For 10 straight weeks, Ohio State relied on a stingy defense that refused to allow opposing teams to breathe. In week 11, however, the Buckeyes simply couldn’t come up with a stop when they needed to most and bowed to Illinois 28-21 in front of 105,533 in Ohio Stadium.
The loss snapped OSU’s school-record regular-season winning streak at 28, broke its Big Ten-record 20-game victory streak and, most importantly, put a likely end to the team’s hopes of returning to the BCS National Championship Game for the second season in a row.
The outcome also put the Buckeyes’ postseason possibilities into a tizzy. They can still win an outright Big Ten championship and earn a Rose Bowl bid with a victory at Michigan next week since the Wolverines went down in defeat to Wisconsin earlier in the day. A loss by OSU next week in Ann Arbor will likely send the team to the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on New Year’s Day.
“It was a hard-fought football game like we thought it would be,” OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. “Hats off to Illinois. They did what they needed to do to win a tough battle and we didn’t do what we needed to do.
“I feel bad that we didn’t come through for those guys who were playing for the last time here in Ohio Stadium. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the kids and the way they fought and never gave up. This stings, but we’ve got to keep going and move forward.”
OSU senior co-captain Kirk Barton took the loss extremely hard, saying the game singularly ruins his captaincy.
“I hope the younger guys remember how this feels and don’t allow themselves to feel like I do on their Senior Day,” Barton said.
Ohio State came out like gangbusters to start the game, drawing first blood with a touchdown just 23 seconds into the game, and crossing the goal line again at the 9:37 mark of the first quarter to take a 14-7 lead.
But the Illini came roaring back each time. They answered OSU’s quick score at the beginning of the game with one of their own less than a minute later, then went ahead with two touchdowns in the final 4:04 of the first half.
The teams traded scores in the third quarter, but when it was time for the Ohio State defense to make a stop when it needed to most, it couldn’t handle Illinois quarterback Juice Williams. In the fourth quarter alone, Williams rushed for 37 yards – 34 of it on three important third- or fourth-down situations – to keep the ball away from the Buckeyes. Illini held the ball for all but 1 minutes and 14 seconds in the fourth quarter.
For the game, Williams was a consistent thorn in Ohio State’s side. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 140 and four touchdowns, and also rushed for 70 yards on 16 carries. The sophomore QB led the Illinois offense to 400 total yards and four touchdowns – no other team had totaled more than 346 yards against the Buckeyes this season or scored more than 17 points.
The Buckeyes had 336 yards of total offense, including an almost 50-50 split of 180 yards on the ground and 156 through the air. However, the Illini almost completely shut down the OSU passing game after quarterback Todd Boeckman and receiver Brian Hartline hooked up for a 65-yard gain on the first play of the contest.
Boeckman finished with 13 completions in 23 attempts for 156 yards, no touchdowns and three costly interceptions.
Sophomore tailback Chris Wells ran well despite going in and out of the lineup with hand and ankle injuries. Wells managed 76 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 20 carries.
The Buckeyes got on the board early thanks to a two-play drive that covered 76 yards. The Boeckman-to-Hartline play netted 65, and then Wells took a handoff wide and scored from 11 yards out. Ryan Pretorius added the extra point to give Ohio State a quick 7-0 lead at the 14:37 mark of the first quarter.
But the Illini answered right back with a three-play drive for 83 yards. The big play there came on an 80-yard run by backup tailback Daniel Dufrene. Dufrene appeared to loose control of the football while being tackled but the play was never reviewed, and one play later, Williams pitched a 3-yard touchdown to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, and after the PAT, the scored was tied at 7 with 13:48 left in the opening period.
And then the Buckeyes came back with another touchdown march on their next possession, moving 76 yards in nine plays before Maurice Wells sliced through the right side of the line for a 19-yard score. Pretorius added the PAT for a 14-7 lead with 9:37 remaining in the first quarter.
But again, Illinois answered after a short Ohio State punt. Illini receiver Jacob Willis got loose in the middle of the field for a 33-yard touchdown reception. That came at the 4:04 mark, and Williams moved the Illini back down the field late in the half with an eight-play, 52-yard drive that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown pass to receiver Brian Gamble. That score came with just 17 seconds left in the first half and put Illinois ahead 21-14.
Williams hit his fourth different receiver for a touchdown at the 3:52 mark of the third quarter with a 31-yard pass to receiver Marques Wilkins. That came on the heels of a Boeckman interception in the end zone that Illinois turned around for an 80-yard touchdown drive. After the PAT, the Illini held was what would be an insurmountable 28-14 lead.
The Buckeyes made a game of it, though, moving 76 yards in eight plays at the end of the third period. Chris Wells topped off the drive with a 17-yard run to make it 28-21 with 34 seconds left in the third. And although they had their chances, the Buckeyes couldn’t get back in the end zone.
They had the ball for only one possession in the fourth quarter and that ended after only 74 seconds when Boeckman threw an interception on a deep route. That came at the 8:09 mark of the fourth quarter and Illinois never surrendered the ball again.
“The season isn’t over,” OSU co-captain Dionte Johnson said immediately after the game. “There isn’t anything we can do about this game, but we have to keep our heads up. We have to go on because next week is very important to all of us.”
Next week, the Buckeyes will travel to Ann Arbor with the Big Ten championship still on the line for both teams. Kickoff is set for 12 noon Eastern and the game is scheduled to be telecast on ABC.