John Mackovic was in his third year in Champaign. He inherited an Illinois program that, after early 1980s success that included a Rose Bowl trip in 1983, had suffered a couple of losing seasons and then went on NCAA probation. Mackovic got things turned immediately back upward, going to a bowl game in 1988. In 1989, the Illini were even better and finished in the national Top 10. The 1990 Illinois football team continued the success—winning a piece of the title in a chaotic Big Ten landscape, but also had some very bad losses that leave their overall legacy up in the air.
Illinois bade goodbye to quarterback Jeff George, who went into the NFL as the #1 overall draft pick. Jason Verduzco proved to be more than adequate as a replacement. His 64 percent completion rate was the best in the conference. He generated 7.2 yards-per-attempt and his 16-12 TD/INT ratio was respectable by the standards of the time.
Verduzco’s top target was Shawn Wax, who caught 60 passes for 863 yards. Steve Mueller was a reliable second receiver and Jeff Finke was a pretty good tight end. All of that provided the necessary balance for an offense that ultimately came back to the running game.
Howard Griffith carried the load out of the backfield and in what was then an 11-game schedule, he rolled up over 1,100 yards and averaged better than five yards a carry. Griffith was also a finisher, scoring 15 touchdowns to lead the Big Ten.
And the best players on Illinois were on defense. Moe Gardner was one of the nation’s elite defensive tackles, a 1st-team All-American. Darrick Brownlow was a top linebacker who won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. All told, the talent on hand was enough to have Illinois ranked #11 in the preseason polls.
The Illini challenged themselves in the non-conference and went to Arizona, a team on their way to a seven-win season. A 28-16 loss was deflating, sent Illinois down to #21 in the polls and things weren’t getting any easier with Colorado coming to town.
A road trip to Boulder the previous season saw the Illini get blown out, as Colorado contended for a national championship and finished in the top 5. Illinois had their chance at revenge and to prevent their season from slipping away too quickly.
It didn’t start well. The Illini dug themselves a 17-3 hole by the second quarter before a Verduzco touchdown pass just before halftime got momentum turned around. Illinois still trailed 22-17 when they got the ball back on their own 37-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Verduzco calmly hit all five of his pass attempts on the decisive drive. Griffith finished it off with a one-yard TD run with 1:18 left. For the afternoon, Verduzco went 23/29 for 222 yards. He had more than established himself as a suitable successor to George in a 23-22 win over a team that eventually won a share of the national championship.
Illinois closed out the non-conference part of the schedule with a light game against Southern Illinois and cruised to a 56-21 win. They had a week off to get ready for Big Ten play at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes were a good, but not vintage Ohio State, team. They were ranked #20 and coming off a home loss to USC. Illinois again trailed at the half by a 17-10 score. They nudged ahead 24-20 in the fourth quarter. With ten minutes left, the Buckeyes lined up for a field goal. The Illini blocked the kick, took it to the house and then salted away a big 31-20 win.
The 1990 college football season was a roller coaster ride for most everyone and when Illinois blew out lowly Purdue 34-0, the path was open for the Illini to be back at #8 in the polls. A good Michigan State team was coming into Champaign next.
Verduzco went 24/42 for 238 yards, but the hero of the day was kicker Doug Higgins. He hit short field goals from 27, 28 and 36. He hit a long one from 55 yards. Illinois still trailed 13-12 when Verduzco found Mueller on a 26-yard pass that moved Illinois into field goal range with 0:42 left. One more time, Higgins was summoned and one more time he delivered. A 48-yard field goal gave Illinois a big 15-13 win.
The Illini closed out the month of October with a 21-3 win over what was then an awful Wisconsin program, just beginning Barry Alvarez’s rebuild project. Illinois was undefeated in league play, ranked fifth nationally and very much in the hunt for both the Rose Bowl and a national title.
That was the context when Iowa, also unbeaten in conference games, came to Champaign on November 3.
It would be hard to imagine a big game going much worse than this one did for Illinois. They lost a fumble on their first possession leading to a quick Iowa touchdown and that set the tone for the day. The Illini couldn’t stop the run, were down 28-0 by the second quarter and lost 54-28. They went plummeting to #17 in the polls. A week later they went to Michigan, to face the two-time defending conference champs and lost 22-17.
Illinois was now ranked #22. If there was a positive to be found it was this—Iowa had lost to Ohio State a week after their Champaign party, so the conference race was jam-packed. The Illini were one of three teams—along with Michigan and Michigan State—that were 4-2 in the conference. Ohio State was 4-1-1 and Iowa still led the pack at 5-1.
A road trip to Indiana was up. For a team reeling, this wasn’t easy—the Hoosiers were a tough competitive program under Bill Mallory and would make a bowl game in 1990. But Illinois stopped the bleeding with a 24-10 win.
The rest of the conference held serve. That meant the Rose Bowl was off the table—the Pasadena trip would go to either Iowa or Ohio State. But if both the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes lost, then the door was open for a shared conference title.
That’s what happened. Illinois didn’t play particularly well in a 28-23 home win over lowly Northwestern. But Ohio State lost to Michigan. Iowa lost to Minnesota. And a four-way tie emerged in the Big Ten, with the Illini sharing the hardware with the Hawkeyes, Wolverines and Spartans.
Illinois was back up to #16 and had an opportunity to still leave their mark on this 1990 season with a Hall of Fame bowl matchup against #14 Clemson. But this turned into another disaster, a 30-0 loss that left the Illini at #25 in the final polls.
So what’s the final verdict on the 1990 Illinois football season? They definitely missed some opportunities and the performances against Iowa and Clemson were nothing short of embarrassing. But they also beat the eventual national champs in Colorado and there is a trophy that says Illinois is a quad-Big Ten champion. That isn’t something that’s happened very often in Champaign and for that reason, the final legacy of the roller coaster ride that was this season should be a good one.