Illinois Ran 63 plays Last Saturday in its 24-10 loss to Michigan. Sixty-two of them will be forgotten. One will live in infamy among the Illini. On a sparkling afternoon in Champaign, Ill., during which Illinois performed, for the most part, marvelously to brilliantly, this one play will forever be remembered as The Play that kept the surprising Illini from either tying or beating the Wolverines and going to the Rose Bowl.
It seems too cruel that so much came down to so little: Trailing 17-10, Illinois had a fourth-and-one on the Michigan four-yard line with 4:34 left in the third quarter. Everything leading up to The Play had been so bright, so promising, so on track. The Play was set up by Illinois cornerback Henry Jones's interception of a pass by Wolverine quarterback Michael Taylor that gave Illinois the ball on the Michigan 31. Then, to nobody's surprise, quarterback Jeff George calmly and coolly took the Illini toward the end zone. And, ultimately, The Play.
There was indecision along the Illinois sideline in the moments before The Play. On the field there was confusion. But no timeout was called. George dropped straight back. Tight end Dan Donovan, lined up on the left side, ran into the end zone and cut toward the sideline. But he was covered by Michigan safety Vada Murray. Improvising, Donovan turned back toward the center of the field, but as he did, George threw to where Donovan had been, and Murray tipped the ball harmlessly away. What an awful game football can be.
Losing coach John Mackovic obviously, and correctly, had elected to go for the touchdown instead of a field goal. A tie would accomplish the same thing as a win: Since neither Michigan nor Illinois had a Big Ten loss, a tie in this game—and an eventual tie atop the league standings—would give the Illini the Rose Bowl bid, because they had gone to Pasadena less recently than the Wolverines. If Mackovic had elected to kick a field goal, the Illini would have still needed a touchdown to triumph.
The Play was an emotional blow from which Illinois never recovered. Similarly, it was a huge moment for the Michigan defense, which clearly had taken to heart a sign in a meeting room back in Ann Arbor: YOU CAN LEARN AS MUCH CHARACTER INSIDE THE FIVE-YARD LINE AS YOU CAN ANYWHERE ELSE.
Strangely, it seemed almost certain that something untoward would befall Illinois. Seconds after the first half ended, one small episode provided a telling clue as to which team would win. The Illini, trailing 17-10, generally jogged and walked off the field toward their locker room, seemingly dispirited and morose. The Wolverines, on the other hand, dashed off in high spirits, though the first half had given them scant cause for such exuberance.
After all, over that span underdog Illinois had played beautifully—and George even better than that. Michigan owed its lead to a fluky, 73-yard run on the game's second play from scrimmage by long-strike junior running back Tony Boles—this year he has touchdown runs of 91, 85, 64, 46 and 39 yards. Boles's gallop was an off-tackle play designed to gain four yards or so. But after a crushing block by pulling left guard Dean Dingman, the Illini saw nothing but the soles of Boles's shoes until Jones caught him on the one-yard line. On the next play, fullback Jarrod Bunch scored.
It was a devastating downer and the crowd of 73,069 went comatose. But George, the junior who had transferred two years ago from Purdue, trotted onto the field with a swagger, and in 4:05 and 10 plays—four of them perfectly timed passes—took the Illini into the end zone. Fullback Howard Griffith's three-yard dive tied the score. Michigan came right back with a 47-yard field goal by J.D. Carlson; so, of course, George promptly led his team back for a field goal of its own, a 25-yarder by Doug Higgins.
Quarterback Taylor scored on a two-yard run shortly before the half to make it 17-10, but the Michigan defense was looking mortal, even shaky, in the face of George's onslaught. And the rest of the Illini were going all out. The signs pointed to an impending Illinois win.
Then Illinois dragged itself off the field at intermission, and Michigan sprinted. And that spoke volumes. The Illini could have won, but, it seemed, they didn't realize how close they were. And so unless 8-1 Michigan loses to Minnesota this week or Ohio State on Nov. 25 (the Buckeyes have already lost to Illinois, 34-14), the Wolverines will go to California as champions of the Big Ten. Illinois, now 7-2, will slip into Pasadena via the back door should Minnesota or Ohio State upset Michigan.
The reason for Michigan's success this season is that it is a team, not a playground for stars. Take away Boles's long gainer and he had just 42 yards for the day (including a 13-yard run for Michigan's final touchdown); five Wolverine receivers shared nine receptions; four defenders each had six solo tackles.
Coach Bo Schembechler, in a conversation last Thursday in Ann Arbor, had proved to be a prophet. Said he: "We have to have no turnovers I they had one, Jones's pass interception]. Our punting has to be solid [much-maligned punter Chris Stapleton boomed three for a whopping average of 51.6 yards]. The defense has to play great against the run [it allowed only 92 yards rushingl because we have no chance of stopping their passing [George completed 22 of 38 passes for 253 yards]. We can beat them—and they can beat us."
With that kind of insight, no wonder Michigan strong safety Tripp Welborne, who had a late interception and who even Schembechler admits is one of the best he has ever coached, says, "If Bo feels I'm not performing up to par, then I would be unwise not to heed what he says." Which is why another sign at Michigan reads WHEN YOU ARE THROUGH IMPROVING, YOU ARE THROUGH. The Wolverines, it appears, are anything but through.