It wasn't too long ago that Illinois Football, this week's opponent for the Ohio State Buckeyes, was a good-to-very-good football team. This isn't hyperbole! You have to go a little bit back in the history, but Illinois fielded a Rose Bowl team in this century, in 2008. Crazier things have happened.
But let's go back to 2007, the year and season that allowed an Illinois team that you or I probably remember, to make it to the Rose Bowl on the first day of 2008. This was an Illinois team that started its season off poorly (a loss to Missouri in something called the Arch Rivalry, which was apparently a thing back then -- and dreadfully one-sided in favor of the Tigers). But then the Illini found life and won five straight games. And then lost to Iowa and Michigan in consecutive games. But then won two games. Still, at 7-3, and 4-2 in the Big Ten, this wasn't a team that many people considered all that great, even with a few future Sunday players sprinkled on the roster.
Ohio State, meanwhile, was the #1 team in the country, with a defense that had, to that point, allowed fewer than 10 points on six occasions. Todd Boeckman was the signal caller (with Joe Bauserman and Antonio Henton behind him, and we'll just leave that there because its as disgusting as it sounds), and Beanie Wells was the premier running back. James Laurinaitis was the face of the defense, along with future NFL-ers Vernon Gholston, Cameron Heyward, Kurt Coleman and Malcolm Jenkins. This team should not have had a single problem with Illinois on Senior Day in the Horseshoe in 2007. Nope, not one problem at all.
The game started off very quickly for the Buckeyes, who scored on their second play from scrimmage, an 11-yard dash by Beanie Wells, setup by a 65-yard bomb from Boeckman to receiver Brian Hartline. Even the most pessimistic Buckeye fans couldn't help but think that this was a harbinger of things to come.
Three plays into Illinois' first drive, however, the score was tied. An 80-yard run by Daniel Dufrene (who?) setup an Isiah Williams (you may remember him as "Juice") touchdown pass to knot the game at seven. After two kickoffs, five offensive plays and in just one minute and 12 seconds, two scores were on the board. Buckeye fans and players alike buckled up.
The teams traded scores again in the half, until Illinois went up 21-14 going into halftime. Then it went up 28-14 on another Williams passing score. Ohio State answered on their next drive to get within a touchdown, and got the ball back still down a score, but with over 9 minutes to go. Boeckman, God love him, tried to punch Illinois in the gut and tie the game, but tossed a duck into double coverage, the interception giving the ball back to the Illini with 8:09 left. Let's roll that disgusting, horrible, awful bean footage.
(The "fun" stuff starts at 1:43:30, individual segments are linked below)
With the ball in hand, and at their own 24-yard line, the Illini did something that was, at that point, unthinkable. The drive divides nicely into four sections. Some things to remember, here: Ohio State is, at this point, the #1 team in the country, in a completely gonzo year for college football. This Buckeye squad is packed with talent. And, most importantly, it has a full complement of timeouts. Let's delve.
"...They'd like to chew up about 8:09 right here [laughter in the background]," Brad Nessler is on the call, which we should all appreciate (even if he's teamed with Paul Maguire and Bob Griese). How prophetic of you, Brad.
"This Ohio State defense has got to make something happen; they gotta get a turnover," said color commentator Bob Griese. Good call, Gries! The Buckeyes stop the Illini within an inch of a new set of downs, and with a punt upcoming, Jim Tressel calls his first timeout due to some alignment issues with special teams. After the break, Illinois brought back the offense and picked up the first down. New life.
Two minutes are gone at this point, plenty of time to play, plenty of time to force a turnover.
"Ron Zook's just a good recruiter. He can't coach! He's just a good recruiter!" Sarcasm dripping from Bob Griese in the booth as Nessler chuckles along. The Buckeyes force a third and long for Williams. The crowd roars; the defense growls; Williams doesn't care. He sprints out to midfield for a first down. Tressel grits his teeth. The fans grow tense. There's under five minutes to play, and the Buckeyes should be back on offense by now. But Illinois won't let them have the ball.
"Third time, fellas, that Juice has run for a first down on third down in this half," Nessler informs his battery mates in the booth before Illinois starts their third set of downs. You can hear a slight uptick in his voice, like he knows something special is happening, like he's about to call an ending that both fan-bases will remember. There's an in-game "SportsCenter Minute" here that includes Mississippi State beating Alabama, and Wisconsin beating Michigan. 2007 wasn't all bad.
Again, the Buckeye defense, among the best in the country in 2007, does quite a job stuffing the Illinois offense. With third and long looming, Tressel calls another timeout, leaving only one left, presumably for the offense to use when the defense stops the Illini on the next play. And then Juice Williams runs for 12 yards. First down.
"The chance for a perfect season, the chance for a national championship shot for Ohio State for the second straight year is in serious jeopardy at the Horseshoe in Columbus," Nessler sets a stage incredibly well. There are fewer than three minutes to go and with 2:19 to go, the Buckeyes call their final timeout. It's third and two. This is all but the ballgame.
Juice Williams runs a perfect read option and dives over the invisible-to-him first down line. The crowd volume drops to an eerie low that you don't think is possible for a group of 105,000+. Everyone in the stadium in scarlet and gray, at this point, has transformed into the 1980 Soviet hockey team, down in the last two minutes of their game against the Americans in the Miracle on Ice game: they don't know what to do.
The mathematicians already know this game is over. The rest of the crowd and the team on the field is realizing it, too. The clock ticks under a minute as Juice Williams takes a snap in the victory formation. Ron Zook gets a Gatorade bath. Fisticuffs breakout between Illinois and Ohio State, but it doesn't matter: The Illini beat the Buckeyes.
Ohio State rebounded the next week to beat Michigan, win the Big Ten, and eventually play for (and, of course, lose) its second straight National Championship. Illinois went to Pasadena, replacing the Buckeyes and representing the Big Ten against Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. It did not go well.
Things are a little different this year. While the Buckeyes are undefeated, they are no longer #1. There is no BCS Championship at the end of the year. The retread former University of Florida head coach is now on the Buckeyes' sideline. Illinois has an interim coach on their sidelines, and many questions to answer come the off-season.
And yet, even with the last six (or five, whatever) Illibuck Battles going Ohio State's way, there's no denying that college football is crazy each and every year. In 2007, Illinois needed to run more than eight minutes off the clock to win a game against the #1 team in the country in #1's backyard. Crazier things have happened, but not that many.