Minnesota was peaking and Illinois was fading fast. By the end of the 1941 season Minnesota would win its 6th national title while Illinois would be looking for its first coach in almost 3 decades.But on October 11th 1941 when the two teams lined up that future was a little less obvious.
The two teams had not played each other since 1924. Why? I spent the better part of a few hours trying to figure out how two teams from the same conference could go that long without meeting. With 6 Big Ten games per season and 8 or 9 other conference teams (8 after Chicago dropped football after 1939) it seems like it could hardly be a coincidence the two missed each other for 17 years.
Minnesota may have been a 3 touchdown favorite coming into the 1941 tilt but you wouldn’t know it from the press. All anyone wanted to write about was the history of upsets between the two teams.
Starting with 1924 when the Gophers bottled up Red Grange and ruined an Illini Big Ten and possible national championship. Minnesota was just a .500 team that year and Red Grange was already being hailed as the best that ever was. The 20-7 loss in 1924 was Illinois’ only L that year and Minnesota knocked Red Grange out of the game early with a shoulder injury.
Partly because of Bob Zuppke’s longevity the sports scribes spilled a lot of ink in 1941 writing about what could have been in 1916. It was Bob’s third year at the helm At the halfway point in the season the Gophers had outscored their opponents 236 - 14, including a wonderful 67-0 stomping of Iowa the week before the Illinois game. The team seemed unstoppable with All-American Bert Baston, and Pudge Wyman (coincidentally Bert and the rest of the 1916 team would become renowned for their WWI fame). But then came the tricky pass happy Illini. A 9-14 loss on November 4, 1916 would be the only blemish on an otherwise dominant season. The Gophers would finished the season blowing out Wisconsin (54-0) and Chicago (49-0), but for decades afterwards everyone lamented the one 1916 loss.
Back to 1941. The Gophers had won 10 straight games coming into the Illini match up. I think the Gopher yearbook describes the beginning of the game nicely.
“Will Zuppke spring another upset?” was the question everyone was asking as the fighting Illini came to Minneapolis for the season’s first home game. Their answer came quickly, fortny-nine seconds after the opening kick-off when Bill Daley burst off left guard and sped 73 yards to a touchdown stunning the Illini and amazing 50,000 spectators.
The game ended 34-6, the teams 11 consecutive win dating back two years. Afterwards the AP would rank the Gophers #1, a spot they wouldn’t lose for the remained of the season.
I got into this because of the photo we have in our collection and then was intrigued on the long gap between 1924 and 1941. I still have no idea why the two teams took such a long hiatus. But it makes me wonder if there are other gaps between Minnesota and other Big Ten teams, and how the conference used to schedule games. If I ever figure it out, I’ll blog about it.