Chicago Sun-Times
With Sun-Times sports reporter Herb Gould

The last time Illinois played in Soldier Field

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Since the Illini have announced they will play the Washington Huskies at Soldier Field on Sept. 14, 2013, here''s what I wrote the last time Illinois played in the home of the Bears, on Sept. 1, 1994.

 I remember it well for a number of reasons. . .it was my first game on the Illinois football beat. . . Simeon Rice had an amazing five sacks, but the Illini lost a heartbreaker. . . and a disappointing turnout caused athletic director Ron Guenther to rethink his plans to play more games in Chicago.

I applaud new AD Mike Thomas' plan to try more games in Chicago. But fans will be the ones who determine whether that's more successful this time around.

Here's my game story and notebook from the Sept. 2, 1994, editions of the Sun-Times. . . 


By Herb Gould

New season. New location. Same old story. 

Illinois, which vowed that it had learned, didn't get its act together when it counted most.

Trying to impress Chicago - and especially a crowd of 39,472 with a rare visit to Soldier Field - the Fighting Illini instead tripped on their own mistakes Thursday, not to mention an impressive Washington State defense.

The result was a 10-9 Washington State victory in the season opener for both teams. The only touchdown was  a 71-yard run with a fumble recovery by Washington State's burly linebacker, Mark Fields.

Typical of Illinois' frustration, quarterback Johnny Johnson, who had coughed up the ball, couldn't catch Fields even though Johnson had a good angle on the Cougar defender.

"It's a disappointing loss. Our players are devastated," said Illinois coach Lou Tepper, whose squad had been determined not to repeat last year's 0-3 nonconference start. "It's going to take a heck of a job by our coaches and players to come back. It remains to be seen whether we have the work habits and unity to do that. This was one they expected to win."

The defeat marred a spectacular five-sack, one-blocked-field-goal performance by Simeon Rice, the outside linebacker from Mount Carmel.

"This loss is worse than any loss I've had at Illinois because it's here in Chicago," said Rice, whose 22 career sacks put him  one behind Scott Davis, Illinois' all-time leader. "The sacks, not giving up a touchdown on defense, that means nothing. We lost. It's a team game.

"It's very frustrating. We put our hearts on the line. But mental errors really hurt. This loss could be good for us. Now we know what kind of maturity we have to show."

Even winning ugly probably wouldn't have dazzled Illinois' sophisticated Chicago-area alumni.

And that basically put the Illini behind the eight-ball before the kickoff. Because the Cougars, who were second in the nation against the run last season, are a quick, blitzing defense that's capable of putting the clamps on the best of teams.

"It feels good, coming all the way from Pullman, Wash., and winning here," said Fields, a 6-2, 238-pounder whose run gave the Cougars  a 10-3 lead with 15 seconds left in the half. "We were excited to be in Chicago. But we came here to do a job, too."

Scott Richardson's three field goals kept Illinois in the game until the final seconds. Richardson yielded to strong-legged freshman Bret Scheuplein, who came up short on a 57-yard attempt as time expired.

The statistics that told the story were four lost fumbles by Illinois, and five net yards rushing on 29 attempts. A 12-yard run by freshman Robert Holcombe, who showed good promise, merely demonstrated how effectively Washington State's defense throttled the Illinois offense.

Asked about the absence of first-string running back Ty Douthard sidelined by a pulled hamstring, Tepper said, "Ty would have given us a more physical runner and would have helped for protection on the blitzes."

But taking care of the ball, particularly by Johnson,  would have helped a lot more. On both of Johnson's fumbles, especially the one that Fields picked up, Johnson still was straining to get something done when the smart play would have been to protect the ball.

The Illini suffered a setback early in the first quarter when All-Big Ten inside linebacker John Holecek sprained an ankle. Holecek did not return and was listed as questionable for the Illini's Sept.  10 game against Missouri in Champaign.

But the linebacker-rich Illini got an impressive performance from freshman David James, who stepped in for Holecek and played well alongside fellow East St. Louis product Dana Howard.

As promised, Tepper played backup quarterback Scott Weaver for one series. With Illinois trailing 10-9 midway through the third quarter, Weaver passed for one first down, before Illinois bogged down.

Now, they'll just have to see if they can regroup.

 

 

ILLINI NOTEBOOK

By Herb Gould

Pronouncing Illinois' trip to Soldier Field to play Washington

State Thursday night an unqualified success, Illinois athletic

director Ron Guenther said, "We're committed to bringing a game back

within three or four years. I'd like every class to play a game in

Chicago."

Though the attendance of 39,472 was not  very high for a school

that averaged 51,000 in Champaign last season, its lowest total in 12

years, Guenther said that didn't disappoint him.

"I think we have talked too much about attendance," Guenther

said. "That wasn't the point of this game. This was a stepping-off

point. We're saying to Chicago, 'We want to be a part of it. We're

coming back.' This was an investment in the future."

NO HAIL TO THE CHIEF: Not everybody loves Chief Illiniwek.

Native American sympathizers protested Illinois' use of the Indian

motif outside Soldier Field Thursday night.

"Native people are not mascots," one banner announced.

"Support U of I athletics. Denounce U of I racism," another

said.

A woman with a bullhorn led chants by a small group of

protesters, who said, "Stop racism. Dump Chief Illiniwek."

Some orange-and-blue clad fans booed the demonstration.  Others

laughed derisively.

"Shut up. Shut up. Shut up," one man in orange-and-blue said,

provoking more disdain from Illini fans.

Asked if he had seen the protesters, Guenther said, "Didn't have

to. I see them all the time. I can go on the Quad and see them

Tuesday. But that's all right. That's their right. This comes up from

time to time. It's part of the culture."

CHICAGO CONNECTION: Thursday's game was the first in the city

for Illinois since the University of Chicago dropped out of the Big

Ten in 1939. The Illini won their last eight games against U. of C.,

including a 46-0 thumping in '39.

Illinois played its first- Big Ten game against U. of C. in

1896. The Maroons won 12-0.

The Fighting Illini also played the legendary Carlisle Indians

twice in Chicago, including an 1897 contest at the Chicago Coliseum

that was Illinois' first indoor game, and its first at night.

RIVALRY:  Wisconsin running back Terrell Fletcher, who's from

suburban St. Louis, has been looking forward to the first meeting

between his high school, Hazelwood East, and Illini linebacker Dana

Howard's alma mater, East St. Louis, on Sept. 10.

The two football powers, separated by the Mississippi River, had

never met because of a variety of concerns, including security at

what figures to be an intense game.

"You tell Dana Hazelwood's going to kill East St. Louis,"

Fletcher said with a grin when he chatted with Chicago reporters

during training

camp last month.

Informed of Fletcher's bragging, Howard said, "We'll see about

that."

No stakes have been set beyond bragging rights. But Howard

figures to be giving or hearing plenty of smart talk when he meets

Fletcher in the Illinois-Wisconsin season finale, to be played Nov.

19 in Madison.

COUGAR COMEBACK: Linebacker Payam Saadat didn't make Washington

State's two-deep depth chart. But the senior from Santa Monica,

Calif., was just glad to be back in shoulder pads after a tragic,

bizarre accident.

In the spring of 1993, Saadat and a teammate constructed a pipe

bomb just to see if they could do it. Trouble was, the detonating

wires touched and the bomb exploded while they were transporting it

to a field to detonate it. The teammate was killed and Saadat lost

his left hand and suffered injuries to his leg.

Undeterred, he worked himself back into football condition and

dressed for Thursday night's game.

FROSH FACES: Six Illinois freshmen made the trip to Chicago, but

coach Lou Tepper was only planning to use two. Running back Robert

Holcombe was scheduled to be used in the backfield and on punt

returns, and Bret Scheuplein is the No. 1 kickoff man and backup

punter. Also dressing were offensive guard Ryan Schau, running back

George McDonald and defensive backs Trevor Starghill and Steve

Willis.

 

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This page contains a single entry by Herb Gould published on August 8, 2012 11:15 AM.

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Illini basketball schedule filled with challenge, opportunity is the next entry in this blog.

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