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Remembering the 2001-2002 Fighting Illini



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The FiThe 2001 Illinois Fighting Illini finished the season 10-2.

The 2001 season was remarkable because of its humble beginnings and how much of an anomaly it was. Illinois fired Lou Tepper in 1997, and new head coach Ron Turner won three games in his first two years as head coach. Illinois won eight games in 1999 and just five games in 2000. In their defense, the Illini suffered significant injuries in 2000. Injuries cost Brandon Lloyd and Kurt Kittner much of that season. That made the comeback next season even sweeter.

Illinois began the season with three consecutive wins; however, they ran into a buzzsaw at the Big House. Their loss to the Wolverines would be their only loss of a season that was interrupted by the tragedy of 9/11. The season was not without its nail-bitters. The Illini would play one-possession games against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Northwestern. The season ended sourly against Nick Saban and the LSU Tigers, but the 2001 Illinois Fighting Illini is among the best teams in program history.

Significant Players:

Brandon Lloyd, WR: Lloyd led the Illini in receiving with 60 receptions and 1006 yards and eight touchdowns. Lloyd saved his best for the big games. Lloyd had eight catches for 129 yards against Wisconsin, 12 for 140 yards against Northwestern, and nine for 168 yards against Minnesota. His stellar season earned him All-Big Ten second-team honors.

Kurt Kittner, QB: Kittner’s 2001 cemented his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks in school history. Kittner would end his Illini career second all-time in yards and first all-time in touchdowns. This season, Kittner threw for 2994 yards and 23 touchdowns. Kittner’s best game would be against Wisconsin, throwing for 401 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Brandon Lloyd. The Shamburg native would be an All-Big Ten second-teamer as well.

Eugene Wilson, DB: 2001 was a banner year for Wilson. He was an All-Big Ten performer, finishing second in the conference in interceptions and leading the nation in passes defended. Wilson came up big against Northern Illinois with two interceptions and three against Penn State. Wilson’s impact was not only on defense but also on special teams. Wilson averaged 22 yards per punt return against Indiana and 22 yards per kick return against Ohio State.

Christian Morton, DB: Wilson was not the only ball-hawking defensive back for the Illini. Quarterback turned defensive back Christian Morton was not the defensive back to get picked on opposite Wilson. Morton, also like Wilson, was impactful on special teams as well. Morton was all over the field against Louisville with 67 kick and punt return yards, two interceptions, and one was returned for a touchdown. Lastly, he was instrumental in the Purdue game, returning an interception 62 yards for a touchdown.

Key Games:

9/8 v. NIU (W 17-12): There are always games in a season where you survive and burn the tape. For Illinois, it was their home opener against Northern Illinois. The Illini returned to Champaign after a dominant season-opening victory against the California Golden Bears. The Illini were efficient and effective against the Bears; the opposite was true against the Huskies. Bradon Lloyd, returning to action after a broken leg, had 126 yards receiving, and the Huskies missed two field goals in the first half and a two-point conversion late. Overall, the defense won the game for Illinois, allowing just 373 total yards and nine first downs.

10/20 v. Wisconsin (W 42-35): It was a tale of two halves as the Illini overcame a comeback attempt by the Wisconsin Badgers, winning 42-35 at Memorial Stadium. Quarterback Kurt Kittner had his best game of the season, throwing for 401 yards and four touchdowns in the win. Kitter also became Illinois’ all-time leader in touchdown passes in the game. Illinois had a 22-7 lead at the half and extended it to 25-7 in the third quarter. Then the Badgers outscored the Illini 21-3 to tie the game at 28 in the fourth quarter. After each team exchanged touchdowns, Kurt Kittner found Brandon Lloyd for the game-winning touchdown with 6:18 left in the fourth quarter.

The Purdue Cannon Game

11/3 @ Purdue (W 38-13): Looking at the box score would not indicate how this game started. Illinois dominated most of the game, but it took them a while to get going at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Boilermakers jumped out to a 13-0 lead, then the Illini defense buckled their chin straps and shut out Purdue the rest of the game while the offense scored 38 unanswered points. The victory marked Illinois’ first win in West Lafayette since 1993. Kurt Kittner redeemed himself after a disastrous 1998 performance, throwing 299 yards and two touchdowns. The game gave Illinois its first 7-1 start since 1989, and it was the first time both Purdue and Illinois came into the game ranked.

11/10 v. Penn State (W 33-28): The Illinois Fighting Illini had been doing their best Harry Houdini impersonation all season, and their game against Penn State was no different. The Nittany Lions led 21-7 at halftime when Illinois figured out there was a football game. The Illini scored 20 unanswered points to take a 27-21 lead in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions answered to take a 28-27 lead, but a 30-yard Brandon Lloyd reception set up the running game to do the rest. Rocky Harvey scored the go-ahead touchdown for the 33-28 win.

Though the season ended with a loss to the LSU Tigers, the 2001 Illinois Fighting Illini will be remembered as one of the great teams to play at Memorial Stadium.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.