1999 A Milestone Season for Fighting Illini Football
Nov. 24, 1999
The Illinois football program saw continued improvement under Head Coach Ron Turner as the team registered a dramatic four-win increase in 1999 from its 1998 record. Along the way, the Fighting Illini reached several milestones and re-wrote many school records en route to their first seven-win season since 1990. Behind an exciting, high-scoring offense and solid defense, the Illini garnered a bowl berth for the first time since 1994.
Illinois' improvement was showcased in the opening game of the season, a 41-3 rout of Arkansas State. The Fighting Illini fell behind early, 3-0, but scored 41 unanswered points as Kurt Kittner threw two touchdown passes while Rocky Harvey ran for two scores and freshman Eugene Wilson returned a punt 65 yards for another score.
The Illini posted another dominating victory the next week against San Diego State. Illinois jumped out to a 24-0 lead behind two Kittner TD passes and never looked back in the 38-10 triumph. In the game, senior linebacker Danny Clark totaled 17 tackles, including two for loss, earning him Big Ten Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors.
The following week, Illinois traveled to Louisville to conclude its pre-Big Ten schedule in a game that turned into a high-scoring shoot-out. The Fighting Illini and Cardinals battled back-and-forth as quarterbacks Kurt Kittner and Chris Redman traded aerial assaults. Redman threw for 450 yards and three touchdowns, but it was Kittner whose team emerged victorious, 41-36, after he completed 71 percent of his passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns. Kittner's performance earned him Big Ten Offensive Player-of-the-Week honors.
Illinois entered Big Ten play with a 3-0 record, its best mark since 1982, and hosted the Michigan State Spartans in the conference opener. The Spartan defense was the story of the game, limiting the Orange and Blue ground attack to just 42 yards, to lead MSU to a 27-10 victory.
The Fighting Illini looked to rebound from their first loss of the season the following week at Indiana. Illinois took a 7-0 lead when Michael Dean made a one-handed catch around a Hoosier defender for the score on a play that was featured on ESPN's "Plays of the Week." The Illini extended their lead to 28-7 in the third quarter, before Antwaan Randle El led a furious Hoosier rally. Indiana stormed back and knotted the score at 28-28 late in the game, sending the contest into overtime. After a Neil Rackers field goal in OT, Randle El threw a 25-yard TD pass to Levron Williams to win the game for the Hoosiers, 34-31.
Minnesota traveled to Champaign and spoiled Illinois' Homecoming celebration with a 37-7 victory. The Golden Gophers racked up 367 yards rushing, including 184 by Thomas Hamner, and handed the Illini their third straight loss.
Illinois traveled to Michigan to face the No. 9 Wolverines, looking to break the drought. The Illini got on the scoreboard first before Michigan built a 27-7 lead midway through the third quarter. After cutting the lead to 27-21 in the fourth period, Illinois scored on a critical third-and-four situation when Rocky Harvey turned a short pass into a 59-yard score, giving the Illini a 28-27 lead with just 2:42 remaining in the contest. Michigan took the ball on its next possession and drove to the Illinois 28-yard line before Trayvon Waller intercepted a Tom Brady pass that gave the Illini possession with 1:27 left. Rocky Harvey broke free once again and darted 54 yards for another TD, extending the Illinois lead to 35-27. Michigan scored on a safety, cutting the lead to 35-29 and providing the game's final margin. It was the largest come-from-behind win in Illinois history. Kittner's 24-of-33, 280-yard, four-touchdown, performance earned him Big Ten Offensive Player-of-the Week honors for the second time in 1999.
No. 2 ranked Penn State ventured to Champaign the opening week in November to face the Fighting Illini before an ABC television audience. Illinois jumped ahead, 7-0, on Rocky Harvey's 34-yard TD run. However, the Nittany Lion defense was too much, registering seven sacks and allowing just eight Illini pass completions, as the visitors posted a 27-7 victory.
Illinois rebounded the following week with an impressive 40-24 victory at Iowa. Kicker Neil Rackers was the story of the game, booting four field goals and catching a touchdown pass on a fake field goal play, accounting for 22 points. For his efforts, Rackers was tabbed Big Ten Special Teams Player-of-the-Week.
The next week the Illini traveled to Ohio State and handed the Buckeyes their worst home loss in 50 years, 46-20. Kittner tallied his third four-touchdown game of the season as the Illini defeated both Michigan and Ohio State on the road in the same season for the first time in their history.
The Illinois seniors were sent off in style as the Orange and Blue defeated Northwestern 29-7 in the regular season finale at Memorial Stadium. Rocky Harvey and Steve Havard each rushed for 99 yards and combined for three touchdowns in the win, and Illinois took control of the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy for the second consecutive season.
Illinois concluded the regular season 7-4 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten. The Fighting Illini offense was one of the most prolific in school history, scoring 325 points, 29.5 per game, the highest average since 1982. In addition, the increase in victories from three in 1998 to seven in 1999 was the largest jump since 1980.