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Kindred: Big Ouch aside, Illini need a Big House boost

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Mostly, the Big House has been a Big Ouch for University of Illinois football. The Illini had their moments in the 1990s, but by and large have been punching bags at Michigan Stadium.

The Wolverines have delighted in decking the guys in orange and blue, picking them up by the chinstraps and decking them again. Their 66-21-2 series advantage carries a 31-10-1 edge in Ann Arbor, where Illinois' losses include a 70-21 drubbing in 1981 and 69-13 pounding in 1986.

Custer was more competitive at Little Big Horn.

The only real exception was the Illini's 2-2-1 showing in the 1990s. Yet, as they enter Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Michigan, they have lost six straight to the Wolverines overall and the past two in Ann Arbor (45-20 in 2001, 56-14 in 2003).

That is hardly an encouraging backdrop for a team seeking a spark, but you sense this Illinois team needs something special to happen in a place it rarely has.

To be fair, this isn't the same Michigan that manhandled the Illini so easily for so long. The Wolverines have struggled in first-year coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense, and even after last week's 27-25 upset of then-No. 9 Wisconsin, they are a work in progress.

That might mean something if Illinois wasn't searching to find itself as well, particularly on defense. The Illini's wins, 47-21 over Eastern Illinois and 20-17 over Louisiana-Lafayette, were unspectacular. Their losses, 52-42 to No. 4 Missouri and 38-24 to No. 6 Penn State, were troubling defensively.

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Laying a big egg in the Big House could send Illinois spiraling toward mediocrity a year after going 9-4 and to the Rose Bowl. The huge gains in Ron Zook's third season could begin to erode before the midway point of his fourth.

That makes Saturday's ABC-TV game pivotal for a program hoping to establish roots as a perennial Big Ten Conference contender.

The home team may be unranked and unsettled, but it is still Michigan and still Michigan Stadium. Winning there, before a crowd of 106,000-plus, is still a big deal if you want to become a Big Ten heavyweight.

Zook seems to appreciate the urgency, saying earlier this week: "We've got to get some things cleaned up … so we're going to play more people on defense."

Fourteen or 15 would be good, though the officials and the home folks may frown on it. The Illini likely must find another way to rekindle their 1990s magic.

Michigan had gone 23-1-1 against Illinois in a 25-game stretch prior to 1992, with the Illini's win (16-6 in 1983) and tie (3-3 in 1985) coming in Champaign. So as Illinois headed to Michigan Stadium in November 1992, it was a 27-point underdog to an 8-0-1 team ranked No. 3.

The Illini played the Wolverines to a 22-22 tie, with Bloomington's own Greg Engel, Illinois' junior center, hugging a startled official after the Illini scored a late touchdown.

The next year they rallied in the final minute for a 24-21 win, their first at Michigan Stadium since 1966. Not only was the team delirious, one veteran scribe was seen wiping away tears on the field afterward.

Talk about a watershed moment.

A win Saturday would not be nearly as emotional or unexpected. Yet, it would be Illinois' first at Ann Arbor since a 35-29 victory in 1999, and a potential springboard for a team which has played its way out of the top 25.

The Illini need a big win and a big lift. Maybe the Big House is where they need to be.

Randy Kindred is a Pantagraph columnist. To leave him a voice mail, call 820-3402. By e-mail: rkindred@pantagraph.com. The Randy Kindred Blog is at www.pantagraph.com/blogs

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