Instant replay came to Big Ten football officiating in August, 2004. For Illinois Coach Ron Turner, it was four years too late.
On a cool September night in 2000, Turner’s 17th ranked team was poised to upset Lloyd Carr’s 10th ranked Michigan Wolverines in Champaign. Illinois was undefeated, riding a seven game winning streak, and thought to be an up-and-coming football team. But the game against Michigan was more than just the Big Ten opener. It would have been a watershed victory: the first time the Illini beat Michigan twice in a row since 1957-–58.
With less than four minutes left in the game, Illinois was nursing a three point lead. Quarterback Kurt Kittner completed a short pass to Rocky Harvey who was tackled three yards short of the first down. Then, for both Illinois fans and the reputation of referees, things got ugly.
Harvey hit the ground with his helmet and the ball, almost simultaneously. What the replay showed was that Harvey was down before the ball came out and that, in any event, he corralled the loose ball into his possession before anyone got a hand on it.
What the referees ruled was this: Harvey fumbled, Michigan recovered.
It’s hard for refs to make two mistakes on a single play, both of which go against a single team. But the fact that they so flagrantly did — and those mistakes favored Michigan — only reinforced the idea that Big Ten Football Royalty (Michigan and Ohio State) get calls that teams like Illinois simply don’t. Whatever the case, in an age before instant replay officiating, the Illini got the shaft.
Still, the game was far from over. Michigan still needed to score to either tie or win. And the refs were not done as a factor in the game.
Driving just inside the Illinois five yard line, Michigan running back Anthony Thomas was hit and fell toward the turf. With both knees, both elbows and his helmet still a foot or so off the field, he dropped the ball. It was recovered by Illinois.
But to the disbelieving Illini fans watching in person and on ESPN — it was the channel’s highest rated game of the year — the refs called the Michigan man down.
Within less than a minute of game time, three crucial missed calls went against the Illini, all of which were shown by replay to be wrong. Illinois lost the game and, it must be said, the season. It was a demoralizing loss that took the wind out of the sails of a good team that, the next year, went 10–1 on route to a berth in the BCS Sugar Bowl. (The one regular season loss? Michigan.)
Coach Ron Turner became a vocal, and ultimately successful, advocate of instant replay. Unfortunately, it arrived too late to save his job. I mention this sad history only to provide at least partial context to what happened near the beginning of the third quarter, nine years and a few weeks after that game in Memorial Stadium.
Illinois started the game perfectly. A long, clock-eating drive ended with a satisfying seven points, all the better because scored by Arrelious Benn. Then things started going the way they had too often before. Michigan scored on a similarly long drive. Then Illinois failed to get a first down on their next possession. A recovered fumble gave them the ball in Michigan territory, but Illinois again failed to capitalize. At halftime, Illinois was losing by six points, a margin that four straight offensive possessions (and six previous games) made look insurmountable.
Then fifteen seconds into the second half, it got worse. A third down pass turned into a breakaway touchdown run for Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree. It was the sort of play that meant more than just another touchdown — it almost certainly meant the end of the game.
But Roundtree only thought he made it 77 yards. He actually only made it 76 before being caught from (way) behind by Illini freshman Terry Hawthorne. The extraordinarily quiet Hawthorne later said of the play, “He was moving, but I knew I could get him.”
It was the first of what might be the five most important consecutive defensive plays in Illinois history. With the ball spotted at the one yard line, the Illini defense stopped the Wolverines on four consecutive plays. Hawthorne’s hustle and the goal line stand energized the crowd and, apparently, the offensive, which promptly went 99 yards for touchdown. That was as close as Michigan got the rest of the afternoon.
What made it great was that the Illinois defense, hardly a strength this year, played terrific from a nearly impossible position. But what made it possible was instant replay. Because the refs got it wrong again — twice in five plays. Both times favoring Michigan to the detriment of Illinois.
Twice the refs put six up on the board that didn’t belong to Michigan and twice instant replay took those points back. It’s impossible to tell if Ron Turner’s loss was Ron Zook’s gain. But it’s at least nice to know something good came out of that horrible game nine years ago.
What the fuss is about
In any discussion on Coach Zook’s tenure here, talk of his losing record has been quickly followed by a big “but”: The Rose Bowl. Those two nouns are like an incantation with the ability to ward off a pink slip.
Four losing seasons in five tries? Yeah, but the Rose Bowl.
An overall record of 19–36? But did you hear about the Rose Bowl?
Before the Rose Bowl, it was the almost-as-magical “recruiting.” And before that it was merely “anyone good enough for Florida is good enough for us.”
But now comes the granddaddy of them all: Back to back wins against Michigan. By any measurement, the Illinois record against the Wolverines is sad. But just consider this — in the past fifty years, Illinois has beaten Michigan four times. Four. By contrast, Illinois has won eight games against Ohio State in just the past twenty years.
You’ve only got to go back four coaches to get the last Illinois Rose Bowl appearance. But the last back to back wins against Michigan came nine coaches ago. Dick Butkus was in high school.
So while it might seem strange to talk about a play, a series or a game becoming legendary when it took place in the midst of a disappointing, ultimately losing season, this game against Michigan is an exception. Illinois has been so traditionally hapless and snakebit against the Wolverines, particularly in Champaign, that this game counts for so much more than a simple Big Ten victory.
After the game, the players were excited, but seemed not quite to understand how big a deal this was — or how suddenly the tenor of the fans had changed. Coach Zook mentioned that none of the players were born the last time Illinois beat Michigan at Memorial Stadium. But that doesn’t hardly say it. It was a big game and a big win, and only understood by longtime Illini fans. Those that, for instance, remember vividly where they were the night the refs pulled the heart out of the Illini fanbase the first September of the century. This win against Michigan means more than any other single victory in the Ron Zook era, whether it is an anomaly or a springboard.
Still, what this victory means in the short term remains to be answered, and the players recognize it. When Chris James, the recipient of a terrific over-the-shoulder catch that would have been the highlight of the game had the highlights not come in bunches, was asked what was next for this team after this milestone victory, he answered simply: “Minnesota”