CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- For at least one day, Jason Verduzco made Illinois fans forget about Jeff George.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore, who became the starting quarterback more by default than by achievement, spearheaded a 63-yard scoring drive in the closing minutes Saturday to rally co-No. 17 Illinois to a 23-22 victory over No. 9 Colorado.
Verduzco finished the game with 23 completions in 29 attempts for 222 yards with two touchdowns.
'I never had a fair chance to come out and prove that I had the confidence to come back,' said Verduzco, who hit 23 of 29 passes on the day for 222 yards and two touchdowns. 'As a whole, I think I had a chance to do it today, and I think I did.'
Verduzco spent the 1989 season as a backup to George, who bypassed his senior season to turn professional and went to the Indianapolis Colts with the first pick of the NFL draft.
Howard Griffith scored the winning TD on a 1-yard plunge with 1:18 remaining, capping the 10-play drive that began at the Illinois 37 with 3:59 left. Verduzco completed all five passes on the drive for 48 yards.
'That last drive was as good as you can get,' Illinois Coach John Mackovic said. 'You can't ask him to do any more.'
Colorado, 1-1-1, which Coach Bill McCartney said was fortunate to enter the game without a loss after two lackluster performances, built a 17-3 lead in the second quarter on a 54-yard field goal by Jim Harper and a 32-yard touchdown pass from Darian Hagan to Michael Simmons.
The Illini, 1-1, scored just before halftime on an 8-yard pass from Verduzco to Elbert Turner, cutting the deficit to 17-10.
'As soon as they scored before the half, the whole game changed,' McCartney said.
Illinois tied the score 17-17 with 2:28 left in the third quarter when Shawn Wax made a one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown reception.
But Colorado punter Tom Rouen got off a 65-yard punt to bury the Illini inside their own 1-yard line late in the third quarter. Two plays later, linebacker Greg Biekert tackled Griffith in the end zone for a safety to give the Buffaloes 19-17 lead. Harper added a 26-yard field goal with 12:44 remaining and Colorado appeared in command 22-17.
Both teams punted twice, and Illinois starting its final drive at its own 37 with 3:59 remaining. On third-and-1 at the Illinois 46, Griffith ran for 9 yards to keep the Illini's hopes alive. Illinois later got a break when a Verduzco pass bounced off a Colorado defender to Griffith.
Finally, with first-and-goal at the 1, Griffith leaped over the left side for the winning touchdown. The attempt at a two-point conversion failed, but Illinois' defense held the final Colorado drive.
'I know they could do it. It was just a matter of whether we were going to let them or not,' Biekert said. 'They came right down on us and did what they had to do to win.'
Colorado's Eric Bieniemy rushed for 127 yards on 23 carries, moving into second place on the Buffaloes' all-time rushing list. Hagan hit only 6 of 16 passes for 95 yards and rushed for another 44 yards on 15 carries.
In the team's only other meeting, last Sept. 16 at Boulder, Colo., the Buffaloes destroyed the Illini 38-7. Before and after that game, the two schools exchanged verbal jabs.
Illinois accused Colorado of manufacturing a quote attributed to George. Mackovic later charged McCartney with inciting the home crowd so George had trouble calling signals and assured a sellout at Memorial Stadium for this year's rematch. There were 64,351 fans on hand for the rematch.
Illinois took a 3-0 lead on Doug Higgins' 29-yard field goal early in the first quarter, but Colorado followed with a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive to pull ahead 7-3, capped by George Hemingway's 2-yard TD run.
After Harper nailed his 54-yard field goal to start the second half, Colorado again received good position when Dave McCloughan returned a punt 42 yards to the Illinois 32. Hagan then hit a wide-open Simmons in the end zone on the first play for a 17-3 advantage.
Verduzco brought his team within 17-10 with a 71-yard, 13-play scoring drive just before halftime. He hooked up with Wax on a 17-yard pass to survive a fourth-and-15, then connected with Turner with 28 seconds left for the touchdown.