CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - It wasn't a pretty victory, and yet, it was beautiful.
It didn't split the uprights, but Dan Stultz's 34-yard field goal as time expired caught enough of the right goalpost to be gorgeous.
And it wasn't to solidify a second-place finish in the Big Ten.
That was the real beauty of Ohio State's 24-21 triumph over Illinois yesterday in Memorial Stadium on Stultz's fourth field goal of the game.
The Buckeyes (8-2, 5-2) went into the contest one game behind Purdue and Northwestern, both tied for the Big Ten lead at 5-1. But both lost yesterday to throw the conference race into complete chaos.
And Ohio State couldn't be happier because it's now part of the commotion, tied with Purdue and Northwestern. Throw in Michigan, too, which defeated Penn State yesterday.
All four are 5-2, all four are all of a sudden playing for a conference championship and the Buckeyes, who were looking at the best of the second-best bowls to participate in, can't rule out a Rose Bowl appearance now.
All of a sudden Ohio State and Michigan will be playing for a share of the title in Ohio Stadium Saturday. Purdue will finish at home against Indiana while Northwestern will entertain Illinois.
“I'm disappointed with the way we played, but it's a win. Put it in the left column, that's the big thing,” said Ohio State coach John Cooper with considerable exuberance. “It was not a real pretty game, but we needed to win, and we did.”
For OSU to get to the Rose Bowl, it has to beat Michigan while Purdue loses. If all three teams win, Purdue makes the pilgrimage to Pasadena based on its victory over Ohio State two weeks ago.
If the Buckeyes win, Northwestern wins and Purdue loses, Ohio State gets the nod over the Wildcats based on a better overall record. OSU and Purdue are both 8-2 overall while Northwestern is 7-3.
For Michigan to advance to the Rose Bowl it would have to beat the Bucks with Purdue and Northwestern both losing.
Playing without both starting receivers, Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo, and tailback Derek Combs, all sidelined during the game with assorted injuries, Ohio State drove 75 yards in the fourth quarter for a 17-yard Stultz field goal that tied the score at 21.
On its next possession with 3:40 to play, Ohio State marched 72 yards in 13 plays behind the superb running of third-string tailback Jonathan Wells to set up Stultz's winner, the second winning field goal of his career.
But it didn't come easy, Illinois freezing Stultz three times with its three remaining timeouts with six seconds left in the game.
The first one, he expected. “I was kind of shocked at the second one and I laughed at the third one,” said Stultz, who is Ohio State's career field-goal leader with 57, making 29 of 37 field-goal attempts over the last two seasons.
“People have been questioning my competence ever since I've been here, and I hope I erased that today. I did my job and I will continue to do my job. The offense gave me the opportunity to kick all day. Points are points. The last one wasn't pretty. It wasn't down the middle. I waited for the officials to raise their arms (to signal that the last field goal was good), but I knew it was good.”
Illinois, too, was hit hard with injuries, losing quarterback Kurt Kittner to a concussion on the last play of the third quarter. Kittner slid down at the OSU 2-yard line for a first down, but was hit hard by OSU's Mike Doss as a flag was thrown for what looked like head-to-head contact.
Officials waved off the flag with Kittner unconscious on the field. He left the game under his own power, but was admitted to Carle Hospital in Urbana, where he was to be kept over night.
Redshirt freshman Dustin Ward came in and passed to fullback Jameel Cook for the touchdown that gave Illinois (5-5, 2-5) a 21-18 lead.
That's when Ohio State drove to a first down at the Illini's 5-yard line. Wells bulled to the 1, but two quarterback sneaks by Steve Bellisari netted nothing, forcing the field goal. OSU was also stopped at the Illinois 1 in the first quarter.
Cooper said if Kittner had still been in the game, he would have gone for the touchdown on fourth down, but with the untested Ward in place of Kittner, Cooper thought his defense could get the ball back for one more offensive thrust.
The Buckeyes were up to the task. Wells finished with 131 yards in 27 carries as OSU totaled 223 rushing yards against the Big Ten's worst defense against the rush. Bellisari completed 23 of 38 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off three times.