Illinois and its identity crisis (and what it means to Ohio State)

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

It is too bad the Ohio State/Illinois game is going to kick off on November 2nd. The Fighting Illini are a textbook example of "what are they supposed to be?" for a Halloween party.

For those old enough to remember (and obviously that is me, unfortunately), Illinois used to be a major thorn in the side of Ohio State throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Let me give you some perspective.

During the 1980s, Illinois used to be quite formidable on offense, especially when Mike White was the head coach. Illinois used to churn out quarterbacks who earned national recognition. Quarterbacks who went onto the NFL by the names of Dave Wilson, Tony Eason, and Jack Trudeau. As a matter of fact, one of the most memorable plays of Keith Byars' Ohio State career took place in Ohio Stadium, as Ohio State rallied to defeat Illinois.

I would be curious to find out what former Ohio State head coach John Cooper would say about playing against Illinois. Everyone remembers the struggles Coach Cooper had against Michigan, but does anyone recall how Illinois seemed to have Ohio State's number during the first few years of Coach Cooper's tenure?

Coach Cooper began at Ohio State in 1988. How many times did Coach Cooper defeat Illinois from 1988 through 1992? Zero. Coach Cooper's Ohio State's teams lost to Illinois as well in 1994 and 1999.

In the latter 1980s and early 1990s, Illinois was coached by John Mackovic. Mackovic actually led Illinois to bowl games for four straight years, parlaying his success into the head coaching job at Texas. Illinois was still an offensive-oriented team, quarterbacked by Jeff George.

In 1992, Illinois promoted Lou Tepper to head coach. Tepper had been the team's defensive coordinator, and this is where the Illinois identity shift began to take shape.

As Illinois was primarily offensive-oriented under Mike White and John Mackovic, Illinois became much more staid offensively, while developing some top defensive talent. Players such as Dana Howard, Kevin Hardy, and Simeon Rice became well-known defensive stars, fitting for the school that developed linebacking legend Dick Butkus in the 1960s.

Of course, Ohio State started to turn the corner with Coach Cooper. One of the most memorable games in this rivalry took place in 1995, as Ohio State smoked Illinois 41-3 behind the running of Eddie George. George would set the single-game rushing record for Ohio State during this game, and would use this game to propel himself to winning the Heisman Trophy.

After a few years, the powers at Illinois decided Lou Tepper was not going to get it done, and replaced Tepper with Ron Turner. Back to offensive football.

Despite some setbacks at the onset of his career, Turner was able to achieve some degree of success against the Buckeyes. In 1999, Illinois walloped Ohio State in Ohio Stadium 46-20 near the end of Coach Cooper's tenure. In 2001, Illinois again came into Ohio Stadium, ruining Senior Day amidst the DUI-suspension of starting quarterback Steve Bellisari laid down by Coach Tressel, and defeated Ohio State 34-22.

Following the 2004 season, Illinois fired Ron Turner. Ron Turner's departure led to the arrival of one of the most enigmatic coaches in college football, Ron Zook. Zook never truly developed any type of identity during his tenure at Illinois, offensively or defensively.

While Ohio State fans would like to mock Zook and Illinois, Zook did have some memorable moments. None of these moments were as memorable or as painful for Ohio State fans than when Illinois came into Ohio Stadium in 2007 to knock off the top-ranked Buckeyes at home.

While Zook had his share of success, eventually Illinois decided to start over, replacing Zook for 2012 with former Toledo head coach and former Ohio State assistant Tim Beckman. Beckman is off to a rough start at Illinois, entering this game against Ohio State with a 2-6 record.

What kind of identity will Illinois adopt against Ohio State on November 2nd? Ohio State fans have certainly seen their share of different identities by Illinois - all the Buckeyes want is a losing one by Illinois next Saturday afternoon.

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