What started as a day of redemption for Illinois ended in heartbreak.
The Fighting Illini came into Michigan Stadium on Saturday with visions of revenge dancing through their heads. Illinois wanted payback for Michigan”s 35-31 win in Champaign last year, when two blown calls by the officials led to two fourth-quarter touchdowns for the Wolverines.
Instead, the Fighting Illini were thoroughly whipped, losing 45-20. In fairness, Illinois controlled the first quarter and was only trailing 14-10 early in the second quarter. That was when the wheels came off.
Facing a fourth-and-one play at their own 33-yard line, the Fighting Illini chose not to punt and tried for a first down instead. Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner was stuffed by Michigan”s Shawn Lazarus for no gain, and on the next play, Michigan quarterback John Navarre hit Ron Bellamy for a 33-yard touchdown.
Just like that, Michigan led 21-10, and the rout was on. After the game, the hot topic was Illinois” controversial decision on fourth down, and Illinois coach Ron Turner was direct about where the blame should lie.
“Our guys came in and they were ready to play, emotionally and mentally,” Turner said. “They were playing their tails off, really doing some good things, and I took that away from them. I”ll take total responsibility for it it was not very smart.”
According to Turner, the play was designed to be a quarterback sneak by Kittner. But Kittner had the option to take a timeout if he didn”t like the way Michigan”s defense was set up.
But a miscommunication between Kittner and center Luke Butkus led Butkus to snap the ball before Kittner was ready, which led to the botched play.
“Kurt was trying to take a timeout, and Luke snapped the ball,” Turner said. “But, it”s not on Luke. It”s totally on me. It took the game away from our players.”
Although Turner felt the loss was entirely his fault, his players felt quite different. Butkus was especially disconsolate. The standout is in his senior year, and this was his final chance to knock off the hated Wolverines.
As he answered questions from reporters, Butkus never took his eyes off of the floor. His disappointment was obvious.
“I knew the count, I knew the cadence, I knew everything,” Butkus said. “I just fucked it up. Coach Turner says he shouldn”t have made the call, but I”m a senior in college. I should be able to hold my water better.”
Regardless of who is to blame for the miscue, the fact remains that after that play, the Fighting Illini completely fell apart. Whether or not Turner sapped all of the momentum from his players is debatable, but after playing some inspired football for a quarter and a half, Illinois disappeared.
What made this even more difficult for the Illini to take is the fact that Illinois as evidenced by players like Butkus and Kittner is an experienced football team. Many of Illinois” players took part in the Fighting Illini”s 35-29 upset victory at Michigan Stadium two years ago.
But as befits a veteran football team, the Illini vowed to come back strong next week and to not let this loss ruin their season.
“It”s a tough loss,” Kittner said. “We played hard today, but things didn”t happen the way we wanted them to. But, we need to make sure that we come to practice Tuesday ready for Minnesota.”
“Tomorrow, we”re going to come in, watch some film and learn from our mistakes, and we”re going to bounce right back,” Butkus added. “There”s no doubt in my mind.”