Looking Back On That Incredible Day On The Gridiron In Columbus

Dave Wilson threw for a then-NCAA record 621 yards on that November afternoon in 1980 at Ohio Stadium.
Dave Wilson threw for a then-NCAA record 621 yards on that November afternoon in 1980 at Ohio Stadium.

AUDIO - Post-practice with Head Coach Ron Zook
AUDIO - Post-practice with K Jason Reda

Nov. 9, 2005

by Jared Gelfond, Illinois Sports Information

It was the ultimate mismatch. A have against a have-not. A team whose identity was competing for Big Ten and national championships every single year against a team just fighting for any sort of identity. It was one of the `Big Two' against one of what you might as well have called the `Little Eight.'

During the decade of the 1970s, the Ohio State Buckeyes completely dominated Illinois on the football field. The Buckeyes had beaten the Illini every year since 1972 by 30 or more points in every single contest. The last time the Illini had defeated the Buckeyes was in 1967 when Coach Jim Valek roamed the sidelines. Two coaches had come and gone since that late October day in 1967 and those coaches probably saw Scarlet and Gray in their nightmares.

By the time the Illini limped into the Columbus Nov. 8, 1980, nobody gave them any chance, and why would they? After defeating Iowa on the road to bring their record to 3-2-1, the Illini faltered. They were beaten badly by Purdue at home, walloped on the road at Michigan and then lost a heartbreaker to Minnesota in Coach Mike White's first Homecoming game.

If their bruised egos weren't enough, the Illini were beaten down physically. Their running back corps was so depleted (Mitchell Brookins had suffered a hairline fracture of his leg the week before, Mike Holmes was out for the season with a groin injury and Wayne Strader was sidelined with a pinched nerve in his neck) that they had to move backup quarterback Lance Hofer to the backfield just in case someone else got hurt.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, were rolling into the game, coming off a 48-16 victory over the Michigan State Spartans in which they racked up 603 total yards of offense. If the OSU offense wasn't enough to worry the Illinois coaching staff, the Ohio State defense returned eight starters off a team the year before that had lost one game. Heading into the game they were statistically the best defense in the Big Ten, having only allowed 6.6 points and 105 passing yards in conference play.

About the only thing the 90,000 people who were in attendance at Ohio Stadium that day were worried about was when their post-game parties were going to start.

It was classic David vs. Goliath. Ironically, the underdogs surely had their `David.'

Dave Wilson came to the University Illinois out of Fullerton Junior College in California as a highly-touted quarterback known for his strong arm and his quick release. After winning the job over Tony Eason in the spring of 1979, Wilson was primed to begin resurrecting the Illinois football program. That plan, though, came to a screeching halt over the summer when Wilson's transcripts were called into question.

After an exhausting, circus-like fiasco over his eligibility that once saw him ruled ineligible on a Wednesday and then eligible again on a Saturday, Wilson had settled in as the Illini quarterback by the time they reached Columbus. Having already thrown for more than 2,000 yards, Wilson had shown everyone in the Big Ten how talented he was, but more importantly he had already proven to his teammates that he was the man.

Mike Martin was a talented receiver for the 1980 Fighting Illini. He would later play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I will never forget the game when we were up in Missouri and Dave had all that NCAA stuff going on," remembered Mike Martin, who now coaches high school football in the Cincinnati area. "Dave had to fly into Missouri on a helicopter and when we realized he was coming I remember everyone on the team saying, `Ok, our guy is here and we can roll now. Let's get ready because here comes Dave.' That was the type of confidence we had in him."

"Dave could throw a variety of passes, and that's what made us successful," recalled then-head coach Mike White. "He could throw it hard, he could throw it with touch, he could throw it deep, he could throw it short, and the most amazing thing was his ability to anticipate."

"Dave Wilson threw the ball so hard," remembered senior wide receiver Greg Dentino. "To this day whenever I do the wrong thing with my hand my right thumb really hurts because of the passes I caught off of Dave."

"He threw it hard and he threw it quick, but he was also incredibly accurate," said Rick George, who was a senior that year. "Dave was a guy who would get knocked down, get right back up immediately and continue to fight. I think the guys rallied around him because of that."

Even with Wilson under center, the Illini were still big underdogs heading into their showdown with the Buckeyes. Knowing that they were overmatched physically and that mentally they needed something believe in, Coach White had a plan.

"I remember that Saturday after we went through our walkthrough at Ohio Stadium Coach White brought us all in," recalled Wilson. "He basically said we are going to throw it 60-70 times the next day and that we should go out there and have fun."

With the plan in place, the Illini were ready to compete, but with only minutes left in the first half, the Illini were down, 28-0, and the game was virtually over. The team showed some life when Dave Wilson hit Greg Dentino for a 24-yard touchdown pass with just over a minute to go in the half to cut the deficit to 28-7, but Ohio State would counter immediately to start the third quarter.

On their first possession, they marched down the field with ease and when Art Schlichter connected with Doug Donley for a 26-yard touchdown pass to make the score 35-7, it looked like the rout was on.

The only thing was, someone forgot to tell the Illini.

"We were down big at the half and I vividly remember Mike White coming into the locker room and said, `Fellas let me ask you a question. How would you feel if we just threw the ball on every down in this half?" remembered Martin, who finished the game catching seven passes for a team high 147 yards. "We all went crazy--absolutely crazy, and when we came out in the second half we were ready to go."

Along with their message of inspiration, the Illinois coaching staff had seen some holes in the Buckeye defense and they were ready to try and exploit them.

"During halftime Coach White and Coach Brad Childress were telling us how we could use the short passes out of the backfield to keep the ball moving," recalled running back Joe Curtis, who led the team with 10 catches for 96 yards and ironically was named the game's MVP by White. "We went into that half knowing that the running backs could get open for the dump offs and we could keep the drives going."

On the other side, the Buckeyes seemed to have a comfortable lead, but there were some ominous signs coming from upstairs in the booth.

"We were up, 28-7, at the half, but when I got back to the sideline and put on my head set, I hear our defensive backs coach, Nick Saban, say to me, `You know they had 275 yards of total offense?'" recalled then Ohio State defensive coordinator Dennis Fryzel. "That was something like 10 yards more than we were averaging giving up for an entire game."

In their first possession of the second half, Wilson and the Illini took off. It only took seven plays for the QB to hit senior tight end, Lee Boeke, on a 38-yard touchdown pass.

After an Ohio State fumble, the Illini marched down the field with ease again, and when Wilson rolled out and hit Greg Dentino on an eight-yard touchdown pass, the Illini had cut the lead to 35-21.

"When we came out in the second half, it was a feeling like I have never had before," recalled Wilson, who had racked up 277 passing yards on 20 completions in the first half. "Every single time we lined up, we could feel what they were doing. It was straight off our film study from the previous week preparation. We knew exactly what to do and everything worked."

"To this day, I have never had a chance to ask Mike White about this, but they had to have binoculars on their sidelines or something," laughed Fryzel. "We would change our defense to a five-under man with a cover-two, and every time we did that, Wilson would check into all kinds of these pick routes. Nick Saban and I joke around all the time that Mike White or somebody had to know we were in that type of defense."

After the Illini defense forced the Buckeyes to punt, Wilson and the Illini offense remained red-hot. In a drive that was almost scary for its precision, Wilson needed only seven plays and two minutes to score once again on a 13-yard strike to cut the lead to seven.

"We went on a tear--an absolute tear," said Martin. "It was so much fun and it was probably one of the best games I have ever been associated with from a fun standpoint."

With the momentum fully on the Illinois side, the Illinois defense came up with another stop and were about to get the ball with a chance to tie the game. But on the ensuing punt, Greg Dentino fumbled the ball and the Buckeyes took full advantage of their opportunity scoring a quick touchdown to make it 42-28.

"I remember we scored really quickly and I ran up to Earle (Bruce) and I said, `Earle, you are scoring too fast,'" recalled Fryzel, who might have been the one Buckeye not thrilled with the quick strike. "He looked at me like I was nuts, but I already knew at that time this was going to be one of those days when we couldn't stop them."

Fryzel was right. On the next possession, Wilson marched the Illini 83 yards in 10 plays and again cut the lead to seven when he hit senior running back Greg Foster on a two-yard touchdown pass.

"They had no pressure on me in that second half and they just could not get back there," recalled Wilson. "It was one of those things where we were getting rid of the ball quick and they were obviously tired at that point. They just couldn't do anything and everything they tried, we had an answer for."

"There was a point in that second half where I absolutely got my plastic covered game plan and was about to throw it away. Then a minute later our announcer at the stadium gets on the PA and says, `Attention. Dave Wilson has just set the NCAA single game passing record," laughed Fryzel who certainly took a lot of heat in Columbus after the game. "I coached for 21 years and spent more than 10 years of that as a defensive coordinator, but that game sticks out in my mind more than any other. The frustration of that second half was unbelievable because we got taken apart like a surgeon."

Unfortunately, that was as close as the Illini would get. On the following possession, Ohio State scored quickly on the heels of a controversial pass interference call on Rick George.

Rick George

"It was a long pass down the sidelines to Doug Donley and they said I interfered with him," remembered George, who later became a coach on Mike White's staff and today is the President of the PGA's Champions Tour. "I certainly didn't think I did and Coach White and I argued so much we had another penalty tacked on."

When Wilson hit Mike Martin on a deep pass down the sideline four plays into the next possession, it looked as if the Illini would strike quickly again. With Martin looking towards the end zone, he was caught from behind.

"That play will always stay in my mind forever, because I fumbled the ball," recalled Martin. "I was streaking down the sideline and I saw nothing but the end zone, but the guy came from out of bounds, grabbed my arm and pulled the ball loose."

When the final horn finally sounded at 4:55 p.m. and dusk fell on Ohio Stadium, the numbers were staggering. Wilson finished the game completing 43 of 69 passes for 621 yards and six touchdowns in a 49-42 loss to the Buckeyes.

"If you take a step back and look at who was a part of that Ohio State defense and who they had in the defensive backfield what we did to them that day was truly amazing," said John Lopez, who caught three passes for 26 yards in the game. "Perhaps the most incredible thing that happened that day, though, took place after the game as we were leaving the field."

In a show of incredible sportsmanship and great admiration and appreciation for what they just saw Dave Wilson and his teammates do, the Illini left the field to a standing ovation from the Buckeye crowd.

"That was one of the greatest experiences of my sports career. It was such a neat feeling to walk off that field and receive that type of ovation," remembered Wilson, who today works as a scout for Pro Scout Incorporated. "As I was coming across to the locker room there was an older gentleman in the stands who must have been about 75. He was a great fan of Ohio State, he said he hadn't missed a home game in something like 50 years and he had this Ohio State hat and he handed it to me. He said, `Here I want you to have this because that was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in this Stadium. I still have that hat and it was quite an honor."

It certainly was a day that nobody will ever forget.

"It's hard to fathom that 25 years have gone by so fast and it was quite a time then," recalled Brad Childress who was the Illinois receivers coach in 1980 and now is the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. "There is a funny story after the game in that Earle Bruce had to go to a bridge party and his wife was his partner. She is looking at what she has in her hand and she says, `I pass,' and Earle knocked her right out of her chair."

Even though the Illini fell short on the final scoreboard, the game meant so much more than that. Not only did Dave Wilson's NCAA record for passing yards in a single game bring the program a great deal of publicity, but the Illini proved that they could look the best teams in Big Ten right in the eye and not back down.

"What that game did is it showed we could play with anybody--anybody in the Big Ten," emphasized Mike Martin 25 years after the fact. "I think that game showed us that what we were doing with our new coaching staff and game plans were going to work and that single game set the tone for the entire program from that point on.

Wilson's record stood for eight years before being broken in 1988 by Scott Mitchell of Utah. Incredibly, his 621 yard performance that day in Columbus still ranks as the fifth best passing performance in the history of college football.

It was a landmark game and the start of what would become a great run in the Mike White era. `The 80's belonged to the Illini,' but on that Saturday in Columbus there was no question that the Buckeye defense belonged to Dave Wilson.