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Throwback Thursday: Illinois defeats Colorado in a battle of national powers

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The Fighting Illini took down an eventual national champion once

This past Saturday, the Fighting Illini had a primetime game that was fairly well-attended for a game against Western Kentucky with a team coming off a 3-9 campaign. Once upon a time, however...well, just take a look at the intro to this broadcast:

Opening up with a classic “You are looking live” by Brent Musburger, this broadcast featured an Illinois team that had opened the 1990 campaign ranked #11 in the AP Poll after a 10-win ‘89 campaign led by top overall NFL draft pick Jeff George. But John Mackovic’s Illini team would have to find its rhythm after the departure of George. Sophomore quarterback Jason Verduzco stepped in and led Illinois to a disappointing opening week loss against Arizona that dropped them to #21 in the rankings.

Colorado, on the other hand, had been ranked #1 in the country prior to the 1989 Orange Bowl, where they lost to Notre Dame to miss out on their first national title. Bill McCartney’s squad opened the 1990 season ranked #5 and in their first two games they tied Tennessee and narrowly beat Stanford. They came into Memorial Stadium ranked #9, but with more in mind. The two teams had met in 1989 in Boulder as the Buffaloes had crushed the Fighting Illini 38-7 in the final game before the untimely death of former CU star quarterback Sal Aunese from stomach cancer at the age of 21. As much as the win meant to the Buffaloes, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Fighting Illini.

So a clash of national powers was underway, and after Illinois took a 3-0 lead, the potent Colorado offense went to work on Lou Tepper’s vaunted defense. Eventual All-American runningback Eric Bieniemy usually powered the offense, but instead George Hemingway got the Buffs on the board with a two-yard run and quarterback Darian Hagan extended the lead with a 32-yard strike. After a Colorado field goal, the score was 17-3 in favor of the Buffaloes with only 17 minutes elapsed in the game. Things looked grim for the Fighting Illini.

The tide began to turn in the second quarter as the defense, led by tackle Moe Gardner, began to clamp down while the offense slowly established a rhythm and controlled the ball. With under a minute to go, Verduzco found Elbert Turner over the middle for a short touchdown strike to cut the Colorado lead to 17-10 before halftime.

Mackovic’s pro-style offense was well-suited to the battle for field position this game had become, and behind the powerful running of Howard Griffith, Illinois was able to continue to wear down the Buffaloes defense in the second half. With 2:28 left in the third quarter, Verduzco found his favorite target Shawn Wax in the corner of the end zone to tie it at 17.

Pandemonium erupted in the stands as the Illini defense held yet again, but future pro Tom Rouen pinned Illinois inside their own 1 with a beautiful punt. On second down, Griffith was stopped in the end zone by Greg Biekert for a rare go-ahead safety, and Colorado would take a 22-17 lead on a short field goal with 12:44 remaining. The offense stalled on the ensuing drive and traded possessions.

The sun continued to descend, casting a shadow of the west facade over the field complete with pockets of light between the shadows of the columns. Illinois took over at their own 36 with under four minutes to go and the sophomore quarterback Verduzco stepped into his role as a leader, going 5 for 5 passing as the Illini drove towards the end zone. Imploring the frantic crowd to quiet down, Verduzco stepped to the line on second and 1 at the 9 yard line and handed off to Wagner Lester, who bobbled it up in the air only to secure it in time to stiff arm a defender and take it to the 1 yard line. He limped off the field as the clock ran under 1:30. The Illini lined up in a set with no receivers and an I formation, determined to ram their way in. Howard Griffith did just that, barreling through two defenders in mid-air to break the plane and give the Illini a 23-22 lead.

A failed two point conversion and a defensive stand later, Illinois came out on top by that margin. With the context of that season, this game is all the more remarkable. The Fighting Illini would go on to win 8 games and win a share of the Big Ten crown. Colorado would go on to a controversial mythical national championship. Each program would have downturns only to re-emerge as national powers in 2001 before falling off the face of the earth. Illinois, of course, made a brief but short-lived resurgence in 2007, while Colorado had to wait until last year to experience a taste of greatness.

We should schedule Colorado in a few years, is what I’m saying.