On Saturday, the Illinois Fighting Illini host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to settle on the field the question of who has the worst football program in the Big Ten. This is only the second meeting between the two schools since Rutgers joined the conference, and as we’ve learned, the Scarlet Knights will be on the schedule every year until at least 2021. The Big Ten seems to want to make Illinutgers a thing.
There is some history tying the two programs together, however. In 2002, Rutgers, then a member of the Big East, opened the season with a humiliating 37-19 loss at the hands of the FCS Villanova Wildcats, with their starting quarterback posting the inglorious line of 184 yards on 17 completions...out of 38 attempts. That quarterback? Ryan Cubit, the $400,000 man himself. Hopefully he invested a large portion of that in money market mutual funds before blowing the rest on a Corvette, because I’m not sure if selling medical supplies is quite as lucrative as hustling the Illinois athletic department out of six figures. Just as an aside, I will probably pass within 25 miles of Ryan Cubit on my way to Champaign this weekend.
But there’s more direct history than that. Back in 2005, Greg Schiano was in his fifth season of a slow build from nothing in Piscataway, while Ron Zook was just starting to build from the ashes of Ron Turner’s program in Champaign. Over 50,000 fans came to Memorial Stadium to watch the very first game of the Zook era.
Through one quarter, things looked promising, as Tim Brasic hit Jody Ellis for a short touchdown near the end of the period to take a 7-3 lead. However, the wheels would fall off in the second quarter courtesy of a short drive capped by a 55 yard touchdown reception by Marcus Daniels. After a Rutgers field goal pushed their lead to 13-7, Brasic would be intercepted. However, neither Rutgers’ Brian Leonard nor Illinois’ Pierre Thomas could sustain drives on the ground, and punts were exchanged until a Brasic fumble set up a short touchdown pass by Ryan Hart. The second half opened with an Illinois punt and an 82-yard Rutgers touchdown courtesy of Leonard. Things looked grim for Zook’s boys, who had fallen behind 27-7 in the second half.
Illinois got back on the board with a Jason Reda field goal, and as the Illini defense tightened up and Rutgers missed a field goal in response, another Reda field goal brought the deficit to 14 at the start of the fourth quarter. A wide receiver pass from DaJuan Warren to Kendrick Jones brought Illinois within 7 points, and Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito collected his fourth missed field goal of the day on his sixth attempt.
This gave Brasic just under 4 minutes to tie the game, and he moved the Illini towards the goal line by converting a 4th and 3 in the red zone. The header image is E.B. Halsey taking a Brasic pass into the end zone with just over a minute left on the clock, and Reda tied the game at 27 with the extra point. A three-and-out by Rutgers gave Illinois a chance to win, and Brasic hit Halsey to set up a 52-yard field goal for the win...which Reda missed.
However, riding the momentum of their 20-point comeback, the Illini defense held Rutgers to a field goal in overtime. Halsey would take a short pass within two yards of the end zone, and Thomas finished it off for an overtime win to kick off the Zook era in Brasic’s first start at quarterback.
Illinois would follow that up by doing what Ron Turner couldn’t and defeating San Jose State for their second and final win of the season; they would lose out to go 2-10. Rutgers would win 7 of its remaining games and make its first bowl game under Schiano, an Insight Bowl loss to Arizona State. The two programs would meet in Piscataway in 2006, and as is tradition, Illinois happened to stumble upon a non-conference opponent’s short window of greatness. Rutgers finished the 2006 season 11-2, ranked #12 in the country. Illinois, who lost to Rutgers 33-0, finished 2-10 once more.
With a fairly new head coach and a dearth of experience at quarterback, Illinois is looking to have the same kind of magic as the second half of the 2005 game, hopefully without the bewilderment of the first half.