After a dismal 6-6 campaign in 1999, Ohio State had started the 2000 season 5-0, beginning with a 43-10 thumping of Fresno State which featured a school-record four defensive touchdowns. After disposing of Arizona and Miami, the Bucks had handed Joe Paterno his worst loss ever as Penn State coach (45-6), then the following week gained revenge at Wisconsin 23-7, sparked by an 80-yard TD run with one shoe by tailback Derek Combs. OSU had moved up to #5 in the country but the next week Minnesota ruined Homecoming with a 29-17 upset, the Gophers’ first win in Columbus since 1949. After knocking off Iowa, it looked like the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl hopes were shot as they dropped a bitter 31-27 nailbiter to Purdue on the infamous Drew Brees/Seth Morales 64-yard touchdown pass with 1:55 to go. It took awhile for Ohio State to shake it off the next Saturday as they trailed Michigan State 13-3, but Mike Doss returned a fumble 73 yards for a score to ignite a come-from-behind 27-13 win. Heading into play on November 11 the Big Ten standings looked like this-
OSU needed a boatload of help to get back in the Big 10 title hunt, and by the time of their 4PM kickoff with Illinois, Iowa had knocked off Northwestern and Michigan State was well on their way to routing Purdue. Michigan had whipped Penn State so the Buckeyes needed a win to force a 4-way tie at 5-2 in the conference. To add more seasoning to the matchup, Illinois came in at 5-4 overall, looking for a sixth win to get bowl-eligible. The defending Big-10 champs had welcomed back QB Kurt Kittner and 9 other offensive starters from the title squad of 2001, but their young defense had struggled and the Illini were fighting for a postseason bid.
It appeared Illinois was going to pick right up where they left off in their 46-20 drubbing of OSU in ’99 as they took all of 1:35 to get on the board right at the outset. Runningback Rocky Harvey capped a quick 58-yard, 4-play drive with a 29-yard touchdown run and the Illini led 7-0. Later in the first an 18-yard Ken-Yon Rambo reception set the Bucks up at Illinois’ 4, but 2 carries by Jerry Westbrooks and an incompletion left them at the 2 and Dan Stultz got the visitors on the board with a 19-yard field goal.
Special teams helped the Buckeyes reduce the deficit. Vanness Provitt blocked an Illinois punt and Stultz finished the ensuing drive with a 41-yard field goal to narrow the margin to 7-6 just 18 seconds into the second period. Provitt would end up playing major minutes on offense as both of OSU’s starting receivers would be out of the contest by halftime- Rambo with a twisted knee (that would visibly hamper him against Michigan) and Reggie Germany with an ankle sprain. Illinois quickly fattened the lead to 14-6 as Antoineo Harris broke free for a 25-yard touchdown scamper. The drive took 1:58 and was aided by a pass-interference call on the Buckeyes on a 3rd-and-6 play.
The quick scoring drives continued at the end of the first half as Ohio State navigated 80 yards in 10 plays using only 1:48 on the clock. Steve Bellisari was 8 of 9 passing on the drive, including strikes of 11 and 16 to Jonathan Wells and a 28-yard hookup with Chad Cacchio. From the Illini 1 Bellisari found Darnell Sanders in the endzone to make it a 14-12 game with :23 left in the 2nd. The try for two was incomplete, so Illinois took the two-point lead to the locker room.
Our featured game last week (#24- Illinois ’68) told of a Buckeye unit whose defense was banged up and missing key pieces. This time around in Champaign it was the offense who was hobbling. Rambo and Germany were in street clothes for the second half, and two plays into the 3rd period tailback Derek Combs (who already had 65 yards on 18 carries) re-aggravated an ankle sprain he had acquired at Wisconsin after a white-hot start in that contest. The Bucks didn’t have Derek’s services at all in the Minnesota loss, but he had torched Michigan State for 153 yards in the previous game so this was a major blow. Jonathan Wells, whose claim to fame at this point was being caught from behind on a potential 82-yard TD run up at Michigan in ’99, now became the offensive focal point. And as OSU moved 75 yards in 10 plays to take their first lead of the game, Wells chipped in with a 24-yard run. Bellisari hooked up with Darnell Sanders on a 17-yard pass play to the Illini 4, then after the Bucks lost a few yards it was Bellisari-to-Sanders again for 7 yards and their 2nd touchdown of the game. Once more a two-point pass was incomplete but the Bucks now led 18-14.
Illinois QB Kurt Kittner guided the Orange and Blue down the field but after scrambling to the OSU 2-yard line and sliding he collided helmet-to-helmet with Mike Doss and was out cold. He would leave the field under his own power but was done for the day. Redshirt freshman Dustin Ward replaced Kittner and two plays into the fourth quarter he finished the 85-yard march with a one-yard scoring pass to runningback Jameel Cook. In the lopsided Illinois win in Columbus a year earlier Cook had snared 7 passes for 100 yards and a score as the Bucks continually failed to pick him up out of the backfield. Although this hookup from Ward was Cook’s only TD reception of 2000, it was enough to give his team a 21-18 lead.
Ohio State then set sail on its longest drive of 2000 in terms of time (8:12) and number of plays (19). Bellisari converted a 4th-and-1 situation with a 2-yard sneak to the Illinois 20, then hit Provitt on a slant for 15 to the Illini 5. After Wells powered for 4, Bellisari was stuffed on back-to-back sneaks so once more Dan Stultz trotted out. He delivered a 17-yard chipshot with 6:05 to go to knot the score at 21.
On Illinois’ next possession tailback Antoineo Harris (who had replaced the injured Rocky Harvey in this injury-plagued game) sprung loose for 18 to seemingly get the Illini jump-started, but three plays later on 3rd-and-7 Aaron Moorehead dropped a Ward pass and Illinois had to punt away. Nate Clements fielded the 44-yard boot at his own 13 and lost two yards on the return, so the Buckeyes were at their 11 with 3:40 to go.
Jonathan Wells, showing glimpses of what would be in store for OSU fans in 2001, burst up the middle for 15 on the first play of the series behind great blocks from center LeCharles Bentley and big fullback Jamar Martin. It was Wells for 5 and then again for 8 and a first down at the OSU 34. Bellisari then took off on a delayed QB draw with plenty of real estate in front of him but he slipped after gaining 3. A slant pass towards Vanness Provitt was incomplete and now it was 3rd-and-7 at the Buckeye 45. Bellisari dropped back and saw Wells circling out of the backfield. Jonathan stopped his route but Bellisari, thinking Wells would continue towards the middle of the field, threw ahead of him. Wells stuck out his right-hand and snagged the pass one-handed for a huge first down at Illinois’ 46.
Bellisari then drilled backup WR Tony Locke for 6 and took OSU’s first timeout with :53 seconds to go. With no one open on the next play, Bellisari scrambled right for 8 yards and another first down, getting out of bounds to stop the clock. Now from the Illini 32 the quarterback draw worked for 7 more and the Bucks took time with :27 seconds left. Wells motored for 4 and a first down at the 21, momentarily stopping the clock at :21. After a quick huddle, Wells gained what would turn out to be 4 critical yards, and with the pigskin at the Illinois 17 Bellisari called OSU’s final timeout.
Illini coach Ron Turner burned all 3 of his timeouts in an attempt to ice Dan Stultz. After the agonizing wait Stultz, out of Andy Groom’s hold, drilled a 34-yard field goal that just barely got inside the right upright. Time ran out and the Bucks had forged a 4-way tie for the Big Ten lead with a dramatic 24-21 victory.
Even with all the missing components on offense, the Buckeyes had churned out a season-high 474 yards, greatly aided by a 50% third-down conversion rate (9/18)- none bigger than Jonathan Wells’ miraculous one-handed catch on the winning drive. Jonathan’s 27 carries and 131 yards were career-highs at that point, with 25 of the totes and 119 of the yards coming in the second half alone. Defensively, linebacker Matt Wilhelm would be named Big 10 Defensive Player of the Week for a 12-tackle performance including 2 TFL’s and a sack.
The win was OSU’s first win on the last play of the game since the 1947 Northwestern game when the Bucks prevailed 7-6 on a PAT kick FOUR plays after time had expired. As the excitable Dan Stultz said afterwards, “(The winning kick) wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t right down the middle, but it was three and that’s the game, fellas”…