November is the time of year when the leaves change from green to vibrant reds and oranges. It's also the time of year when college football teams meet up and battle against longtime rivals for trophies that are just as colorful.
And one of the country’s longest running rivalries takes place between two schools separated by just 17 miles on Route 34 in west central Illinois. The Knox College Prairie Fire and Monmouth College Fighting Scots have been playing each other on the gridiron since 1888.
Coming into this season, the schools had played each other 126 times, with Monmouth holding a 66-50-10 edge. And the series has been all Monmouth as of late; the Fighting Scots had won 16 straight in the series beginning in 1999.
“We try and keep it in our trophy room, and we try to keep it where we keep the dust on it. To try and kind of put a little more magnitude to how well we’ve performed over those years,” said Brian Johnson, a senior defensive end for Monmouth.
The item that Johnson is referring to is the Bronze Turkey, the prize of the winner of the annual Knox-Monmouth game.
The Bronze Turkey was introduced to the series in 1928. Former Knox College player and Galesburg Register-Mail reporter Bill Collins convinced the editor of his newspaper and the editor of the Monmouth Review-Atlas to pay $40 each for the creation of the trophy. A turkey was chosen because the game used to be played on Thanksgiving Day.
Johnson said even though Monmouth has held onto the Bronze Turkey for the past 16 years, the Fighting Scots still consider the game a huge battle. He said it would put a huge exclamation point on his college career to win the Bronze Turkey in all four years at Monmouth.
In Galesburg, even with the series lopsided in recent years, Knox College senior wide receiver Ilir Emini said the fire to beat their rivals is still intense.
“Alumni actually call and be like “You can be 0-9 coming into this game. As long as you win this game, you’ll win the Super Bowl.” So I mean it’s a pretty big deal around here,” Emini said.
Emini emerged as one of the team’s stars this year, mostly due to becoming an Internet sensation with a circus catch against Lawrence University. On the play, Emini just missed catching the pass from quarterback Matt McCaffrey, but was able to kick the ball up in the air and catch it on the deflection while on his back. The play earned a spot for Emini on ESPN’s Sportscenter, which he didn’t expect.
“Everyone on my team was telling me to post it because they thought it could get on Sportscenter’s Top 10. And so I just posted it one day. The next day, I ended up on Sportscenter, so it was a pretty cool experience,” Emini said.
Emini said the one thing that would top his air time on ESPN would be to win his final game at the Knosher Bowl over Monmouth to claim the Bronze Turkey.
Game day was a sunny but chilly and windy Saturday afternoon on the campus of Knox College, where the 127th edition of the Bronze Turkey Game would take place. The visitor’s sideline was filled with red and white clad fans of the Monmouth Fighting Scots, and purple and gold for the home Prairie Fire.
Monmouth won the toss, but deferred to the second half, giving Knox the game’s first possession. The Prairie Fire moved the ball down the field and were in position to strike with the game’s first score. But penalties in Fighting Scot territory stalled the drive, and a turnover on downs left Knox empty-handed.
Monmouth used big plays on its opening drive. It started with an 11-yard run. A third down conversion kept the drive alive. And a 45-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Matlick to Adam Parr opened the scoring.
Knox fought right back, with Emini taking the kickoff 93 yards down his sideline before being tackled at the Monmouth 2. It took three plays, but quarterback Matt McCaffrey eventually ran the ball in to help the Prairie Fire tie the game.
After a tight first quarter, it was all Monmouth. The Fighting Scots took a 21-7 lead at the half. The lead was stretched to 42-7 after three quarters and the game ended with Monmouth on top, 49-7.
Monmouth head coach Chad Braun picked up the win in his first year leading the Fighting Scots, keeping the Bronze Turkey in Warren County for a 17th straight year. But he’s been with the team since 2000, serving as defensive coordinator prior to taking the helm.
Braun said beating Knox never gets old.
“It’s a great feeling, proud of our guys, glad they get to enjoy it, and it’s fun for those guys.”