Elliott keeps talking about pride, and the reason is that pride more than ever must carry Illinois this season. Big Ten rules do not permit Illinois to return to the Rose Bowl, even if Elliott can repeat, so the conference championship—or a national title—must be the incentive. While it is a truism of football that the hardest teams to coach are those dominated by seniors who have been winners—a perfect description of the Illinois line—Elliott appears unalarmed. "I'm just ignoring that," he says, and then, sounding more like a college president than a coach, he adds, "We may lose some games, but as long as the kids show me they're doing their best, I'll be pleased."
Some of Illinois' best was urgently required in its opening game against California two weeks ago. The Bears, rallying behind new Coach Ray Willsey and Quarterback Craig Morton, are no longer the whip dogs of the West Coast. Morton hurled them to a 21-16 upset over Missouri, and then trained his sights on the Illini. But Elliott's team was ready. Grabowski drilled out 114 yards, Custardo passed for two touchdowns, and Butkus was his usual brutish self. Illinois built a 20-6 lead, then held on to win, 20-14.
Illinois' frightening experience with Craig Morton paid a subtle dividend, however, for it prepared the secondary for another good thrower, Northwestern's Tom Myers. Last Saturday in Evanston the Illini intercepted four of Myers' passes. Two of them were taken by Butkus' superb linebacking partner, Don Hansen, as Elliott's team again followed Quarterback Custardo to victory, 17-6. The game was so close that Butkus had to be used on offense—to block for key first-down yardage and lead punt coverage—and he responded in All-America style.
Now that these grueling preliminaries are out of the way, Illinois is preparing to play what must essentially be its best game if Pete Elliott is to remain a genius. This Saturday's opponent: Ohio State. The season is still fresh, but the Big Ten showdown, or the first in a series of them, is scheduled at Champaign where the 71,119 seats have long been sold. Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes believes—or says he believes—that he has a defense and linebackers—Dwight Kelly and Tom Bugel—the equal of Dick Butkus. If the game is as wild as last year's in Columbus, both Hayes and Elliott will be worse insurance risks as a result. In that game Illinois got off to a 7-0 lead, but Ohio State went ahead 17-7 at the end of the third quarter. Two touchdowns put Illinois ahead again 20-17, but in the last frustrating two minutes, Ohio State's Dick Van Raaphorst kicked a 49-yard Held goal to earn a 20-20 tie and narrowly missed another from a whopping 57 yards. Van Raaphorst is gone, but Woody Hayes isn't—and Woody has never lost a game in Champaign.
Thus Pete Elliott, the man who surprisingly restored Illinois' football dignity to the days of Bob Zuppke and Ray Eliot—the only other coaches Illinois has had in more than 50 years—by coming from seasons of 0-9 and 2-8 to a 1963 championship, is faced with an equally stern challenge. He must defend that dignity against Illinois' oldest and bitterest opponent in this season's first game matching Big Ten giants. At least he has one thing on his side—Dick Butkus. Says Butkus in anticipation of the big game: "I guess I'd rather play those jokers than anybody. There's always as much hittin' as you want in that one."