Season opener: Illinois defeats No. 5 USC in Los Angeles
The Fighting Illini went on the road to start the 1989 season to play the two-time defending Pacific-10 Champions USC Trojans. Illinois was No. 22 in the country in the preseason polls, while USC stood at No. 5.
Illinois found itself down 13-0 to USC at the LA Coliseum and needed some heroics from quarterback Jeff George to bring the Illini back to life. The play of the game — and first Illini touchdown — occurred with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
George dropped back to pass just behind midfield, he throws it, the ball ricochets off of a USC linebacker, and it magically lands in Illini wide receiver Shawn Wax’s breadbasket. Wax easily breaks a tackle from the oncoming safety and sprints 28 yards to the end zone.
Illinois has played USC twice since that game — in Champaign in 1996 and at the 2008 Rose Bowl. USC won both of those games by a combined score of 104-20.
Illinois obliterates Northwestern to finish 7-1 in B1G Play
The two biggest Illini blowouts against rivals Northwestern in school history were in 1894 (Illinois won 66-0) and during this 1989 season (63-14).
The Wildcats finished 0-11 in 1989, and the Illini had no problems kicking their neighbors to the north when they were down.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Jeff George tossed three touchdown passes and was an accurate 15-for-18 in the first half. George sat the second half as coach John Mackovic rested his offensive starters in the third and fourth quarters.
Earlier that day, Michigan — the only Big Ten team to beat Illinois that year — beat Ohio State. As a result, Michigan earned a spot in the Rose Bowl (against USC). Illinois qualified for the Florida Citrus Bowl versus the Virginia Cavaliers.
Illini end 1989 season on a high, defeat UVA 31-21
Jeff George’s college career came to a close at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando on New Years Day, 1990. He was named MVP and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts in that year’s draft.
It was an all-around great day for the Illini. Jeff George threw three touchdown passes. Running back Howard Griffith scored a touchdown in the third quarter.
Virginia mounted a small comeback after Illinois went up 24-7 following the Griffith touchdown, and it cut the deficit down to 10. The two sides would exchange touchdowns in the fourth quarter, cementing the 31-21 Illini victory.
You can watch the game in its entirety here.
This win was the first Illini bowl win in 26 years, capping off one of the best seasons in school history. Since that 1989 season, Illinois has only won 10 games once, when Ron Turner led the Illini to its most recent Big Ten title and the Sugar Bowl in 2001.
1989 was a special, special season down in Champaign. Quarterback Jeff George was a once-in-a-generation type of leader for this football team, and his son may get another chance to take snaps in Memorial Stadium in 2017.