Dec. 31, 1994 - Attendance: 33,280
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Somebody dubbed them "Thrillinois" because of the excitement they create on the football field.
That name fit perfectly because Illinois provided all the thrills and chills with a 30-0 domination of East Carolina in the St. Jude Liberty Bowl.
Quarterback Johnny Johnson had said his team would be ready, and he wasn't kidding. He threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns to stroll away with the MVP trophy.
And the Fighting Illini's heralded defense lived up to its No. 9 ranking, creating five turnovers that translated into 24 points. It was a flat-out skunking, a rarity for ECU's proud and explosive offense. "I'm very stunned," said leading receiver Jason Nichols, one of many Pirates walking around in a postgame daze.
"I thought we would score," said linebacker Mark Libiano. "But it was a total team loss. They came out on fire."
Illinois coach Lou Tepper said he was also shocked his team could hold ECU scoreless. And Pirates' boss Steve Logan was apologetic to about 12,000 fans who had traveled so far only to see so little.
"We missed on some early opportunities to make it competitive," Logan said. "It's the only game we haven't been competitive in. But all the mistakes we made were due to the pressure they put on us. That team played great."
The Pirates (7-5) had come seeking more prestige, a final top 25 ranking and extra glitz to take into next season. They got none of that. Instead, the Bucs just got a load of big, strong, bully boy Illinois, which took a 24-0 lead and virtually all the suspense out of the game by intermission.
When Johnson wasn't directing the offense, the Dana Howard/Simeon Rice-propelled defense was creating havoc. It forced Marcus Crandell into an uncharacteristic four interceptions. And, it jumped all over Junior Smith, holding ECU's career rushing leader to 46 yards on 15 carries.
Before the game, some people wondered if this Illini team could get excited about playing in the Liberty Bowl. The tone was set early. The Big Ten team recovered an ECU fumble at the Illini 32 and struck for a quick six. Johnson hit Ken Dilger, who made a snazzy catch, on a 17-yard TD across the middle.
Then, with 10 seconds left in the first quarter, Jasper Strong turned a Johnson pass into a 73-yard score with the help of two downfield blocks by Dilger and Jim Klein. Logan saw that as a back-breaker.
But perhaps the play that dashed the Pirates' hopes more than any other came early in the second quarter. Down 14-0, Crandell lofted a pass to Allen Williams running a fade route in the end zone. Williams and Robert Crumpton went up for the ball--and Crumpton came down with it, wresting it away from the Pirate receiver.
"We just didn't get anything going after that," said Crandell, who completed 20 of 41 passes for 179 yards. "It was a tough day. They got us out of our game."
Howard, the Butkus Award-winning linebacker, intended to make it just that way for ECU, saying the Illini's goal was a shutout. And, on offense, Johnson kept the Pirates off balance mixing the run and pass.
By the day's end, Johnson also had hit Jason Dulick and Ty Douthard on short scoring passes.
"We're not just a defensive team, we're a quality team," Tepper said. "We had a sharp day." The Illini (7-5) did.
UI - Dilger 17 pass from Johnson (Richardson kick)
UI - Strong 73 pass from Johnson (Richardson kick)
UI - FG Richardson 21
UI - Dulick 5 pass from Johnson (Richardson kick)
UI - Douthard 9 pass from Johnson (kick failed)
Rushing: UI - Douthard 13-52, Holcombe 12-46. ECU - Smith 15-46, McPhail 4-38.
Passing: UI - Johnson 18-30-0, 250. ECU - Crandell 20-41-4, 179.
Receiving: UI - Dilger 7-60, Strong 3-96, Dulick 3-30. ECU - Nichols 6-55, Richards 4-25, Williams 3-33.