Illinois' Turnaround Includes One More Win

Coach Turner and the Illini look to crown their winning season with a bowl win on Thursday.
Coach Turner and the Illini look to crown their winning season with a bowl win on Thursday.

Dec. 29, 1999

Associated Press Writer

MIAMI - The low point was easy to recall for the Illinois players.

An 0-11 season two years ago left a large number of the them questioning themselves - and their choice of colleges.

Defensive tackle Mike McGee envisioned a turnaround. So did tight end Josh Whitman. But neither expected this much this soon.

After compiling a 3-19 record the last two seasons, Illinois is in a bowl game for the first time in five years. The Illini (7-4) play Virginia (7-4) on Thursday night in the bowl.

"That was about as low as you could get, you can't get much worse than 0-11," McGee said. "It took a huge effort by everybody to bring this around. Right now, we're rewarded just by being in Miami, but the real reward will be winning the bowl game.

"Until that happens, this won't be completed."

Under third-year coach Ron Turner, the Illini beat both Michigan and Ohio State on the road this season. They have averaged nearly 30 points a game and have won three straight.

Illinois has enjoyed its most regular-season wins since 1989 when quarterback Jeff George led the team to an 8-3 record and a win over Virginia in the Citrus Bowl.

The Illini's last trip to the postseason came against East Carolina in the 1994 Liberty Bowl, but no one on this year's team was part of that victory.

Until this season, all these players could remember were losses.

"We've gotten right up to where we want to be, we just need to finish it now," Whitman said. "We've got one more game to go and we're not just happy being here."

For Illinois to win, it will need to slow Virginia's Thomas Jones, the nation's third-leading rusher. Jones, who earned his undergraduate degree in three years, Jones was named the Atlantic Coast Conference's first consensus All-America running back since 1978 and the third in league history.

He finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Jones carried the Cavaliers offensively, leading the conference and finishing third nationally in both rushing (1,798 yards) and all-purpose yards (2,054 yards). Both marks set Virginia and ACC records.

"He's probably one of the fastest backs I'll play against in college," McGee said. "He makes people miss and can break tackles. He can run through people or around them, and he cuts on a dime. He's a great back. They're going to get the ball to him 35-40 times a game, and we're expecting that."

Both offenses are expecting a shootout.

Illinois, led by quarterback Kurt Kittner's 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions, ranks 47th in the nation in total offense. The Cavaliers are 38th. The Illini are 82nd in total defense, slightly better than Virginia, which is rated 90th.

"It should be fun to watch," said Cavaliers quarterback Dan Ellis, who has completed 61 percent of his passes to go along with 20 touchdowns.

Virginia, which also has won three consecutive games, will try to win a bowl game in Florida for the first time ever. The Cavaliers have lost twice in the Carquest Bowl (1994 and 1996), which is now the, once in the Gator Bowl (1991) and once in the Citrus Bowl (1990).

For Virginia to win, it will need to overcome an excited Illinois team that few people expected would be playing here after back-to-back losing seasons.

"There were a lot of doubters out there, but there were none in here," Turner said.