Week 6: Written by Ryan Nanni
The sports records we give the most attention to tend to be the ones that can be actively pursued. They range from the seemingly unbreakable (Arizona State’s 238 penalty yards against UTEP in 1961) to the surprisingly fragile (Melvin Gordon breaking the single-game rushing record in 2014 only to see Samaje Perine leapfrog him a week later). But there is one kind of record that can truly never be broken: being the first to accomplish something.
And that is why we are here today to praise the first team, forever and always, unless Ohio State or Michigan invents time travel, to go 9-0 in Big Ten play: the 1983 Illinois Fighting Illini.
“Hold up,” you’re yelling at me. “The Big Ten didn’t go to a nine-game conference schedule until 2017!” That sentence is correct if you add the word “back” right after the word “go” because, in 1983 and 1984, the Big Ten used a round-robin schedule where every team in the conference played one another.
The road to those two seasons was fairly messy. The plans for the ‘83 season were laid over a decade in advance at a 1970 meeting. The faculty representatives and athletic directors present at that vote couldn’t make a round-robin happen earlier because of future non-conference commitments. As the 80s approached, schools like Ohio State that very much wanted to keep their schedules flexible continued to push back against the nine-game plan, and, in 1978, the Big Ten decided to scrap the plan, but not until after the 1984 season.
That led to some bizarre interim years. Northwestern played nine conference games in 1971, 1972, and from 1977 through 1982; in most of those seasons, most of the other Big Ten teams only played eight. In 1981 every team except Iowa and Ohio State played nine Big Ten games. Naturally, the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes finished tied for the conference title…having played every other team except one another. In 1982, Michigan lost to Ohio State to end the regular season, leaving both teams with one Big Ten defeat. So the Buckeyes went to the Rose Bowl thanks to their head-to-head victory, right? Wrong! Michigan’s 8-1 record in conference was better than Ohio State’s 7-1.
Finally, 1983 rolled around, where every Big Ten team would play nine conference games. There were not necessarily a ton of signs that Illinois was on the verge of something special. The ‘82 team had finished 6-3 in conference, with the losses coming to Ohio State, Michigan, and Iowa, all by less than a touchdown. The wins were also often close; Minnesota, Northwestern, and Indiana were the only Big Ten teams Illinois beat by more than one score. And the Illini were starting over at quarterback after Tony Eason was drafted 15th overall; Mike Martin, who’d gone for over 1,000 receiving yards in 1982, was also off to the NFL.
The first two weeks of non-conference play also didn’t inspire much confidence. Illinois started on the road, losing by ten to Missouri, and then came back home, where they beat an unimpressive Stanford team by the same margin. And then Illinois became an absolute defensive terror.
- They held their first four Big Ten opponents to an average of 9.5 points, including shutting out #4 Iowa 33-0 and bottling up #6 Ohio State in a last-minute 17-13 win. That snapped a 15-game streak of Ohio State claiming the Illibuck.
- Purdue managed to get to 21 points but still lost by 14.
- #6 Michigan – who had won the last 16 matchups between these two teams – only scored their ranking, losing to Illinois 16-6.
Fans tore down the Memorial Stadium goalposts two and a half times in that stretch. Both fell to Earth in the wins over the Buckeyes and Wolverines, and one was brought down in the Iowa shutout. (Thus, the half.)
This put Illinois in an unexpected situation. They’d wrapped up all their biggest games, and it wasn’t even Halloween. The remaining schedule looked like this: away against 1-7 Minnesota, home to play 3-5 Indiana, and a final conference game on the road against 2-6 Northwestern.
Wouldn’t it be dramatically satisfying if one of those were unexpectedly close? Too bad! Illinois put up 50, 49, and 56 points, and at the end of the Northwestern game, their fans tore down the goalposts in Northwestern’s stadium.
It’s not just that Illinois became the first team to go 9-0 in the Big Ten. It’s that they made it look so effortless. The Ohio State game, which required an 83-yard drive with under two minutes left to take the lead, was the only actual outcome in doubt. The win over Michigan wasn’t just the last major test for the Illini. It kept the Wolverines, who ended conference play 8-1, from claiming the First 9-0 Team title.
Which, personally, I am very grateful for because I wasn’t gonna write about that.