Ohio State's Maurice Hall lands in the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Illinois had a chance to tie, but Ohio State's defense held the Illini on downs.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Ohio State's Buckeyes became the first team in school history to win 12 football games in a season yesterday, all the while walking the edge, toeing the line, tempting fate and living more lives than a cat.
It took an overtime session this time, but the Bucks finally squeezed past Illinois 23-16 on an eight-yard run by tailback Maurice Hall in the first extra session in Memorial Stadium.
Lucky, good enough to overcome everyone's best shot, a team of destiny, whatever, Ohio State is one victory away from playing for the national championship.
Of course, that one win will have to come against Michigan, on Saturday in Ohio Stadium.
“We're definitely toeing the line, and it's not something I'm really excited to do,” OSU tight end Ben Hartsock said. “I don't want to get into those situations. I don't think anyone wants to. It makes for an ESPN Classic game, but it also makes for lesser years on your life.”
Last week, after the Buckeyes defeated Purdue with a fourth-down touchdown pass with 1:36 left in the game, Ohio State backup wide receiver Drew Carter, while walking into the dressing room, said, “I need a heart monitor.”
Whether victories in their last two games against teams with a combined 9-13 record will cut the Buckeyes any love from poll voters won't matter if they remain undefeated.
OSU (12-0, 7-0) is No. 1 in the BCS rankings, No. 2 in both major polls, and is No. 2 in the Big Ten. The Bucks trail Iowa by one-half game after the Hawkeyes finished their regular season yesterday with a 45-21 triumph at Minnesota to end 8-0 in the conference.
Pesky Illinois, getting a chance to tie OSU in the overtime after the Bucks scored first, saw catches by wide receivers Aaron Moorehead and then Walter Young, both in the end zone, waved off.
Moorehead's catch was nullified when the officials ruled he didn't get a foot down in bounds. Young's catch was waved off when another official ruled that he didn't have possession of the ball when he went out of bounds after catching the ball inbounds.
Referee Dave Witvoet, interviewed by a media pool reporter after the game, confirmed both calls.
Illinois coach Ron Turner voiced another plea for instant replay when asked about the two catches that were disallowed.
“It's a crying shame for those kids, if the game was decided by the officials,” he said. “Anyone who is against instant replay should walk into that locker room and see the look in those players' eyes.”
Young said he didn't agree with the official who said he was bobbling the ball as he went out of bounds, adding, “That was his call. I wouldn't agree with that, but I have to live with it.”
The last three Ohio State teams that got to 11-0 lost their next game. It appeared the 2002 Buckeyes might be the fourth to do so when they fell behind 10-6 early in the third quarter, after Illinois scored the first second-half touchdown against OSU in the last six games.
Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel, making one huge play after another down the stretch, passed 50 yards to his big-play wide receiver, Michael Jenkins, for a touchdown 1:13 later to put Ohio State back on top 13-10.
When Illinois' John Gockman made a 47-yard field goal into a stiff wind that foiled OSU kicker Mike Nugent twice, it not only tied the score at 13 near the end of the third quarter, but left the feeling that this OSU team of destiny might finally be running out of good fortune.
Nugent, after two misssed field goals to break his streak of 23 straight, kicked a 37-yarder at the start of the fourth quarter to put the Bucks back on top 16-13.
Nugent missed a 41-yarder four minutes later. The Fighting Illini put together a 44-yard drive starting with 1:04 to play in regulation that came to a stop at the OSU 31-yard line.
Gockman, who had kicked just three field goals previously this season, hit a 48-yarder with a few second left on the clock to send the game into overtime. That came just over two minutes after he missed a 59-yarder that fell a few feet short.
After Ohio State wide receiver Chris Vance dropped a certain touchdown pass in the overtime, Krenzel scrambled for a first down at the 11. Hall carried to the eight and then scored on the next play.
After Illinois' two passes in the end zone were ruled incomplete, OSU defensive lineman Tim Anderson, from Clyde, batted down Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer's fourth-down pass at the line of scrimmage to end the game.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, his voice more hoarse than usual, wasn't about to buy into the fact his team might be living on the edge after its sixth second-half comeback and fifth road win by an average of 6.1 points.
“The nature of our team is that they work hard and play hard and they're 12-0,” he said. “I don't know what the edge means. We've had some great teams we've played, we've had some great efforts and we know it gets even tougher next week. It's just a bunch of hard-working kids.”
Or, as OSU defensive end Simon Fraser said of still another close escape, “We like to give ABC some ratings.”