In preparation for the renewed “rivalry” between the Fighting Illini and Scarlet Knights this weekend in New Jersey, the following is a first-hand account of where it all began; when years and years ago, former Illinois AD Ron Guenther agreed to a home and home series with Big East football powerhouse Rutgers in the mid-aughts of the 21st century.
I say, first-hand, as I was there, working as a student manager for Illinois Football during the glory years from 2003-06, when the mighty Illini won a total of 8 games, split between the final two years of the Ron Turner era and the first two of the Ron Zook reign (and yes, this was a simpler time when all head coaches and athletic directors were named Ron).
2005 - Champaign, Illinois: Illinois 33 - Rutgers 30 (OT)
But back to the series. Ron Zook’s first game as Illinois head coach was slated for a home tilt with the Greg Schiano led Rutgers Scarlet Knights, in the first ever match-up between the historic (i.e. old) programs. Outside initial concerns about his inability to correctly pronounce his home state’s name, hopes were high that the former Gator boss would return the Illini to some semblance of football respectability.
Tim Brasic got the nod at starting quarterback for the good guys, primarily because of his superior ability to run for his life, among the early Zook era QBs. And run for his life he did, accumulating 110 rushing yards in the positive (with 33 negative sack yards mixed in), and out-gaining two future NFL mainstays, Pierre Thomas and Ray Rice, in the process.
However, the Illini found themselves down 20 points early in the third quarter following a “Leonard Leap” by another future professional, Brian Leonard, who hurdled Charles Bailey on his way to an 83-yard touchdown and a 27-7 Rutgers advantage.
Despite hitting number one on ESPN’s top plays, the Scarlet Knights could not hold off the scrappy Illini. Illinois stormed back with 20 unanswered points in regulation, including 17 in the fourth quarter, capped off by an E.B. Halsey 13 yard reception out of the backfield, in which Halsey, himself, catapulted his body over the opposition to reach the pile-on for a game tying touchdown. In overtime, the Illini answered a Rutgers field goal with a Pierre Thomas touchdown from 2 yards out to secure win number 1 for the Zooker.
The Natty Light flowed in Illinois football facilities’ corner office that evening, with a general sense of optimism surrounding the program for the first time in years. Unfortunately, the 2005 Illini would only win once more, against San Jose State the next weekend, before dropping the subsequent 9 to finish Zook’s first year.
2006 - Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers 33 - Illinois 0
The greatest perk of being a student manager was traveling with the team and experiencing the sights and sounds of college football away from the corn fields of Champaign-Urbana.
In 2006, I joined the Illini on their first ever trip to the birthplace of college football at the State University of New Jersey. Reading the numerous placards dedicated to the 1869 collision between the New Jersey Tigers (now known as Princeton) and the Rutgers Queensmen imbued me with a great sense of the origins of American football, even though the 6-4 Rutgers victory apparently resembled more of a rugby scrum than the sport we all know and love today.
Somehow, the Illini managed less offense in 2006 than either the Queensmen or Tigers in 1869. In fact, Illinois failed to cross the 50-yard line in the ensuing 33-0 romp. Improbably, Tim Brasic started the 2006 Rutgers affair following a near decapitation at the hands of Tamba Hali in 2005. He lasted only a half, though, ceding the job temporarily to true freshman Isaiah (Juice) Williams for an equally futile second half.
While Brasic would still start a couple more games following the Rutgers debacle, the writing was on the wall, with Juice taking control of the starting job later in the year. In addition to the emergence of Juice, Illini great, former NFL starter, and HBO Ballers writer Rashard Mendenhall also got his first taste of major college football in New Jersey in 2006.
The Illini could take further solace in the fact that Rutgers’ performance that day was no fluke, as the Scarlet Knights would roll to an 11-win season in 2006, capped off with a Texas Bowl victory over Kansas State, finishing the year ranked a consensus No. 12.
The Present and Future of the Rivalry
Perhaps Illinois-Rutgers football lacks the sheen and star power of an Ohio State-Michigan or Notre Dame-USC rivalry, but it’s a series forever etched in my memory. With the all-time series locked at 2 a piece, maybe, just maybe, the current rubber match between Lovie Smith and Chris Ash this weekend will spark the flames of intense rivalry for years to come.
Or, maybe not.
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