Illini Earn Respect With Tough Loss To OSU

The Fighting Illini football team gave the number two ranked Ohio State Buckeyes everything they could handle before finally succumbing 24-13 at Memorial Stadium Saturday. The Illini defense held OSU to 217 yards below its average. Mistakes and penalties prevented a better result, but the Illini gained confidence for the rest of the season.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was disappointed with the result but pleased with the potential of his young, developing team after the loss to Ohio State.

"I think we fought hard. There were some things that happened during the game they had to overcome, and they never questioned whether they could play or not. I'm proud of this football team. I think they see if we can fix some things we can be a pretty good team.

The Illini defense swarmed all over the Buckeye offense, limiting them to 290 total yards. That included long Terrelle Pryor runs of 66 and 35 yards. They were especially stingy against the pass. OSU gained only 77 yards through the air, 189 yards below average. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning discussed the defense.

"We had a lot of special plays for Pryor. We did some things that took a lot of the passing game away. We got burned on one deep out. We weren't able to get our nickel package in when (Steve) Hull got hurt. But we took away some things that they had done. Our kids executed it pretty well.

"They have some really good receivers that have been unstoppable all year. I think for the most part we held our own. We got good pressure and had a good plan for how to attack their protection. We were able to accomplish some pretty positive things."

Ohio State had a precarious 17-13 lead deep in the fourth quarter when it put together a 53 yard drive aided by three Illinois penalties to provide a 24-13 margin of victory. Aside from that drive and the two long Pryor runs, Zook agreed with Koenning.

"I think we played hard, we swarmed to the football. At the end they got outside us a little bit. That was the one frustrating thing. But we're continuing to get better on defense."

Koenning demands further improvement.

"We got close and weren't able to finish it. I feel like in my heart that's two games this year that we didn't play absolutely lights out the whole game on defense. We kind of let this one get away as we did against Missouri."

But despite the penalties and mistakes, Koenning made a positive comparison between his Illini defense and OSU's other opponents.

"We played them as well as anybody this year including Miami."

The Illini got off to a quick start in the game. After the defense forcing a three-and-out, the offense marched 55 yards in 9 plays to gain a 7-0 advantage. The big play was a trick play where Nathan Scheelhaase threw a lateral to Jarred Fayson, who fired back to Scheelhaase for a 23 yard gain. Scheelhaase ran the final three yards.

The lead was short-lived. It was on first down that Pryor burst to the outside and outran the Illini secondary to the Illinois 8 yard line. Pryor hit running back Brandon Saine for the three yard score on third and goal to tie the game.

A field position battle ensued as the 25 mile per hour northerly wind played a major factor. Anthony Santella continued to punt brilliantly, averaging 47 yards a punt. Deep in the second quarter, safety Trulon Henry grabbed the Illini's first interception of the year to provide great field position. One first down later, Derek Dimke booted a 27 yard field goal.

Again Ohio State retaliated, Pryor running 35 yards on first down. Pryor's pass to a wide open Dane Sanzenbacher from the 11 yard line gave them a 14-10 halftime lead.

The Buckeye defense stiffened in the third quarter, but their offense began to stagnate also. Pryor was hurt on his second play and left the field briefly. Henry grabbed his second interception off backup Joe Bauserman before Pryor reentered.

OSU coach Jim Tressel, known for his sweater vests, played it "close to the vest" according to Zook, probably to keep Pryor healthy. The conservative style made it easier for the Illini to stay in the game.

They finally sustained a long drive culminating with a Devin Barclay 32 yard field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Even then, a crucial yard on fourth and one kept the drive alive.

There was controversy over the spot of the ball, and Zook felt there was enough doubt to request a review since the head linesman and line judge had initially made different spots. The Buckeyes were awarded a first down, and it was not reversed on replay.

At this point the Illini got hot. Mikel Leshoure rambled for 10 yards and then 26 more. Scheelhaase scrambled and found Fayson for a short pass he turned into a 29 yard gain. That was Fayson's eighth reception on the day. The drive stalled at that point, but Zook wanted to put points on the board rather than risk a fourth and seven. Dimke booted a 30 yard field goal to make it 17-13.

Aided by a 15 yard personal foul on the Illini for retaliation on the ensuing kickoff, the Buckeyes had both the wind and great field position. They ran Dan Herron six straight times, the last one a six yard touchdown to put the game away.

There were three UI penalties in the drive including lining up off sides and a face mask. Illini defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who was in the OSU backfield frequently, feels much of the problem on the last drive stemmed from the Illini trying to make a play to help the team and got carried away.

"We were just trying to get to the ball. As a defense, we were trying to get there, get a turnover, something to help turn this game around."

The Illini offense was held in check most of the day by an OSU front seven considered among the best in the nation.

Leshoure was held to 81 yards, the first time this year he hasn't gained at least 100. The Buckeyes were waiting for him, but even then he feels there were plays to be made.

"They had more guys in the box, so it was tougher sledding out there. I don't think they were different from other teams we play. We just needed to go out and eliminate the penalties and we would have been all right.

"Things started opening up toward the end of the game. The problem was we were beating ourselves. If we could have eliminated some of those penalties early in the drives, I think we could have put more points on the board. We've got to execute and do our jobs."

Scheelhaase, who was 12 for 22 on the day for 109 yards and one interception, admitted the Buckeyes were a great team and adjusted to what the Illini were doing. But he likened the battle to a boxing match, and the Illini need to learn to how to give the key blows when needed.

"The frustrating thing is, when you're in a heavyweight bout with the number two team in the country, when you get to the late rounds of the game you don't find a way to get that knockout punch in. That's what we were looking for.

"We knew they were a good team, and they play well both offensively and defensively. But we were in there fighting it out punch for punch. Obviously it's a rough feeling when you don't come out on top."

Overall Scheelhaase managed the game well and is making progress. He had three balls dropped despite being on target most of the day. Zook says he needs to get rid of the ball quicker in the two minute offense and make some other improvements here and there. But he knows Scheelhaase is making progress.

"He really is. I think he will continue to improve. I wish you could buy experience, but you can't. He's got to play. I think the football team is very confident in him. They feel good about what he does."

Like many Illini, offensive tackle Jeff Allen took the game hard. It was tough to talk about afterward, but by tomorrow he will begin to recognize a definite light at the end of a long tunnel.

"We had a couple mishaps today. We can watch film and build on it, but we've got to execute better. They're a good d-line, and I know we'll build confidence from it. But if we did what we're supposed to do, we would have had a different result.

"They're a great team, they're ranked second in the country. It's not by mistake. I know when we watch film we're gonna see a lot of mistakes on both sides of the ball. A lot of big plays were left out there which might make us sicker than we are now."

Jason Ford, who ran hard and added 28 yards in support of Leshoure, feels much good will come from this game despite the loss.

"I think we're where we want to be. We have to keep having good practices and keep pushing. I think it's good experience to play a team like that and stay close with them. I think it's gonna be a springboard, just seeing we can stay with Ohio State. I think we'll be all right."

Scheelhaase also sounded an optimistic tone.

"I think we proved something to ourselves. We know what we've got. We know we're a team that can give any team in the country a game."

Allen was resolute in defeat. He believes the Illini will use this game to motivate them to work even harder on their imperfections.

"It does give us more confidence that, if we play the way we're capable of playing, we can be a great team. We really played hard. No one questions the effort. It's just execution.

"It takes awhile to learn to win, but I can definitely say we're really close. I think we're gonna come out this week and practice hard. Hopefully we're gonna get a win and continue to win."

Leshoure feels good about the future.

"Definitely. We believed, if no one else did before the game, that we could play against the best. We played 60 minutes, and we definitely felt we could have won. I think we gained a lot of confidence, especially in our defense. Those guys played their best and gave the offense opportunities. We've just got to take advantage of those."

Inside linebacker Martez Wilson, who led the Illini with nine tackles including two tackles for loss, is also uplifted about Illini possibilities down the road.

"This is definitely a game we can build on. They're a great team, and I feel that if we played them as well as we did, we can play that well against any of them."

The defense was the highlight for the Illini on this day. Koenning believes his Illini are close to something special.

"Our guys need to understand how good they can be. That's the number two team in the country, and how good on defense could we be? We could have dominated them. We need to understand that and practice like that."

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