Players, Fans Celebrate Illinois Bowl Victory
Dec. 31, 1999
MIAMI (AP) - The unrehearsed celebration by Illinois was well deserved.
Moments after dousing coach Ron Turner with water, several Illinois players jumped into the stands at Pro Player Stadium. They frolicked with their fans, hugging and high-fiving them.
As typical as it might seem, the postgame scene was fairly new to the Illini.
They had just beaten Virginia 63-21 in the Micronpc.com Bowl on Thursday night. It capped a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost 19 of 22 games before this season.
The Illini were 0-11 two years ago, 3-8 last season and had not been to a bowl game since 1994.
There was a time when many of the players questioned their choice of colleges, and the coaches wondered if they were on the right track.
"I told the guys it's not the end, it's the beginning," Turner said.
Quarterback Kurt Kittner scored three different ways - throwing for two touchdowns, running for one and catching a pass for another - as Illinois (8-4) hammered the Cavaliers to end the season on a four-game winning streak.
Virginia (7-5) is still 0-for-Florida. The loss was the Cavaliers' fifth in five bowl games in the state.
Illinois scored nine touchdowns on 13 possessions. The defense held Virginia's Thomas Jones, the nation's No. 3 rusher, to 110 yards on the ground. And on special teams, the Illini blocked two punts that set up touchdowns.
"I have no explanation," Virginia coach George Welsh said. "I'm embarrassed by that performance, I'm absolutely bewildered. We got whacked on defense, then it was a snowball running downhill.
"I'd like to burn the tape, but I'm going to make them watch it in January. Maybe it will be incentive for the winter program. This was bad. It takes a lot away from the season when you end up like that."
The Illini's season, though, could not have been much better. They beat Michigan and Ohio State on the road this year and had more victories than any season since 1990. They should be improved next season.
Kittner, only a sophomore, completed 14 of 24 passes for 254 yards before being replaced by Kirk Johnson in the fourth quarter. Kittner finished with 24 touchdown passes this season, breaking the school record of 22 set by Jeff George in 1989. Kittner threw only five interceptions.
"Kurt played great. That's obviously an understatement," Turner said. "He has great touch and throws the deep ball as well as anyone I've seen."
Kittner scored on a 1-yard bootleg on the opening drive. He also threw two touchdowns in the first half. But his best play may have come on a perfectly executed reverse to Brandon Lloyd.
With Illinois leading 14-7, Kittner faked a handoff to Steve Havard, handed off to Lloyd and then slipped down the sideline unnoticed. Lloyd rolled right, stopped and threw back to the wide-open Kittner, who caught the pass in stride and strolled untouched into the end zone.
Kittner chucked the ball into the stands, attempting to throw it out of the stadium, something he told Turner he was going to do if the play worked. The team practiced it every day for the last three weeks, Turner said.
Illinois, playing in its first bowl game since the 1994 Liberty Bowl, scored its most points in a bowl game and its most points in a game since 1989. It also was a record for the Micronpc.com Bowl, previously known as the Carquest and the Blockbuster.
The Illini had 372 yards and 42 points in the first half. They finished with 611, running the ball and working the clock for the majority of the second half.
Rocky Harvey ran for 122 yards and Havard added 75 for Illinois. They each scored twice.
"They're not as good as we made them look," Jones said.
But they're a lot better than 0-11 or 3-8.
"It's unbelievable that we turned around this program that fast," senior defensive tackle Mike McGee said.