No. 19 Illinois Downs California, 17-15
Sept. 16, 2000
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Fred Wakefield stole the punter's big day and California's last chance to beat No. 19 Illinois with one swing of his long meaty arm.
The defensive end batted down Kyle Boller's 2-point conversion pass with 1:26 left as Illinois beat Cal 17-15 on Saturday.
But the game came down to Wakefield's big stop mostly because California punter Nick Harris found a way to slow Illinois' usually potent offense - dropping five punts inside the Illini 10 and five more inside the 20.
"We definitely won the field-position game, and we should win the game when that happens," the Cal punter said. "We came on at the end, but it was a little too late."
California pulled within two points on Boller's 32-yard touchdown pass to Charon Arnold.
"We had no idea what they were going to do so we decided to just go play football," Illinois coach Ron Turner said. "Fred's got good instincts."
Illinois' offense was hampered not only by bad field position, but also by losing quarterback Kurt Kittner for most of the second half to a sprained knee.
The defense held Cal scoreless in the second half until the final touchdown. But luck and Harris' incredible punting helped Cal (1-1) keep pace with Illinois (3-0).
A bizarre first half ended with Illinois up 14-9, and the Cal punter a serious candidate for player of the game.
Four times in the half, Harris punts pinned the Illini inside their 5. Another punt was downed at the Illinois 10.
The bad field position paralyzed Illinois. Kittner's 5-yard touchdown pass to Josh Whitman on the first drive put the Illini up 7-0. But after that, starting deep in their own territory on almost every drive, the Illini struggled to mount an attack.
"That made the offense impossible to run," Illinois halfback Rocky Harvey said. "When you go out onto the field, you're already mad because you know even if you make four first downs, you'll still be behind the 50."
Harris helped Cal get its first points too.
He dropped a 47-yard punt at the Illinois 2. Two plays later, Shaun Paga sacked Kittner in the end zone to make it 7-2 with about 13 minutes left in the first half.
It was late in the half before either team sustained another long scoring drive, but both were aided by penalties and lucky bounces.
Starting from its own 1, Illinois drove to the Cal 5, when halfback Antoineo Harris fumbled the ball into the end zone. Cal's Nnamdi Asomugha scooped it up briefly before fumbling himself.
Illinois tackle Marques Sullivan fell on the loose ball at the 2. On the next play, Kittner jogged into the end zone untouched.
Illinois looked ready to regain control when Cal fumbled the following kickoff at its 18. Three plays later, Steve Fitts missed a 34-yard field goal.
Cal drove to the Illinois 2 with six seconds left. Wakefield swatted away Boller's pass at the goal line, but Arnold grabbed it in the crowded end zone for a touchdown to get Cal within 14-9.
After Kittner left, Illinois struggled to sustain drives and run out the clock. After a scoreless third quarter, Fitts kicked a 34-yard field goal with 13:39 left to put Illinois ahead 17-9.
About seven minutes later, Fitts missed a 33-yard attempt that could have put the game out of reach.
"We had opportunities and didn't take advantage of them, but they had a lot of opportunities to put us away too and they didn't get it done either," California coach Tom Holmoe said.
Cal got its final chance with just over three minutes left, and Boller hit Arnold with a 32-yard touchdown pass to set up the 2-point conversion attempt.
When Wakefield smacked the ball, he saw it pop into the air just like the one he swatted at the end of the first half.
"It bounced off the same hand and went the exact same way," Wakefield said. "I thought, 'Oh, no, this can't be good.' Luckily it bounced into one of our guys hands instead of theirs that time."
Kittner limped around the sidelines after leaving during the first drive of the second half. He said he is not sure how or when he hurt the knee, but both he and Turner were confident he will play Saturday against No. 3 Michigan.
"It's a freak thing," Kittner said. "I'll be all right. It's just not worth the risk of going back out there. I probably could have played, but I wouldn't have been effective."