Former QB Kittner recalls classic Michigan battles



By Mike Theodore

Kurt Kittner last lined up behind center for the Illini six years ago, but he remembers his Michigan games like they were yesterday.

Perhaps this Saturday night the Orange and Blue can erase memories of the previous Michigan nighttime home game and rekindle memories of the Illini’s last victory against the Wolverines.

Kittner, a Schaumburg, Ill., native and the name synonymous with the last time Illinois saw success, finished his Illini career after the 2001 season in which the Illini won the Big Ten title and earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl against Louisiana State.

It was Kittner, two years earlier in his sophomore year, that led an unthinkable comeback against the ninth-ranked Wolverines in the Big House. The Illini would go on to win four of their final five games, including the Bowl – the school’s first postseason bowl appearance since 1994.


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Illinois entered the matchup 3-3 and losers of its last three. The Wolverines, led by future three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, came in as 24-point favorites, undefeated and atop the conference standings.

Michigan led 27-7 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter and that’s when Kittner helped turn around the game and season.

The Illini scored four straight second-half touchdowns, and when the dust settled Illinois had won 35-29.

“Going in there and winning that game kind of turned the corner for our team,” Kittner said. “It was very important for the development of us.”

Kittner finished the day 24-33 for 280 yards with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. Brady passed for 307 yards but threw two interceptions.

“It’s kind of crazy how things have developed since then,” Kittner said. “(Brady) has gone on to a great career.

“You see some of the careers people have made afterwards but at the time you’re not thinking about that.”

Unfortunately for Illini fans, the success of 1999 did not continue into the following season.

Illinois hosted Michigan for its Big Ten opener in front of a sold-out crowd, but two fumble calls wrongly went Michigan’s way and allowed the Wolverines to leave as 35-31 victors.

“The anticipation was great,” Kittner said. “We had not been used to having games that big at night. It was exciting.”

The Illini, in all-blue uniforms, led 31-21 in the fourth quarter but could not contain Michigan’s Anthony Thomas – who would go on to win Rookie of the Year for the Chicago Bears the following season.

With a three-point lead and three minutes remaining, Illini running back Rocky Harvey fumbled. Television replays showed he may have been down by contact before the fumble and that he recovered the ball before the pile-up occurred. The referees awarded Michigan the ball, and three plays later Thomas broke free for 17 yards near the sideline. But Illinois’ Bobby Jackson stripped the future NFL tailback on the Illini 3-yard line. Illinois recovered but Thomas was ruled down by contact and the Wolverines retained possession. Michigan scored on the following play.

The following Monday the Big Ten issued a statement and acknowledged the referees missed both fumble calls.

“(The statement) really didn’t do us any good,” Kittner said. “It’s kind of like kissing your sister. Uh sorry we screwed up – go ahead and go about with your season. It doesn’t really do anything but that might be part of the reason we have instant replay.”

Kittner finished with 352 yards through the air and two touchdowns, but it was not enough as Michigan topped Illinois 35-31.

“(The game) was probably my favorite home game behind the Penn State game (the next year),” he said. “It’s probably shocking when you tell some people that. The overall atmosphere was ridiculous.”

The Illini dropped five of their next seven contests and failed to reach a bowl, but Kittner doesn’t view the home loss as a momentum killer or a turning point.

“I don’t think that changed the season,” he said. “We just didn’t get it done that season for whatever reason.”

This season the Illini are in position to do what no Illinois team has done since 2002 – reach a bowl game. And the former captain is excited at the possibility.

“You see the potential there,” Kittner said. “You just hope as a fan and obviously a supporter that they keep working towards getting better every week and don’t get complacent with what they accomplished because they can accomplish so much more if they keep going in the right direction.”