Illinois football went through some tough sledding after their run to the Big Ten title in 1983. They were crushed in the Rose Bowl that year, then went on probation. When John Mackovic took over the program in 1988, the Illini had gone 7-14-1 the previous two years. Mackovic quickly got the ship righted with a winning season and bowl trip in ’88. The 1989 Illinois football team went one step further—they won big games, came close to a Rose Bowl return and ultimately finished in the national Top 10.
Jeff George, who had a long NFL career ahead of him, was at quarterback and he was the Big Ten’s best signal-caller. George completed nearly 63 percent of his passes, a good number in this era of football. His 22-11 TD/INT ratio was excellent for the era and he generated 7.1 yards-per-attempt.
Mike Bellamy was the favored target with 59 catches and at nearly 16 yards a pop, Bellamy could stretch the field. A running game that had a multitude of contributors was led by Howard Griffith who rushed for 747 yards. Dan Lovelace, an All-Conference center, anchored the offensive front.
But where Illinois did their real damage was on defense. The Illini were led by All-American defensive tackle Moe Gardner. Mel Agee at defensive end was All-Big Ten, as was linebacker Darrick Brownlow. Henry Jones in the secondary intercepted five passes and was an all-conference performer himself. This quartet of players keyed a defense that ranked 11th in the country in points allowed.
Illinois was ranked #22 to start the season, but they had an immediate opportunity to show what they could do against the nation’s elite. The season opener would be prime-time on Labor Day at fifth-ranked USC.
The Trojans had been to two straight Rose Bowls and were on their way to a third. They had George and the Illini offense stymied for 3 ½ quarters. Illinois trailed 13-0. This big coming-out on the national stage wasn’t going so well.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it all turned around. In the final six minutes, George led two touchdown drives and Illinois stole a 14-13 win. They shot up to #10 in the polls.
A difficult non-conference schedule brought a road trip to #8 Colorado twelve days later. The Buffs were on their way to an undefeated regular season and ultimate top-5 finish. This one didn’t go so well for the Illini, a humiliating 38-7 loss that sent them back down to #20. A 41-2 rout of lowly Utah State closed non-conference play on a high note.
Ohio State came in for the first Big Ten game. This was a good Buckeye team, but it was not expected (nor did it turn out to be) a vintage one. Playing at home, it was the kind of game Illinois needed to show they could win.
Five minutes into the game there was a big problem. George injured his knee and went to the sideline. Redshirt freshman Jason Verduzco came off the bench and went 9/14 for 126 yards. He had Illinois ahead 17-14 at halftime when George was ready to return.
Mackovic dialed up some trickery to extend the lead. Wide receiver Steve Williams hit Bellamy on a 34-yard touchdown pass. The defense held Ohio State to just ten first downs on the game and Illinois pulled away to win 34-14.
A ho-hum 14-2 road win at Purdue was notable only in that it had to make Illinois the first time of the modern era to win two different games where they allowed exactly two points. It set up a trip to East Lansing, where Michigan State was another competitive team in the middle of the conference, part of the joust to see who would emerge to challenge league favorite Michigan.
The Spartans had one of the Big Ten’s top backs in Blake Ezor and one of its best receivers in Courtney Hawkins. Coached by George Perles, who had once been coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ legendary “Steel Curtain” defense in the 1970s, they were tough to score on. Illinois trailed 10-7 late and needed to get the ball back.
A Michigan State fumble was the break George needed. With just over a minute to play, he hit Bellamy with a nine-yard TD pass to win 14-10.
Illinois followed up that escape by easily dispatching losing teams in Iowa and Wisconsin. It set up the Illini to host Michigan on November 11. The stakes were the inside track to the Rose Bowl.
The Wolverines were physical and tough. Illinois played well on defense and George went 22/38 for 253 yards. But they couldn’t get the running game going and were outrushed 266-92. They were in striking distance in the fourth quarter, down 17-10. But the running discrepancy was too much and Michigan marched for a clinching touchdown and a 24-10 win.
There was still plenty for Illinois to play for the final two weeks—namely, getting a nice bowl bid and giving themselves a chance to make the Top 10. They hosted Indiana and league MVP running back Anthony Thompson. Illinois won 41-28. In the finale at Northwestern, they faced the Big Ten’s top wide receiver in Richard Buchanan. But Northwestern had little else and Illinois coasted home 63-14.
The reward was a Citrus Bowl berth (today’s Capital One Bowl). It was one of the top bowls outside of the five majors (Rose, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar). Illinois was going in at #11 to face #15 Virginia. The Top 10 hung in the balance.
Illinois’ defense made the first big play of the afternoon in Orlando, getting a turnover and setting up a short field for George. A 36-yard touchdown drive made it 7-0. The game was tied 7-7 in the second quarter, when Illinois scored ten straight points to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
The first drive of the second half told the story. George completed four straight passes, netting 71 yards and setting up a short touchdown run from Griffith. The game never got tight after that and Illinois won 31-21. George finished 26/38 for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Bellamy had eight catches for 166 yards. Griffith ran for 93 yards. It was a terrific end to an excellent season in Champaign. Illinois finished #10 in the polls.
Mackovic and Illinois would each ultimately get to major bowls, but not together. After a couple years of minor bowl trips, Mackovic took the Texas job and won the old Southwest Conference title in 1995. For Illinois, they had to wait until 2001 when they finally won the Big Ten crown.