It”s rare to have the opportunity to put away a top-25 team early in the first half, yet Illinois” coach Ron Turner gave No. 15 Michigan one midway through the second quarter, when down 14-10, he elected to go for fourth-and-inches at the Fighting Illini”s own 33-yard line.
Michigan stacked two defensive linemen and two linebackers right over center Luke Butkus and stuffed quarterback Kurt Kittner”s quarterback sneak for no gain.
Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 3-1 overall) scored on a 33-yard pass to Ronald Bellamy and was on its way to its 45-20 win.
“It was a dumb play, and it cost us the ball game” Turner said. “I take full responsibility. It wasn”t very smart.”
In fairness to Turner, Illinois (0-1, 3-1) had outplayed Michigan to that point, but was down because of unexpected trickery on coach Lloyd Carr”s behalf.
Down 3-0, and with the offense having netted just three yards and zero first downs, Carr substituted sophomore Jermaine Gonzales for quarterback John Navarre and called the “Transcontinenetal” a lateral to the wide receiver who passes it back across the field to the quarterback.
“We weren”t moving the ball and we knew we had to do something to get a spark,” Navarre said.
The spark came when Gonzales lateralled to Marquise Walker, who passed it back to Gonzales, who streaked 51-yards down the sidelines.
“I thought it was a great call,” Walker said.
It was the fourth time Carr has called the play in the last five years.
“It was a gimmick play, but it was well executed” Carr said. “It changed the momentum of the game.”
One play later, Carr started the fire when he called a tailback option senior Walter Cross took a toss at the 25-yard line and as the defense convened on him, lofted a pass to Walker who bobbled the ball for the touchdown.
“Walter had tried a couple of those before and never hit it,” Carr said. “Finally he throws a perfect pass and Marquise almost drops it. I would have murdered him if he had done that.”
Walker finished with six catches and 108 yards receiving, to go with his 1-for-1 passing performance.
Michigan successfully ran its third trick play of the game when receiver Calvin Bell ran a reverse 28-yards for a touchdown.
Trickery worked so well against the Fighting Illini because of their aggressive defense which blitzes and attacks the ball on nearly every play. Consequently, when the ball quickly changes direction, their defensive attack becomes vulnerable.
“What you”re looking for is a defense that flows to the football,” Carr said. “(In such a case), the quarterback is normally someone who no one is assigned to cover.”
Michigan hasn”t lost a Big Ten opener since 1981, and has beaten Illinois now three times to open the Big Ten season since 1995.
Conversely, Illinois hasn”t won a Big Ten opener since 1993.
The game also marked the first time all season that Navarre hasn”t thrown for over 200 yards. He finished with 187 yards on 13-for-26 passing, but didn”t play much of the second half because of Michigan”s comfortable lead.
Conversely, Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner may have hurt his Heisman trophy dreams with his 20-for-39 performance on Sunday.