Illini's History In Big Ten Season-Opening Football Games

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It might surprise you to learn how many times in the last six decades that Illinois football has opened a season with a conference game.

The Big Ten Conference announced last month they would be transitioning the slates for the upcoming fall sports, including football, would be conference-only and it got us at Illini Now/Sports Illustrated thinking: How many times in the modern era has Illinois opened with a league game? The answer is quite a few times. Actually, since 1960, a Big Ten season opener has introduced the new tenures of four Illini head coaches and the last time it happened represented the final year of Illini head coach.

Since we’re waiting for the Big Ten Conference to release its new football schedule, we thought we’d give a short summary of every Big Ten season opening game for Illinois in chronological order since 1960.

ILLINOIS' RECORD IN SEASON-OPENING BIG TEN GAMES: 8-6-1

1960 - No. 4 Illinois 17, Indiana 6 - Champaign, Ill. - Illinois opened the 1960 season with a preseason No. 4 ranking and a head coach as 33-year-old Pete Elliot introduced himself to 38,444 in the stands at Memorial Stadium with an 11-point win over a Hoosiers team that actually wouldn’t count as a conference win because at the time Indiana was on probation. Elliot would go on to lead the Illini to the 1963 Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory with an Illini team led by Jim Grabowski and Dick Butkus.

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1971 - Michigan State 10, Illinois 0 - East Lansing, Mich. - The coaching debut of Bob Blackman, which had fan excitement after he went 104–37–3 at Dartmouth, was basically a dud as the Illini failed to score a point in each of the first three games of the 1971 season and lost its first six contests. The good news was after that six-game losing streak, Illinois finished the campaign with five straight wins that started with a upset home over then-No. 17 Purdue when they had Gary Danielson at quarterback.

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1972 - Michigan State 24, Illinois 0 - Champaign, Ill. - Season openers just didn't agree with Blackman’s Illini in the beginning as they failed to score again versus the Spartans in front of 55,493 at Memorial Stadium. And it didn’t get better the next weekend as the Illini were blown out 55-20 to No. 1 Southern California at home.

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1973 - Illinois 28, Indiana 14 - Bloomington, Ind. - For only the second time in the last nine years, Illinois won its season-opening game as they pulled off a two-touchdown road victory over a Hoosiers squad that would finish with a 2-9 record. This Illini 1973 team would actually stand 5-2 as the calendar flipped to November but back-to-back blowout losses to No. 1 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan would eliminate all momentum from a promising start.

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1974 - Illinois 16, Indiana 0 - Champaign, Ill. - This season would represent Blackman’s first and only winning season with the Illini. After the shutout win in the opener over Indiana, Illinois would surprisingly dominate No. 19 Stanford 41-7 on the road to earn the program’s first national ranking in a decade. The 6-4-1 campaign would be the Illini’s first winning season in nine years and it would be seven more seasons until the program would experience another one.

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1975 - Illinois 27, Iowa 12 - Iowa City, Iowa - Illinois ended an eight-year drought of winning in Iowa City with a 15-point victory over a Hawkeyes team that would finish 3-8. The Illini would finish 1975 with a 5-6 record but four of those losses would come to opponents ranked in the Top 10 (Missouri, at Texas A&M, Ohio State, Michigan).

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1976 - Illinois 24, Iowa 6 - Champaign, Ill. - This would be the final season opener for Blackman as he’d finish his six-year tenure with the Illini 29-36-1. It might have surprised Illini fans in late September that Blackman would be replaced after the Illini dominated No. 6 Missouri 31-6 in Columbia and earned a No. 14 ranking. That momentum would quickly fade following a three-game losing streak and second consecutive disappointing 5-6 record.

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1977 - No. 2 Michigan 37, Illinois 9 - Champaign, Ill. - 60,477 fans at Memorial Stadium saw the Illini coaching debut of Gary Moeller as he lost to his former boss Bo Schembechler in blowout fashion to the No. 2-ranked Wolverines led by quarterback Rick Leach and tailback Russell Davis. After his three-year tenure with the Illini, Moeller would be rehired by Schembechler in 1980 as an assistant coach and would eventually lead the Wolverines as a head coach a decade later from 1990-94.

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1978 - Illinois 0, Northwestern 0 - Champaign, Ill. - The final score of this game was probably the correct result as 40,091 people watched nobody score in a 60-minute football game between an Illini team that would finish 1-8-2 and a Northwestern squad that would end its 1978 campaign with a 0-10-1 record. Not much needs to be written about this game except that it would be the first of six games where Illinois wouldn’t reach a double-digit point total.

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1979 - No. 10 Michigan State 33, Illinois 16 - East Lansing, Mich. - You wouldn’t know it by this 17-point win in the opener but this Spartans team, ranked in Top 10 of preseason polls, would go on to have a disappointing 5-6 season. Illinois would say goodbye to Moeller after his 1979 Illinois team went winless at home and finished 2-8-1.

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1980 - Illinois 35, Northwestern 9 - Champaign, Ill. - After turning down Pete Elliot’s offer to be the Illini's offensive coordinator in 1960, Mike White accepted the head coaching job at Illinois 20 years later. The debut of high-powered offense led by quarterback Dave Wilson opened in style with a blowout win over a Northwestern team that would finish 0-11 in 1980 in the midst of a four-year stretch where they won just one game.

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1982 - Illinois 49, Northwestern 13 - Champaign, Ill. - The motto for the Illini in the late 1970s or early 1980s was if you wanted your season to get off to a promising start, play Northwestern. The 1982 Illini, led by the final year of quarterback Tony Eason before he would be selected in the first round of the NFL draft, would win its first three games and earn national ranking before they hosted Pittsburgh and a quarterback named Dan Marino, who would be drafted after Eason in that 1983 NFL draft. Illinois would be selected for a bowl game for the first time since the 1963 Rose Bowl win as the Illini lost to Alabama in the Liberty Bowl in the final game coached by Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.

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1984 - Illinois 24, Northwestern 16 - Champaign, Ill. - Coming off the Rose Bowl berth in the previous season, Illinois escaped with a eight-point win over the Wildcats, coached by Dennis Green, in the 1984 opener in front of an announced 75,753 crowd at Memorial Stadium.

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1995 - No. 25 Michigan 38, No. 25 Illinois 14 - Champaign, Ill. - After a 7-5 campaign that concluded with a 30-0 win in the Liberty Bowl over East Carolina, the Illini led by head coach Lou Tepper had a lot of momentum and a national ranking coming into the 1995 slate. The Illini had Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy at linebacker and Robert Holcombe at tailback. None of that would matter as Michigan tailback Tim Biakabutuka, who had only three carries in the first half because of a sore shoulder, scored three touchdowns during the first 4:22 of the third quarter to give 13th-ranked Michigan a 31-0 lead on its way to a blowout victory. Illinois had 351 yards of total offense, but rushing, its biggest problem last season, accounted for only 66 yards. This game would be part of a home-and-home of season opener orchestrated by contract deals between the Big Ten Conference office and ABC Television.

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1996 - No. 12 Michigan 20, Illinois 8 - Ann Arbor, Mich. - This game would be highlighted by a safety by the defense for the first points of the 1996 season for the Illini. After Illinois added a field goal to close the first-half deficit to 7-5, ABC play-by-play broadcaster Keith Jackson said “we’re looking for another reliever as it’s seven to five!”.

Michigan, led by quarterback Scott Dreisbach (who beat out a quarterback for the starting job in the season opener who you may have heard of - Tom Brady), controlled the tempo throughout the game and its defense, led by Jarrett Irons at linebacker and a young cornerback named Charles Woodson, stifled a miserable Illini offense. This 1996 campaign would represent the final season of Tepper’s reign at Illinois as the Illini lost its first three games to Michigan, Southern California and Arizona by a combined score of 116-11 and would then proceed to lose its final six games. 

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