Let’s jump in our time machine and go back to the year of our Lord, 2007. Specifically, to the date of Nov. 10, 2007. More specifically, to 3:37 p.m. at Ohio Stadium, just as the Illinois Fighting Illini took on the No. 1 in the land, Ohio State.
This seemed like a win for the undefeated Buckeyes. They just came off a trip to Camp Randall and defeated the Wisconsin Badgers, 38-17. All they had to do was beat Illinois, and then they would’ve glided into Ann Arbor, Mich., with a Big Ten crown and a national championship spot on the line if they disposed of the Wolverines.
But, see: this was 2007.
The year where the college football gods couldn’t determine who they wanted to reign supreme. It was the year Kansas & Missouri made a legitimate threat up the rankings, and Matt Grothe quarterbacked the South Florida Bulls to a No. 2 ranking for one week before losing to Rutgers.
At the time of OSU-ILL, the No. 2-ranked team fell four times that season. However, little did we all know that the Buckeyes would fall as the No. 1 team in the land on Nov. 10. Behind giving the Illini 13 minutes and 46 seconds of the fourth quarter, running back Rashard Mendenhall getting nearly 100 yards on the ground, and quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams throwing 4 touchdowns, it’s been nearly 10 years since that wackiness happened inside The ‘Shoe.
Now, it’s time to reflect on that 2007 Battle of the Illibuck contest—and how in the grand scheme of things, the loss didn’t really matter.
On the first play of the game, quarterback Todd Boeckman fired the ball down the sideline for a 65-yard pass completion to Brian Hartline. One play later, from the Illinois 11, Chris “Beanie” Wells punched the ball in for a touchdown. In a matter of 23 seconds, the Buckeyes marched 76 yards on just two plays.
At this early junction, this felt as if the game was already in the bag—and knowing how Tressel ball operates, this game had the makings of being a 27-10, 24-14 kind of contest. On the season, the Buckeyes only real blowout was against Northwestern, a game they won 58-7. OSU opened the season beating Youngstown State, 38-6, and later would beat Akron, 20-2. So, a blowout of epic proportions really wasn’t something to be expected.
However, Illinois was gonna do the running equivalent to what Boeckman did in the air. On the second play of the Illini’s first drive, Daniel Dufrene took over for an 80-yard sprint down to the OSU 3. Juice Williams made a short post pass to punctuate the Illinois rebuttal.
The scoring kept coming in the Buckeyes follow-up drive. Between Chris Wells’ and Maurice Wells’ running and Boeckman’s passing, the Scarlet and Gray marched their way back into the endzone to take the lead. This time around, it was a nine play drive and 76 yards to find paydirt.
After an Illini, three-and-out, OSU got the ball back, and the dominoes began to fall unfavorably. Boeckman threw a pick to Dere Hicks around midfield, which eventually led to Juice Williams lobbing a 33-yard touchdown.
With a guy like Williams, giving him ample opportunities is a good way to find yourself on the losing side of battle. Boeckman lobbed three picks on that sunny afternoon in Columbus—and by sunny, I mean completely overcast—against the Illini. We’ll talk about the rest of the picks later; right now, the focus is on how Williams and Mendenhall kept their squad alive in the second and third quarters.
Juice is sorta, kinda on the loose
What makes the game so frustrating to look back at, is the fact that Williams and Mendenhall basically clowned the OSU defense. It was like a game of whack-a-mole, with the Buckeyes trying to contain the Illini, but they just couldn’t.
Late in the second quarter, Illinois was faced with a 4th-and-1 situation from the OSU 43. This drive started from the ILL 48, and the first three plays went for a gain of 5, 2 and 2, respectively. It’s a fourth and short scenario, so, I figured a run play or short yardage call would be utilized by Ron Zook, the Illinois coach at the time. I thought I was decent at understanding football, even though I was only in the eighth grade.
(This is what future me would’ve said after the fourth down play: Hahaha, short yardage play? That’s where you’re wrong, kiddo.)
Williams delivered a 25-yard pass that put them in the Buckeye redzone. Four plays later, after Williams and the running game chipped away at the green in front of them, Williams threw a touchdown, again.
At halftime, Illinois had a 21-14 lead. It wasn’t a big lead, but just enough to crank the panic meter up a little. If the Buckeyes played decent football from here on out, I thought they would have a good chance to eek out the win heading into ‘The Game.’ Optimism is a good thing; it’s reality that is the problem.
In the third quarter, Boeckman got picked off again, but this time it was in the Illini endzone. Thirteen plays to go 34 yards ended with nothing. And, as the college football gods would have it, Juice dominated the Illini’s drive off the turnover.
This drive in question went 80 yards in nine plays; seven of the plays were centered around Williams being the catalyst in either a passing or running role. Again, on a short yardage situation (a 3rd-and-2), Williams picked up three to keep the drive alive. Four plays later, he went up in the air to deliver a 31-yard TD to a wide open Marques Wilkins.
Looking back now, it’s still comical to think about how that game was unfolding. Literally, Williams bailed out his team on a short down situation, and then chucked up 30-plus yard passes for scores. Combine that with OSU turnovers, and you have a stew brewing—and not a good one; the kind that create upsets.
Now, I have to give credit where credit is due. Boeckman, Tressel, and Beanie Wells cooked up a good drive at the end of the third frame to get the score to 28-21 entering the fourth. But, I also have to administer blame to the coaching staff and defense for allowing Illinois to, basically, sit on the ball for the fourth quarter.
If this were a therapy session, this would be the portion of the hour—do they charge by the hour? Are sessions 90 minutes? I dunno—where the breakthrough occurs; the moment where we make progress.
The reason this game sticks with me, and some of Buckeye nation, is because of the way the fourth quarter shook out. The Illinois offense burned the first six minutes of the quarter, and only traveled 36 yards.
OSU got the ball back at their own 18 with 9:23 left to play. Plenty of time to make something happen and tie the game. Beanie rushed for two yards, then Boeckman took off for 16. The Bucks sat at their own 36, when Boeckman went for the home run throw. It was a good throw, that if caught by Brian Robiskie, would’ve put the home team on the doorstep of the redzone.
Except, the pass was thrown into double coverage. Freshman defender Marcus Thomas jumped in front of Robiskie, and snagged the ball for Boeckman’s third pick. Illinois then went on a mission to run out the clock; which they did.
But, there were numerous places where the Bucks could’ve stopped the Illini from leaving Columbus with the Illibuck trophy.
Right after the pick, Illinois was on the cusp of turning the ball over on downs. They went for it on a 4th-and-inches from their own 33. Wild play calling from Zook, but they ran a QB sneak, and Williams picked up two yards to move the chains. Later on the dastardly drive, Illinois was situated on a 3rd-and-7 from their 38. (Mind you, there is still 5:00 left in the game.) Again, Williams bails out his team with a 12-yard run—which, lol, was his longest of the night.
Fast forward to a few plays later on a 3rd-and-2, and Williams picks up three. That was the nail in the coffin, and Illibuck was taken back to Champaign, Ill.
The Silver Lining
The funniest thing out of all of this was that Ohio State still went to the national championship. OSU took this loss on the penultimate game on their schedule, and yet, they still punched their ticket to New Orleans for the BCS National Championship Game.
Land-Grant Holy Land did a podcast about Pittsburgh’s dramatic win against West Virginia, which put the Buckeyes back in the title hint—while also changing the course of school history. Granted, OSU lost the natty, but they had the opportunity to play for all the marbles.
This just shows how crazy, frustrating, and unpredictable the 2007 college football season was. Maybe now after writing this 1500-word low-level diatribe, I can finally sleep in peace.
(Then again, I wrote this story at 3 a.m.)