They may not be used to celebrating such a lofty achievement at the University of Illinois, but everyone knew what to do.
The goal posts came down in seconds and Memorial Stadium turned into an orange sea of madness this afternoon after the ninth-ranked Fighting Illini beat No. 8 Michigan, 16-6, virtually clinching a berth in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten Conference champion. They were celebrating because a relatively unheralded defense stopped Michigan's vaunted rushing game and because sophomore quarterback Jack Trudeau overcame two lost fumbles with 271 passing yards and two touchdown throws.
Players clutched roses and fans popped the cork on champagne bottles following the most important football game to be played here in at least two decades. It has been precisely that long since Illinois last won the Big Ten, in 1963.
All Illinois (7-1 overall, 6-0 conference) must do to reach Pasadena is win two of its final three games. The opponents are Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern. Few were taking seriously Illinois Coach Mike White's admonition that the season isn't over yet. Even White was holding a rose.
White dubbed this "the day of the defense" for Illinois. In defeating Michigan, a perennial power that has been to the Rose Bowl seven times since 1970, Illinois limited a running game that began the game ranked fourth nationally. The Wolverines (6-2, 5-1) gained just 135 rushing yards, nearly 160 below their average, and failed to score a touchdown. Quarterback Steve Smith and conference rushing leader Rick Rogers, the two primary Wolverine rushers, did little.
"People underestimated us and overlooked us at the beginning of the year, but we knew we had a good defense," White said. "And we showed them today."
"Defense is the key," said Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, a loser to Illinois for the first time in 15 games. "They're good. The down guys are good and keep things from being moved in the middle, but the linebackers can run and stop the big play."
The Illini converted the big play just once, but it was enough. With Illinois clinging to a 7-6 lead just into the fourth quarter, Trudeau teamed with receiver David Williams for a 46-yard touchdown pass that made things rosier for the orange and blue.
Williams, who caught six passes for 127 yards, got underneath the coverage, took Trudeau's short pass over the middle and cut to the outside.
"After I caught the pass I saw one man in front of me. I just ran and gave it all I could," Williams said.
Trudeau, a sophomore who redshirted last year behind Tony Eason, completed 21 passes in 31 attempts for 271 yards and two touchdowns. His first scoring pass came with 1:50 left in the first half, a nine-yard play to fullback Thomas Rooks, completing a 12-play, 49-yard drive and putting Illinois ahead, 7-3.
Michigan was victimized by poor field position in the second half, starting drives at its 20, 7, 20, 2, and 11, largely due to the ineffectiveness of its punter, Don Bracken, and the success of Illinois punter Chris Sigourney.
"The defense being able to control the line of scrimmage and horrendous punting absolutely ruined our field position," Schembechler said.
Illinois demonstrated great composure late in the third quarter and failed to let the game turn the other way after Trudeau fumbled on the Michigan seven, wiping out an apparent touchdown drive. The Wolverines, still trailing by a point, could have seized the opportunity but failed to move the ball. And Trudeau, who had lost a fumble earlier, did not collapse.
"Jack Trudeau reacts unbelievably to adversity," White said. "He had a super day but the important thing was that when it looked like we'd self-destruct a couple of times, his poise and temperament got the job done.
"It was a great thing that when we fumbled down there we did not come apart," White said. "This team is mature."