If someone had come up to you in August and guaranteed that the winner of "THE Game" would claim an outright Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl, would you have accepted that challenge on the spot?
It’s a double-edged sword- Buckeye Nation wants to compete for the national title every year, but when things don’t break the Buckeyes way- as they apparently won’t now- why does having to "settle" for a Big Ten ring and spending New Years in Pasadena seem like a meaningless consolation prize?
I’ll be honest- Because once your heart is set on that crystal football, you don’t want to give it up. And should Jim Tressel get the best of LLLLLloyd again on Saturday, the Tournament of Roses might be facing the prospect of their Big Ten representative feeling like they should be somewhere else.
The perfect season is over. For the second time in their history, Illinois knocked off a #1-ranked Ohio State team, riding the arm and legs of "Juice" Williams to a 28-21 upset in Ohio Stadium. In essence, for the second time in a year, a group of Ron Zook’s players toppled OSU from the penthouse. Out the window goes a 28-game regular season Buckeye win streak (a school record), and a Big Ten record 20 league wins in a row.
One of the more eventful quarters of football you’ll ever see began with Illinois corner Vontae Davis letting Brian Hartline past him, expecting safety help. Problem was the safety wasn’t there and Todd Boeckman connected easily with Hartline for 65 yards to the Illini 11. From there, Chris Wells took a handoff to the right, and just as he done so successfully against Wisconsin last week, cut the play back against the grain. C-Dub ran into end Doug Pilcher, who was locked up with Jake Ballard, but bounced off and got around the left side for six. The echoes from the National Anthem
hadn’t even faded and the Buckeyes had a fast 7-0 lead.
Illinois answered right back even though it never, ever should have happened. Daniel Dufrene popped through the right side on second down and sped downfield. Donald Washington had the last shot to get him and gave Dufrene a shove. As the sophomore runningback was tumbling to the turf, the ball came free and Kurt Coleman fell on it in the endzone. The officials on the field can’t completely be blamed for thinking the ground caused the fumble, but the replay officials upstairs absolutely, positively blew it. ABC showed a replay and there was no question at all that it should be a touchback. The Columbus Dispatch reported that the Ohio State coaches up in the pressbox do not have monitors in their booth, but either they or some other member of the staff needs to get one and get it fast. Jim Tressel could have been alerted to challenge the call, and don’t think for a second that the tide of the game wouldn’t have changed dramatically. You can’t wait around thinking that the replay officials are going to stop action. The idiot officials upstairs blew it and the Big Ten needs to do something about it. Meanwhile, Illinois would take full advantage of the situation.
"Juice" Williams bobbled the next snap, but got the handle, faked and rolled right. Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui (yes, my spell check just went bananas) was all alone in the endzone thanks to a blown coverage and Williams found him for an easy 3-yard scoring flip to even the count with the game just over a minute old.
Ohio State would counterpunch behind the feet of Todd Boeckman. After sneaking for one first down, Todd escaped on a 3rd-and-7 for 23 yards to the Illinois 39. Hanging in the pocket until the last second on the next snap, the junior signal-caller hit Jake Ballard on a crossing route for 22 more to the Illini 17. Mo Wells, who had come into the game when Chris Wells left with an injured wrist, lost 2 on a draw. But the Bucks went right back to him on a pitch to the right. Getting great blocks from Jim Cordle and Ben Person on the pull and Ray Small downfield, Mo raced right by safety Kevin Mitchell and took it to the house. With 9:37 still to go in the opening period, it was already 14-7, OSU.
Larry Grant helped stamp out Illinois’ ensuing drive with a sack of Williams, and the Buckeyes’ next march began promisingly with a 15-yard snag by Hartline, but Boeckman tried to float a terrible throw to the Canton sophomore three plays later only to have it picked off by corner Dere Hicks. Williams made a huge 14-yard hookup with Kyle Hudson on 3rd-and-12 to move the sticks, and then continuing in hurry-up mode, "Juice" gained another first down on an option keeper. On 2nd-and-11 from the OSU 33, Jacob Willis got inside position on Chimdi Chekwa and Williams lobbed a rainbow that Willis latched onto before stretching into the endzone. Willis’ dad, Lenny, was a split end for Woody Hayes and is the only player in Scarlet and Gray annals to return 2 kickoffs for touchdowns in the same season (1974). Now Jacob had returned to Dad’s old haunt and knotted the count at 14 apiece, which is where things stood after one quarter.
The Buckeyes squandered a golden opportunity early in the second period. Taking over at their own 48 after Anthony Santella shanked a 26-yard punt, the offense pounded out a first down, then Todd Boeckman badly overthrew Jake Ballard down the middle. Those of you that saw it in person or on TV will concur- Ballard will never be more open the rest of his life as he was on that play. The march stalled with a double whammy from tight end Rory Nicol- his false start was followed by a sack of Boeckman as Jerry Brown toasted Nicol off the edge.
The Illini had one final shot before the half, and unlike OSU, they took advantage of great field position from their 48. Rashard Mendenhall became Illinois’ all-time single season rushing leader with a 5-yard stab on first down, but two plays later the Orange and Blue faced a 4th-and-1 at the Ohio State 43. Mendenhall got the call and not only got the first, but shook free from James Laurinaitis and ate up 25 yards down to the Buckeye 18. Freshman wideout “Rejus” Benn’s 7-yard reception set up a first-and-goal at the 7, and after a loss of a yard, Illinois came out with three receivers to the left. All three crossed over to the right while Brian Gamble worked his way from the right wing into the endzone. Doug Worthington joined the other 105,000-plus souls in watching the game as Gamble got behind Worthington and easily snared “Juice” Williams’ toss. Illinois took the 21-14 in at the half- OSU’s first halftime deficit since the Washington game.
The Illini went three-and-out to open the second half, and with a nifty 15-yard punt return from Ray Small- actually running north-to-south for once- the Bucks cranked it up from the Illinois 43. J Leman continued his stellar day by dropping Chris Wells for a yard loss, but Todd Boeckman came right back with a 10-yard strike to Brian Robiskie, bringing up 3rd-and-1. C-Dub not only failed to get the first down, but he limped off as well. Mo Wells was called on to get the critical first down and he fought for the needed yard. After an incompletion, Boeckman found Small for 9, and once again it was 3rd-and-short as nothing seemed to be coming easy for the Scarlet and Gray. Things looked even more bleak as Kirk Barton was whistled for a false start, pushing the Buckeyes back 5, but Boeckman coolly dialed up Dane Sanzenbacher for 8 and another first down. After a Boeckman keeper for 2, Mo Wells cut through for 5 and came back on a pitch for 5 more, gaining a first-and-goal at the 9 before he too limped off. Chris Wells re-entered and hammered for 1. A swing pass to Brian Hartline lost a yard, as Jim Cordle was nowhere close to getting out to block Leman. On third down, Boeckman danced around the pocket, then set up and fired for Small in the endzone. Corner Marcus Thomas streaked in to tip the ball up and Antonio Steele pulled it in for a backbreaking interception.
Ohio State needed a turnover of their own, but Chimdi Chekwa couldn’t haul in an overthrown "Juice" Williams pass leading off the ensuing possession. Daniel Dufrene got loose for 12, then 4 straight runs by Williams worked the ball out to midfield as the Buckeye linebackers continually were a step or two late trying to catch up. Having lulled the "D" with the ground tactics, Williams took to the skies and connected with Brian Gamble for 15 yards and a first down at the OSU 36. Mendenhall bulled for 5, then Illinois came out with three-wide to the right. The defensive back covering the inside man -Marques Wilkins- let him go thinking he had help, but Malcolm Jenkins, the safety in the nickel package, had come up closer to the line of scrimmage to keep an eye on Mendenhall. The middle was so open that ABC analyst Bob Griese said “Down the middle!” before Williams had even released the pass. OSU paid dearly for the breakdown as Wilkins pulled in a ridiculously easy lob from Williams for a 31-yard score and a 28-14 Illini lead. Ohio State was now in a 14-point hole for the first time all year, and "Juice" Williams had struck for four touchdown passes to four different guys, the first quarterback to throw four TD’s against OSU since Philip Rivers had a quartet of scoring tosses in NC State’s 44-38 triple-overtime loss in Columbus in 2003.
To Ohio State’s credit, they came roaring back. Todd Boeckman found no one open on first down but escaped up the west sideline for 35 yards to get the ‘Shoe revived. Passes to Tyler Whaley and Robiskie were good for 9, and yet again it was 3rd-and-1. It was starting to feel like a Michigan game where every yard is contested and as Ringo said, "It don’t come easy". Jim Tressel tried to spring a pass to Rory Nicol that had worked for a score to Jake Ballard at Penn State, but typical of how their days were going, Boeckman’s throw was behind Nicol and then Rory got his hands on the ball but dropped it. Tressel didn’t hesitate and called on Chris Wells on fourth
down, and C-Dub responded with a 3-yard pop for the first down. Sticking with a good thing, Wells carried for 5 and 7, and then behind great blocks from Tyler Whaley and Steve Rehring, Chris burst through the right side for a 17-yard jaunt to paydirt, narrowing the Illini lead to 28-21 as the Bucks capped off their third 76-yard scoring drive of the afternoon.
As the game moved to the fourth quarter, the capacity house urged the defense to come up with a stop. Two totes by Rashard Mendenhall netted 8 yards, and the bells tolled on the banks of the Olentangy. Chimdi Chekwa came on a corner blitz but slid right by Mendenhall as he gashed the "D" for 4 and a fresh set of downs. The junior runningback could only muster a yard on a first down option pitch, which ended with a scene I’m sick and tired of seeing- Kurt Coleman running his mouth at someone. Kurt, take a piece of advice, especially in a game you’re losing in the fourth quarter- We all can see that you made the play, so make the hit, keep your big mouth shut and play with some class.
After a 6-yard burst by Mendenhall, Illinois again faced 3rd-and-short. It was déjà vu all over again as Chekwa blitzed and completely whiffed on "Juice" Williams as he forged ahead for 5 yards. Daniel Dufrene got in on the act, dragging Marcus Freeman for 6 and moving the sticks with a 5-yard jaunt into Buckeye territory. Following a 3-yard carry from Dufrene and an incompletion, it looked as if Marques Wilkins was close to the marker with a catch, but the Illini were called for their only- repeat, only- penalty of the day. The long-overdue holding flag scrambled the march, and Ohio State took over at their own 18 following Santella’s punt. 9:23 remained on the clock and for the first time in a long while, the Buckeyes were facing real fourth quarter adversity. In fact, I would argue you’d have to go back to Ann Arbor in 2005 to find the last time the Bucks were in a similar position. Yes, I know the TBGUN and Illinois games came down to onside kicks last season, but OSU had leads in both and recovered both kicks. And by the fourth quarter in Glendale this past January, that game was over and done with. So really, for the first time in almost two years, Buckeye Nation’s blood pressure was off the charts.
Todd Boeckman gave his club a ray of hope with another effective scramble, this time for 16 yards, but the party ended on the next snap. OSU finally paid the ultimate price for Boeckman’s penchant to underthrow the deep ball as Marcus Thomas leaped to intercept an ill-advised throw for Brian Robiskie at the Illini 24. As ABC returned from a commercial break, Brad Nessler sounded the death knell-
“Illinois, even though they didn’t score on their last drive, chewed up 5 minutes. They’d like to chew up about 8:09 right here..."
Just as the Buckeyes had seemingly done time and time again, Illinois ran two plays and picked up 9 yards to begin the drive. Rashard Mendenhall was stopped on 3rd-and-1, and a measurement showed him to be an inch short. With the ball at his own 34, Ron Zook elected to kick it away and sent out his punt team. But lo and behold, over on the west sideline there was utter confusion. Guys were running in and out and Jim Tressel, not wanting to get penalized for too many men on the field, called a timeout, a decision he would rue moments later. "Juice" Williams spent the timeout convincing Ron Zook he could get the first down, and with Ohio State’s linebackers basically lining up in the South Stands, Williams bulled his way for a yard and one of the biggest first downs in Illinois history. No one knows whether OSU would have gone down and scored had Illinois punted, but the fact remains that they were lined up to do just that. The timeout was a colossal blunder, and it might bode those responsible for the punt unit well to emphatically emphasize who needs to be on the field the next time this situation arises.
Moments later, the Illini were looking at 3rd-and-7 from their own 38. Williams faked to Mendenhall, and with both Freeman and Laurinaitis getting blocked on a well-designed play, "Juice" darted right up the middle for 12 yards to midfield, burying the dagger even deeper. Then, in a sick moment of instant replay, Williams took off on a 3rd-and-10 quarterback draw two plays later and split the linebackers for another dozen yards. The Buckeyes had one final shot with Illinois facing a 3rd-and-2 at the OSU 30. Marcus Freeman blitzed, but Williams froze him with a juke and stumbled forward for 3 yards to pull the plug. The last remnants of the 8:09 on the clock at the drive’s outset ticked away, and Illinois celebrated a 28-21 upset of the #1 team in the land. To make matters worse, pushing and shoving broke out at midfield for several seconds before order was restored. Ohio State’s 18-game ‘Shoe win streak, dating back to the ’05 Texas loss, was history and with TBGUN losing to Wisconsin, the combatants in “THE Game” would both come in with a loss for the first time since 1959.
Hate to say it, folks, but the defensive performance in this game was all too similar to the debacle in the desert in January. I thought Jim Heacock had tossed that gameplan out, but evidently it was dusted off for an encore. Should the Buckeyes make it to the Rose Bowl, you may want to root for
Oregon to end up in New Orleans. The Ducks run the same type of offense as Illinois, and "Juice" Williams isn’t any Dennis Dixon.
Illinois returns to Champaign this Saturday to host Northwestern in their traditional season-ender, with a win ensuring the Illini a tie for second place in the conference and their first bowl trip since the 2001 Big Ten title season.
RANDOM THOUGHTS- Illinois’ win last Saturday gives them 8 for the season- the same amount of games they won from 2003 through 2006... The Buckeyes look to tie a school record by claiming a fourth consecutive victory over TBGUN. Francis Schmidt’s first four teams (1934-1937) all handed the Wolves shutout losses, while Woody Hayes cleaned up during the Kennedy administration (1960-1963) ... An OSU win would also be good for back-to-back outright Big Ten crowns, which hasn’t been accomplished since 1954-55 ...