whaaaaat is happening?
- Followed by Same Old Illinois - we lose at Iowa (scored the winning TD, but it was called back because of illegal formation) and poof, our ranking is gone. The next week, with a fired-up crowd and Michigan in town, we fumble-away a late punt and lose. Same Old Illinois. Nowhere near the polls, let's just find one more win so we can go bowling and break this streak.
The next game is the one I always point to for that season. It's the 9th game of a 12-game season and we still have no idea that this is a Rose Bowl team that will go down as one of the great Illini teams in history. We're playing a late-October non-conference game against Ball State at home, and we need to win it because after that we have a road game at Minnesota, a road game at Ohio State, and a home game with Northwestern. None of those are guaranteed, and if we freaking start this season 5-1 only to finish 5-7, I'll lose my mind.
You know those win probability charts? The ones where, like, Michigan State had a 98.2% win probability and then the Illini came all the way back from being down 28-3? Here's my fan probability chart. Go back to early fourth quarter of that Ball State game. Illinois is clinging to a 21-17 lead and Ball State has first and goal at the Illinois 6 yard-line. If I had a Twitter account at the time and I put up a poll at that exact moment - Ball State has first and goal to take the lead in the 4th quarter - asking how many people thought we might win that game, win at Minnesota, beat #1 Ohio State, and beat Northwestern to then find ourselves in the Rose Bowl, I think I would have gotten 99.4% of the responses saying "no way in hell". It's a few days before Halloween and even the most Kool-Aid drinkin', everything-is-awesome Illini fan knows what's coming. We're about to lose to Ball State for our third loss in a row.
I can picture that drive from Ball State so well. I had something in St. Louis that Saturday night, and I had to leave at a certain time, so I had about 10 minutes of real time before I had to head to the car. The ball moved to our end at the beginning of the fourth quarter (I had tickets in the horseshoe at the time) and I can remember that 1st-and-goal happening right in front of me. The "tackle him!!!" woman a few rows back was screaming it on every play of that drive.
First down I remember they got inside the five. I'm thinking "they're actually going to take the lead, and I'm going to have to leave this game with us TRAILING BALL STATE AT HOME". Then Doug Pilcher got a sack, we stopped them on third down, and the Ball State kicker missed the chip-shot FG. That apparently woke us up because before I had to walk out, Juice drove the team all the way down the field for a TD and a 28-17 lead. I remember listening to another long drive on the radio on my drive home (we drove the field and then took a knee in the redzone, as I recall).
After that, everything just took off. We go to Minnesota and destroy them (and I mean destroy them). We're still not ranked, which is fine given what happened after the Wisconsin win and subsequent ranking. We have seven wins, so we're bowling, and after we lose to #1 Ohio State we can still beat Northwestern for an eighth win and a solid bowl game.
Then, well, you know. We beat #1. Two weeks ago we're goal-line-standing Ball State early in the 4th to prevent a third-straight loss and now we're beating #1 on the road. We then destroy Northwestern to lock up a 9th win, every possible thing that could fall our way falls our way, Ohio State goes from losing to us to miss out on the title game to then making the title game, and we find ourselves in the Rose Bowl.
And we had just about the best rebuttal for "you guys don't deserve the Rose Bowl - you didn't even win the Big Ten" in history. Six years earlier, we DID win the Big Ten, but we couldn't go to the Rose Bowl because the BCS title game was held there. How are we paid back for that? We finish second in the Big Ten but slide into the Rose Bowl because Ohio State is in the title game.
The key to that team was found in the 2001 Sugar Bowl as well. Ron Turner did pull in a solid recruiting class for 2003 (the class he was recruiting in the spring, summer, and fall immediately following that Sugar Bowl). The redshirts from that class - Martin O'Donnell, Kevin Mitchell, J Leman et al - combined with the freshman and sophomore recruits from Ron Zook's first few classes (Arrelious Benn, Juice Williams, Vontae Davis, Martez Wilson), made for the perfect combination of senior experience and youthful talent.
Really, everything fell into place. The offensive line found a perfect rotation with O'Donnell finishing his final year as a first-team All American. Moving Akim Millington from left tackle to right tackle, moving Xavier Fulton from defensive line to offensive tackle, and playing Jon Asamoah immediately all made for a perfect fit. The run game with Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams was suddenly a force.
How were they enough of a force to beat #1 Ohio State? The way I've always viewed that game, Ohio State made the mistake of selling out to stop Mendenhall. It was a "make Juice Williams and the other tailbacks beat us" game, and Daniel Dufrene made them pay with a long early run while Juice made them pay with four touchdown passes.
The Rose Bowl, well, that's a game I'll always hate. The old "no one will believe we were in this game". Some of the most fun I've ever had in the stands for an Illini game was early third quarter of that Rose Bowl. We were dominated in the first half (trailed 21-3 at halftime), but then Rashard Mendenhall opens the 3rd quarter with an 80-yard touchdown (running towards the big Illinois section in that endzone). We get the ball back and we're driving. All of us in that endzone are doing the "come here" motion as the team drives towards us. We get into the redzone, it's about to be 21-17, we're going nuts, and... Jacob Willis fumbles inside the 10, USC recovers, and they basically rolled us from there.
But it was still an insane season. 2-9, 2-10... 9-4 with a Rose Bowl appearance. What a turnaround.
(12) 1985 Illini
Regular season record: 6-4-1 (5-2-1)
Bowl result: Lost 31-29 to Army in the Peach Bowl
If you say "1985" to me I think of one thing: the Chris White field goal off the crossbar. That pretty much defined that entire season. I was only 12 at the time, and as I recall my dad and I were listening on the radio so were weren't watching on TV nor were we in attendance (in fact, I think we weren't allowed to be on TV in 1985 because of recruiting infractions). But it's one of the lasting moments for me for Illini football in the 80's: a game-winning kick hit the crossbar and bounced back. We drive into field goal range, we line up for a FG McCourt-against-Wisconsin style (make it, we win, and it's the final play), and a Michigan defender gets a finger on the kick. It still has some heat, so it might still get there, but it hits the crossbar and bounces back. It's a tie - 3-3.
I remember several other things about that season, specifically the 59-0 loss to Iowa, but I had completely forgotten that those games were back-to-back. At home against Jim Harbaugh and #4 Michigan and we tie; one week later we lose to Chuck Long and #6 Iowa 59-0. And Iowa was only #6 because they had lost to Ohio State the week before (the same day as the crossbar game) and lost their #1 ranking. Otherwise we would have played #4 and #1 back-to-back.
As an aside, I'm only three articles into this bracket and I'm already 17% more "college football is college football and consistency is basically impossible" than I was before. One game you can hang with #4 and be a field goal away from winning. The very next week you can lose 59-0. We see it every year (lose to Eastern Michigan/beat Wisconsin anyone?), yet we still expect college football to be consistent. Here are three scores from 1985 that show you never know what to expect:
Illinois 31, Ohio State 28
Ohio State 22, Iowa 13
Iowa 59, Illinois 0
While I have the schedule open, uh, why did I seed 1985 12th again? How could I possibly put them behind 1991? Yes, 1991 was ranked as high as 15th that season (that was my freshman year, and I remember it well) and yes, both teams only won 6 games (1985 was 6-5-1; 1991 was 6-6). But that schedule for 1985 was ridiculous. Four regular-season losses:
at Nebraska (#18)
at Iowa (#6)
Purdue was obviously the bad loss that season (they finished 5-6), but still, the Illini beat top-10 Ohio State, tied #4 Michigan, and lost to three other ranked teams, two in the top-10 at the time. That's a rough, rough schedule.
Of course, the Illini were #11 preseason, so that was supposed to be a big year. And when your big year ends with a loss to Army in a bowl game, I guess it's always going to be seen as a disappointment.
See, now I've covered the season without really talking about the season. I should talk about the actual team.
1985 was mostly still 1983's offense, just two years older, without a defense as good as 1983. It was still Jack Trudeau throwing to David Williams and handing off to Taylor Rooks' dad. All three were seniors, which is probably why Illinois was #11 preseason, and all three put up big numbers, but the defense just didn't provide enough to bring us another 1983 season. Here's the stat that tells the story:
Points allowed in 1983: 168 (15.2 ppg)
Points allowed in 1985: 303 (27.5 ppg)
Above all else, that probably defines the 1985 season. David Williams had more than 1,000 yards receiving and was a first-team All American. Jack Trudeau had a solid senior season throwing for nearly 3,000 yards with 15 touchdowns. Thomas Rooks had 1,065 yards from scrimmage and 7 touchdowns. But the team fell short of their preseason #11 expectations mostly because the defense just couldn't get there.
This was the beginning of the end for Mike White. The recruiting sanctions were already taking their toll, and he'd follow with a four-win season and then a three-win season. That, along with the Hart Lee Dykes investigation, got him fired. Well, actually he "resigned", but once the NCAA came sniffing around again, it was over. Especially after a 3-7-1 season.
The question before us - how would that 1985 team stack up against 2007? That's for you to decide. Go vote here.