The last time Illinois played in Soldier Field

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Since the Illini have announced they will play the Washington Huskies at Soldier Field on Sept. 14, 2013, here”s what I wrote the last time Illinois played in the home of the Bears, on Sept. 1, 1994.

I remember it well for a number of reasons. . .it was my first game on the Illinois football beat. . . Simeon Rice had an amazing five sacks, but the Illini lost a heartbreaker. . . and a disappointing turnout caused athletic director Ron Guenther to rethink his plans to play more games in Chicago.

I applaud new AD Mike Thomas’ plan to try more games in Chicago. But fans will be the ones who determine whether that’s more successful this time around.

Here’s my game story and notebook from the Sept. 2, 1994, editions of the Sun-Times. . .

By Herb Gould

New season. New location. Same old story.

Illinois, which vowed that it had

learned, didn’t get its acttogether when it counted most.

Trying to impress Chicago – and especially a crowd

of 39,472 with a rare visit to Soldier Field – the Fighting Illini instead tripped

on their own mistakes Thursday, not to mention an impressive Washington State defense.

The result was a 10-9 Washington State

victory in the season opener for both teams. The only touchdown was a 71-yard run with a fumble recovery by

Washington State‘s burly linebacker, Mark Fields.

Typical of Illinois‘

frustration, quarterback Johnny Johnson, who had coughed up the ball, couldn’t

catch Fields even though Johnson had a good angle on the Cougar defender.

“It’s a disappointing loss. Our players are

devastated,” said Illinois coach

Lou Tepper, whose squad had been determined not to repeat last year’s 0-3

nonconference start. “It’s going to take a heck of a job by our coaches and

players to come back. It remains to be seen whether we have the work habits and

unity to do that. This was one they expected to win.”

The defeat marred a spectacular five-sack, one-blocked-field-goal

performance by Simeon Rice, the outside linebacker from Mount Carmel.

“This loss is worse than any loss I’ve had at Illinois because it’s here in Chicago,”

said Rice, whose 22 career sacks put him

one behind Scott Davis, Illinois‘

all-time leader. “The sacks, not giving up a touchdown on defense, that means

nothing. We lost. It’s a team game.

“It’s very frustrating. We put our hearts on the

line. But mental errors really hurt. This loss could be good for us. Now we know

what kind of maturity we have to show.”

Even winning ugly probably wouldn’t have dazzled Illinois‘ sophisticated Chicago-area

alumni.

And that basically put the Illini behind the

eight-ball before the kickoff. Because the Cougars, who were second in the

nation against the run last season, are a quick, blitzing defense that’s capable

of putting the clamps on the best of teams.

“It feels good, coming all the way from Pullman,

Wash., and winning here,” said Fields, a 6-2, 238-pounder whose run gave the Cougars a 10-3 lead with 15 seconds left in the

half. “We were excited to be in Chicago. But we came here to do a job, too.”

Scott Richardson’s three field goals kept Illinois in the game until the final

seconds. Richardson yielded to strong-legged freshman Bret Scheuplein, who came

up short on a 57-yard attempt as time expired.

The statistics that told the story were four lost

fumbles by Illinois, and five

net yards rushing on 29 attempts. A 12-yard run by freshman Robert Holcombe,

who showed good promise, merely demonstrated how effectively Washington State‘s defense throttled the Illinois offense.

Asked about the absence of first-string running back

Ty Douthard sidelined by a pulled hamstring, Tepper said, “Ty would have given

us a more physical runner and would have helped for protection on the blitzes.”

But taking care of the ball, particularly by

Johnson, would have helped a lot

more. On both of Johnson’s fumbles, especially the one that Fields picked up,

Johnson still was straining to get something done when the smart play would

have been to protect the ball.

The Illini suffered a setback early in the first

quarter when All-Big Ten inside linebacker John Holecek sprained an ankle.

Holecek did not return and was listed as questionable for the Illini’s Sept. 10 game against Missouri in Champaign.

But the linebacker-rich Illini got an impressive

performance from freshman David James, who stepped in for Holecek and played

well alongside fellow East St. Louis product Dana Howard.

As promised, Tepper played backup quarterback Scott

Weaver for one series. With Illinois

trailing 10-9 midway through the third quarter, Weaver passed for one first

down, before Illinois bogged down.

Now, they’ll just have to see if they can regroup.

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ILLINI NOTEBOOK

By Herb Gould

Pronouncing

Illinois’ trip to Soldier Field to play Washington

State

Thursday night an unqualified success, Illinois athletic

director

Ron Guenther said, “We’re committed to bringing a game back

within

three or four years. I’d like every class to play a game in

Chicago.”

Though

the attendance of 39,472 was not very high for a school

that

averaged 51,000 in Champaign last season, its lowest total in 12

years,

Guenther said that didn’t disappoint him.

“I

think we have talked too much about attendance,” Guenther

said. “That

wasn’t the point of this game. This was a stepping-off

point.

We’re saying to Chicago, ‘We want to be a part of it. We’re

coming

back.’ This was an investment in the future.”

NO HAIL

TO THE CHIEF: Not everybody loves Chief Illiniwek.

Native

American sympathizers protested Illinois’ use of the Indian

motif

outside Soldier Field Thursday night.

“Native

people are not mascots,” one banner announced.

“Support

U of I athletics. Denounce U of I racism,” another

said.

A woman

with a bullhorn led chants by a small group of

protesters,

who said, “Stop racism. Dump Chief Illiniwek.”

Some

orange-and-blue clad fans booed the demonstration. Others

laughed

derisively.

“Shut

up. Shut up. Shut up,” one man in orange-and-blue said,

provoking

more disdain from Illini fans.

Asked if

he had seen the protesters, Guenther said, “Didn’t have

to. I

see them all the time. I can go on the Quad and see them

Tuesday.

But that’s all right. That’s their right. This comes up from

time to

time. It’s part of the culture.”

CHICAGO

CONNECTION: Thursday’s game was the first in the city

for

Illinois since the University of Chicago dropped out of the Big

Ten in

1939. The Illini won their last eight games against U. of C.,

including

a 46-0 thumping in ’39.

Illinois

played its first- Big Ten game against U. of C. in

1896.

The Maroons won 12-0.

The

Fighting Illini also played the legendary Carlisle Indians

twice

in Chicago, including an 1897 contest at the Chicago Coliseum

that

was Illinois’ first indoor game, and its first at night.

RIVALRY:

Wisconsin running back Terrell Fletcher, who’s from

suburban

St. Louis, has been looking forward to the first meeting

between

his high school, Hazelwood East, and Illini linebacker Dana

Howard’s

alma mater, East St. Louis, on Sept. 10.

The two

football powers, separated by the Mississippi River, had

never

met because of a variety of concerns, including security at

what

figures to be an intense game.

“You

tell Dana Hazelwood’s going to kill East St. Louis,”

Fletcher

said with a grin when he chatted with Chicago reporters

during

training

camp

last month.

Informed

of Fletcher’s bragging, Howard said, “We’ll see about

that.”

No

stakes have been set beyond bragging rights. But Howard

figures

to be giving or hearing plenty of smart talk when he meets

Fletcher

in the Illinois-Wisconsin season finale, to be played Nov.

19 in

Madison.

COUGAR

COMEBACK: Linebacker Payam Saadat didn’t make Washington

State’s

two-deep depth chart. But the senior from Santa Monica,

Calif.,

was just glad to be back in shoulder pads after a tragic,

bizarre

accident.

In the

spring of 1993, Saadat and a teammate constructed a pipe

bomb

just to see if they could do it. Trouble was, the detonating

wires

touched and the bomb exploded while they were transporting it

to a

field to detonate it. The teammate was killed and Saadat lost

his

left hand and suffered injuries to his leg.

Undeterred,

he worked himself back into football condition and

dressed

for Thursday night’s game.

FROSH

FACES: Six Illinois freshmen made the trip to Chicago, but

coach

Lou Tepper was only planning to use two. Running back Robert

Holcombe

was scheduled to be used in the backfield and on punt

returns,

and Bret Scheuplein is the No. 1 kickoff man and backup

punter.

Also dressing were offensive guard Ryan Schau, running back

George

McDonald and defensive backs Trevor Starghill and Steve

Willis.

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