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November 10, 2007

Illinois topples top-ranked Ohio State

Box score

COLUMBUS, Ohio A stunned look on his face, Ohio State offensive tackle Kirk Barton sat at the podium and periodically stared at one of his massive hands, as if something had slipped through.

And it had.

Opportunity, glory and redemption so close, so within reach slipped away Saturday afternoon with a 28-21 loss to Illinois (8-3).

The defeat will cost the 10-1 Buckeyes their No. 1 ranking in the BCS standings and most likely eliminate them from national-championship contention.

Losses in November are not forgiven, not even for a team that was unbeaten and that played in last season's national championship game.

"I really wanted a national championship," Barton said. "That's what you want to do your whole career.

"When I came here (in 2003) we were the defending national champions and had something like 20 starters returning. In '04 we really weren't that good, and in '05 we lost to the national champion (Texas) at home. Then in '06 we got to the BCS championship game and lost (to Florida) there. It's hard to end it like this."

The Buckeyes' championship dreams disappeared like sand through fingers. Or perhaps more appropriately like Juice through a sieve.

Illinois sophomore quarterback Juice Williams threw a career-best four TD passes, then squirted through the heralded Ohio State defense for vital first downs on a victory-clinching drive that sucked the final eight minutes off the clock and the life from most of the crowd of 105,453.

"He managed the game well, and after today we can all see why he is our starter," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "When the game is on the line, he does what needs to be done."

Player of the game
High-risk, high-reward sophomore quarterback Juice Williams paid off big time for Illinois with a career-best four touchdown passes. He had 70 yards on 16 carries and completed 12 of 22 passes for 140 yards. Williams also rushed for four first downs on a final drive that consumed the last eight minutes of the game.
Turning point
Trailing 21-14, Ohio State forced a punt on Illinois' first possession of the second half, then moved 34 yards in 13 plays to the Illinios 9. On third-and-goal, Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman, who was under pressure, threw a pass that was intended for Ray Small in the end zone. Illinois freshman cornerback Marcus Thomas deflected the pass into the air, and linebacker Antonio Steele made the interception. A few minutes later, Illinois scored to take a 28-14 lead. "You could really feel the energy in the place when our defense stopped them and the offense moved it down," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "Unfortunately, we didn't score when we were in the red zone. We needed to score there, at worst three, and we ended up turning it over."
Best coaching move
Illinois coach Ron Zook planned to punt on fourth-and-1 from his 33 with just under seven minutes remaining. But he reconsidered when Ohio State called timeout and made a gutsy decision to go for it. Williams picked up the first down on a quarterback sneak.
Surprise performance
Sophomore running back Daniel Dufrene entered the game with just 195 yards rushing; his best outing was 58 yards in a season-opening loss to Missouri. In fact, he had totaled just 86 yards in the past eight games. But he had an 80-yard run on the fourth play of the game to set up a touchdown and finished with 106 yards.
What this game means for Ohio State
The loss was costly for the Buckeyes, who were ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings. But they can still win the Big Ten with a victory at Michigan next week.
What this game means for Illinois
Besides being able to brag about beating the Buckeyes, the Illini certainly enhanced their chances at a New Year's Day bowl. But this win figures to have a greater impact in the future. It could be a viewed as a cornerstone victory in the regime of coach Ron Zook and provide a huge confidence boost - and perhaps a better early season ranking next year.
Williams set a career record with four touchdowns passes, three of which came in the first half. It was the first time since 2003 an Illinois quarterback had four touchdown passes in a game. Illini tailback Rashard Mendenhall broke the school's single-season rushing record. He has 1,402 yards this season. Ohio State's school-record regular-season winning streak ends at 28 and its record of consecutive Big Ten victories ends at 20. Boeckman rushed for a career-high 68 yards, including a career-long 35 yards in the third quarter. He had 8 rushing yards going into the game. Ohio State junior linebacker Marcus Freeman had a career-best 18 tackles, while linebacker James Laurinaitis had 12 tackles. It was the fourth game this season in which Laurinaitis has made at least 12 tackles.
That meant avoiding mistakes, making big plays and eventually playing keep-away.

Williams had completed just over 56 percent of his passes this season and had nine interceptions, but he did not commit a turnover against the Buckeyes. And with the Illini clinging to a seven-point lead, he directed a drive that consumed the final 8:09 of the game.

He carried for 2 yards on fourth-and-1 at Illinois' 33 after Ohio State coach Jim Tressel called timeout when the Illini apparently planned to punt.

"I wish I wouldn't have called timeout," Tressel said. "When they had their punt team out there, we had 12 or 13 guys out, which would have been a problem. But I guess in hindsight, I'd have liked to have not called that because at least we would have had a chance with the ball back."

Williams - who entered the game with more interceptions than touchdown passes - made sure the Buckeyes would not.

"When Ohio State called the timeout, Juice told me he would get (the first down), and I said that he better," Zook said. "We have a lot of trust and confidence in our guys and felt confident Juice would get it for us."

Williams then gained 12 on third-and-7 at the 38. He rushed for 12 on third-and-10 at midfield and ran for 3 on third-and-2 at Ohio State's 30.

The Illinois victory likely will cause a loud "I told you so" to echo across the country from skeptics who never believed the Buckeyes were deserving of the nation's top ranking.

Some doubted the strength of schedule, while others still have been dismissing the Buckeyes because of their embarrassing 41-14 loss to Florida in last year's national-championship game.

By its own ambition and other teams' attrition, Ohio State - which was not among the nation's top 10 in the preseason - climbed to No. 1 in the BCS standings. Having won their first 10 games, closing victories over Illinois and Michigan would have ensured the Buckeyes a trip to New Orleans for the national-championship game and a chance at redemption for last year's disaster.

But quarterback Todd Boeckman, who had thrown at least two touchdown passes in every previous game and only two interceptions in the previous four, was intercepted three times and did not throw a touchdown pass.

In addition, Ohio State's defense, which had allowed an average of just 65 yards to rank third nationally against the run, gave up 260 on the ground. Williams rushed for 70 yards, Daniel Dufrene had 106 and Rashard Mendenhall had 88.

Ohio State's offensive line, which had so much trouble in the national championship game last year, gave up two sacks and allowed Illinois' defense to constantly pressure Boeckman.

Not all is lost, though.

The Buckeyes still face rival Michigan next week with the Big Ten championship - and a spot in the Rose Bowl - at stake. But that's little consolation when much grander goals were so close at hand.

"(The national championship) was something we were pointing at all summer and winter," Barton said. "We wanted to get back and get redemption.

"Obviously, we didn't play well enough."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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