1983 Illinois football was celebrating the 20th anniversary of their last trip to the Rose Bowl. Since that 1963 season they had been off the football map. When Mike White became the head coach in 1980, it had been six years since the good folks of Champaign had even seen a winning season.
White ended that drought in 1981-82 with consecutive seven-win campaigns. Illinois was on the rise. Two years earlier, the Michigan-Ohio State lock on the Rose Bowl bid that had been in place since 1967 was broken by Iowa. The conference’s middle class was rising up and the Illini were very much a part of that.
Illinois was led by future NFL quarterback Jack Trudeau, who completed 63% of his passes, averaged a solid 7.5 yards-per-attempt and threw 18 touchdowns. He had an excellent wide receiver in David Williams, who caught 59 passes for 870 yards. Tight end Tim Brewster, a future head coach at Minnesota, was another key target, with 59 more catches and 628 yards.
Thomas Rooks was the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, with 842 yards, while Dwight Beverley was an effective second back, racking up 685 more. Defensively, the secondary had a pair of ballhawks in David Edwards and Mike Heaven, with five interceptions apiece.
But the best player on the 1983 Illinois football team was none of the above. Defensive end Don Thorp was a one-man wrecking crew, so much so that he not only made All-American, he won Big Ten Player of the Year.
In spite of their improvement over the previous two seasons, Illinois was still under the radar when the season began, unranked in the polls. When they lost 28-18 at Missouri, a decent team that would win seven games, it seemed to validate that lack of belief.
The Illini got an unimpressive 17-7 win over Stanford, then won 20-10 at subpar Michigan State. The first sign that something special might be brewing in Champaign came on October 1. Fourth-ranked Iowa, with talented sophomore quarterback Chuck Long, came to town and left with a stunning 33-0 loss hung on them. Illinois appeared in the polls for the first time at #19.
They followed it up by going to Wisconsin, another pretty good team that won seven games, and like Iowa, had a nice quarterback in Randy Wright. Illinois won 27-15 and were set to host sixth-ranked Ohio State.
Illinois led 10-3 at the half, but Trudeau then threw an interception deep in his own end and set up a tying touchdown for the Buckeyes. Ohio State took a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but also missed a 27-yard field goal that could have widened the lead to six.
The Illini got the ball on their own 17-yard line late in the game and Trudeau led a rapid-fire drive in just five plays. It was capped when Rooks bounced to the right sideline and took off on a 21-yard touchdown with 1:06 left. Illinois held on for the 17-13 win and moved up to #11.
They beat Purdue 35-21, a victory that doesn’t look impressive, given the Boilermakers’ eventual 3-7-1 record. But it was that road sandwich game—stuck right in between Ohio State and the impending arrival of Michigan.
The Wolverines and Illini were the only teams unbeaten in Big Ten play. Michigan was ranked #6 and head coach Bo Schembecler had never lost to Illinois. But if this Illini team could change that in front of a national TV audience, they would be in complete command of the Big Ten race.
Trudeau was sloppy and committed a couple foolish turnovers that cost his team points. But the Thorp-led defense was dominant and Illinois led 7-6 midway through the third quarter. The quarterback stepped up and redeemed himself with a touchdown pass to Williams, who made a nice catch-and-run and found the left sideline. A subsequent safety put the game away, 16-6.
Illinois now needed to just win two of their final three games, and they would come against the three worst teams in the Big Ten, Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern. How sure was everyone the Illini were in? CBS play-by-play man Gary Bender concluded the telecast of the Michigan game by saying “Illinois is headed to Pasadena.”
This wouldn’t be a “Dewey Defeats Truman” or “Hillary Defeats Trump” moment in the annals of sports journalism. Illinois won those three games by a combined 155-68 to lock up both the Rose Bowl and the outright Big Ten crown. They were #4 in the country as the regular season came to a close.
UCLA was the Pac-10 champ and had a very different football heritage than Illinois. The Bruins were the defending Rose Bowl champs. UCLA also had a very different resume in 1983—they were a mediocre 6-4-1. Illinois went west expecting to win.
The Illini did not have a real chance at the national championship even though the three teams ahead of them—Nebraska, Texas and Auburn—were all in different bowls. From the perspective of game-day morning on January 2, no one expected Nebraska or Texas to lose. Even when the Rose Bowl began, and the upset loss suffered by Texas was already known, no one expected Nebraska to lose.
And even though we know now that the Cornhuskers would lose an epic Orange Bowl game to Miami, the fifth-ranked Hurricanes vaulted victorious Auburn for the national title and would certainly have done the same to Illinois. But there was never a chance to find out, due to a Rose Bowl game that no one expected.
UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel was one of several Bruin players sick from food poisoning. In fact, head coach Terry Donahue didn’t even put Neuheisel on the team bus, for fear the very sight of him would depress the rest of the team.
But once the game started it was a different story. Trudeau threw an early interception. The defense held and blocked a field goal, but Illinois immediately fumbled it back. The tone was set. Neuheisel, food poisoning and all, threw four touchdown passes to set a Rose Bowl record. Illinois trailed 21-3 by half, never turned it around and lost 45-9.
It was a hard crash of an ending to a dream season and things weren’t going to get better anytime soon. The football program ran into trouble with the NCAA over recruiting violations and White would resign within five years. Illinois would not win the Big Ten title again until 2001.