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Throwback Thursday: Illinois Rallies to Edge Rutgers

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The day #Illinutgers was born!

Mark Cowan

The day was Sept. 3, 2005. It was a warm, sunny, Saturday morning in Champaign. 50,000 fans filed in to Memorial Stadium to watch the Illinois Fighting Illini open the season against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in Ron Zook’s debut as Illinois’ head coach.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing Illinois and Rutgers squaring off over the past five seasons, but this matchup came waaaaay before the two schools would share conference membership. This day marked the first-ever meeting between the two programs on the gridiron. #Illinutgers was born! Back then, the Scarlet Knights competed in the Big East — yes, kids...the Big East used to play football, too! — and were a perennial doormat in their league, a status that Illinois fans had (and have) become quite familiar with.

And the first game under Zook’s stewardship got off to an inauspicious start. The Fighting Illini tallied just 106 yards by halftime & found themselves trailing 27-7 midway through the third quarter. A Jason Reda field goal trimmed the lead to 27-10 entering the fourth. Illinois would then outscore the Scarlet Knights 17-0 in the final quarter to force overtime.

After a Rutgers field goal to start OT, Pierre Thomas’ 2-yard touchdown run capped the Illini comeback and a 33-30 victory. The 20-point defecit is still the largest margin overcome in a non-conference win in program history.

The Ron Zook era began with a thrilling 33-30 overtime win versus Rutgers. There was very little else to celebrate that season.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Reda made two field goals on the day (28 & 32 yards) but missed a 52-yarder as time expired that would’ve won it for the Illini. But Rutgers’ special teams woes cost them the game. Kicker Jeremy Ito missed three FGs on the day (and had another blocked).

Dual-threat QB Tim Brasic had his best game as an Illini, completing 24-of-34 passes for 233 yards with 3 TDs and 2 INTs, while also leading the team with 77 rushing yards.

When asked about the victory post-game, Coach Zook said, among other things, “It really wasn’t pretty.” That quote proved to sum up the 2005 season in a nutshell.

The Fighting Illini had an impressive 40-19 home win against San Jose State the following week...and then proceeded to lose their final nine contests by a combined 272 points. WOOF. Check out some these final scores:

  • 61-14 to Michigan State
  • 35-7 at Iowa
  • 36-13 at Indiana
  • 62-10 to No. 12 Penn State (on Homecoming...WTF were they thinking?!)
  • 40-2 at No. 12 Ohio State
  • 37-3 at Purdue

The 2005 Illini were a team in transition. Ron Zook was tasked with overhauling the program — a rather large undertaking, as Bret Bielema will soon find out. There weren’t too many memorable moments during Zook’s first season, but the Rutgers game was an exciting start to his tenure. We won’t talk about what happened in the next year’s rematch.