COLUMBUS - Young and brash Illinois decided to challenge top-ranked Ohio State in a bold and somewhat reckless manner.
The Illini didn't nip at the edges or employ a lot of gadgetry and a sneak attack. Instead, Illinois hit the Buckeyes in their strength - that vaunted defense - and did it right in the middle of Main Street with plenty of witnesses.
The Illini ran the ball against the team that was the third-best in the country against the run, and did it often and with considerable success. Ohio State came crashing down by a 28-21 score yesterday because it simply could not rein in the Illinois rushing attack.
"It's tough to accept, but they were making four and five yards a carry, and we couldn't come up with the stops when we had to," Ohio State junior linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "They were making the plays, and we weren't."
The Illini rushed for 260 yards against a defense that had allowed just 65 yards rushing per game through its first 10 games. The Buckeyes' defense had allowed only two touchdowns in six previous home games - but Illinois put four on the board.
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams ran 16 times for 70 yards, including four carries for first downs as the Illini sat on their lead and devoured the clock in the fourth quarter. Williams, regarded as a marginal passer with a tendency to use his feet to make plays, did plenty of damage passing the ball as well, throwing for four touchdowns.
"Those looked like designed running plays he was using there at the end, and we just didn't track him down quickly enough," Ohio State senior linebacker Larry Grant said. "He mixed it up and found some guys that were open. He's a good player who was making some big plays."
Williams had led Illinois (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) to a 21-14 halftime advantage - the first time Ohio State (10-1, 6-1) had trailed at the half since Sept. 15 at Washington when the Buckeyes were down 7-3. OSU got a quick stop to open the second half, and moved the ball down the field to a first down at the Illinois 9-yard line.
Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman scrambled to avoid the rush on third down, and his pass intended for Ray Small in the end zone popped up in the air and was collected by Illinois' Antonio Steele.
"You could feel the energy in the place when our defense stopped them and the offense moved it down there," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "But unfortunately, we didn't score when we were in the red zone. We needed to score there - at the worst get three - and we ended up turning it over."
Williams then led the Illini on an 80-yard scoring drive, with the touchdown coming on a 31-yard pass to a wide open Marques Wilkins, giving Illinois a 28-14 lead with just under four minutes left in the third quarter.
The Buckeyes came right back and pushed down the field, sparked by a 35-yard scramble by Boeckman. Tailback Chris Wells scored on a 17-yard run to close the gap to 28-21 in the
final seconds of the third quarter. Ohio State got no closer, because Illinois completely dominated the fourth quarter, running 27 offensive plays in two time-consuming drives, while limiting Ohio State to just three plays.
The Buckeyes got their only shot at evening the score when they forced an Illinois punt with about nine minutes left. After a short run by Wells, Boeckman scrambled 16 yards for a first down. He then tried to force the ball deep to a double-covered Brian Robiskie, and Illinois intercepted Boeckman for the third time.
The Illini then used 15 running plays to spend the remaining time, moving the ball for four crucial first downs, and sealing the victory that ends Ohio State's 28-game, regular-season winning streak, and the Buckeyes' record string of 20 straight Big Ten victories.
"I'm a little surprised by what happened, but it always comes back to us," Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston said. "We're our biggest opponent, and we just didn't execute."
The Buckeyes went for the kill on the first play of the game, with Boeckman hitting Brian Hartline on the OSU sideline for a 65-yard gain to the Illinois 11. Chris Wells banged into the line on the next play, found nothing there, then bounced outside to his left where he cut back to avoid a defender on an 11-yard TD run that made it 7-0 just 23 seconds into the game.
The Illini were not stunned for long, however. Daniel Dufrene burst through a huge gap up the middle and raced 80 yards before Ohio State's Donald Washington caught him from behind at the Buckeyes' 3-yard line. Juice Williams lobbed a touchdown pass to a wide open Michael Hoomanawanui and the game was tied with slightly more than a minute gone.
Ohio State used a more conventional approach on its second possession, which also ended with a TD. Boeckman scrambled for a 23-yard gain on a third-down play, and completed three passes on the drive. The score came on a pitch and sweep by Maurice Wells, who slipped through a hole in the line, then sprinted 19 yards for the touchdown. With the extra-point kick rom Ryan Pretorius, Ohio State led 14-7 with almost 10 minutes left in the first quarter.
A Buckeyes' turnover set up
Illinois near midfield a short time later, as Boeckman threw the ball while running to his left, and the pass was picked off by Dere Hicks at the Illini 45. Seven plays later, Williams used a fake to momentarily freeze the OSU defense, then threw a pass that Jacob Willis out-leaped Chimdi Chekwa at the goal line to tie the game.
The Ohio State offense managed just two first downs in the second quarter, and when a punt by A.J. Trapasso covered just 29 yards, Illinois had field position in its favor again.
The Illini got a critical 25-yard gain on a fourth-down carry by Rashard Mendenhall that put the ball at the Ohio State 18, and Williams found Brian Gamble with an eight-yard TD pass a short time later, giving Illinois a 21-14 advantage at the half.
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