Ohio State has been a dominant team for many years, yet they were the wounded underdogs coming into this game. Illinois football coach Ron Zook knew they would play their best game; he was disappointed his Illini didn't match fire with fire.
"Ohio State's a good football team. They've lost a couple games. They knew they had to come in here and win the game. As I said all week, we had to match their same intensity. Up until the last part of the fourth quarter, we didn't. We've got to learn from that."
The Buckeyes, playing with a freshman quarterback who is more adept at running than passing this early in his career, decided to emphasize their running game against the Illini. Braxton Miller completed only one of four passes on the day, but the Illini aided their cause with three turnovers, multiple dropped passes, errant center snaps and other mistakes to allow their game plan to be effective.
"When the dust settles and they look at this game, they're gonna be sick," Zook said of his players. "They had an opportunity to beat a good football team, and we didn't capitalize on it. We had some guys that, at times, didn't play the way we need to play.
"Turnovers were the thing. We've been able to hold teams to field goals, but they scored two touchdowns off the turnovers."
The first half was a defensive struggle. The only time either team came close to scoring was on OSU's opening drive, where they drove from their own 29 yard line to the Illinois 26, where Drew Basil hit a 43 yard field goal.
But on the Illini's second play of the second half, Nathan Scheelhaase overthrew A.J. Jenkins, the ball landing in the belly of Buckeye cornerback Bradley Robey. Robey returned 36 yards to give his team great field position at the Illini 12 yard line. Star running back Dan Herron, playing his first game after a lengthy suspension, swept into the end zone to make the score 10-7.
On their next possession, the Illini began to move the ball behind the running of Jason Ford, playing possibly his best game of the year. But he suffered a sprained AC joint in his shoulder after a nine yard gain, and his power running was missed thereafter.
On a possession crossing into the fourth quarter, Scheelhaase hit A.J. Jenkins for what appeared a nine yard gain, but Jenkins was stripped of the ball. The Buckeyes needed just three plays to score again, this time on Miller's 17 yard pass to tight end Jake Stoneburner. That was Miller's only completion on the day.
The Illini tried to make a game of it. Beginning at their own 20 yard line, they finally sustained a drive. It took them 17 plays, but they scored on a three yard pass from Scheelhaase to tight end Evan Wilson to make it 17-7.
Uplifted, the UI defense forced a three-and-out, and hope of a comeback victory surged. But on first down with 3:55 left in the game, Scheelhaase's sideline bomb to Ryan Lankford was slightly underthrown, and OSU's Travis Howard jumped the route for another costly interception.
Still, the game was not out of reach. The UI defense forced another punt as the Buckeyes became even more conservative. The Illini had a little over two minutes to get two scores, but it was doable. Moving from their own 44 yard line, Scheelhaase hit receivers on consecutive passes of 9, 7, 5 and 11 yards.
On first down, Spencer Harris had a chance for a great catch in the end zone, but the ball slipped off his outstretched fingertips. The drive began to stall, and they faced a 4th and 2 from the OSU 17 yard line. Going for the first down, Scheelhaase and Jenkins had a miscommunication, and the pass fell harmlessly to the turf, ending their last hope.
Pros always go for the field goal in that situation, assuming a successful onside kick and chance to get a touchdown at the end of the game. But offensive coordinator Paul Petrino had a play he felt would work for the first down.
"I had a play that was going to be an easy first down and give us a chance to score quick. I told Coach Zook I thought we could get it easy. A.J. didn't run a hitch, and he should have. It should have been an easy first down; we just didn't execute it.
"That's my fault. I'm the coordinator and the receiver coach. We did a lot of things not right today. It all goes back to me, so it was my fault. If anyone had a bad day today, it was me."
One common denominator in the post game media conference was all Illini players and coaches were willing to blame themselves for the loss. There was no passing the buck. Petrino blamed himself for the miscommunication between Scheelhaase and Petrino, as well as the three drops on third and medium that stopped important drives.
Steve Hull, as quarterback of the defense, blamed himself for not wrapping up his tackles better and not covering Stoneburner on the TD catch. Scheelhaase blamed himself for the fourth down play and his interceptions. On and on it went. There was plenty of blame to go around.
The truth is, the Buckeyes are loaded with talent, and they played a mistake-free game with their backs to the wall. They deserve tons of credit. The Illini didn't play the inspired game they needed to defeat a quality opponent, but there is still a lot of season left for redemption. The offense was inefficient, but it will learn from its mistakes.
Many are quick to blame the fourth down decision, but that wasn't the reason for the loss. It just wasn't the Illini's day. For the first time this season, three snaps were slightly off line, forcing delays that resulted in blown plays. For one of the few times, normally sure-handed receivers couldn't hold onto contested passes in their hands.
Offensive stars Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins had average days at best, but that is not surprising after two great games in a row. The defense gave up more than twice their average on running plays, but their national statistics will not suffer after giving up only 228 total yards.
There will be another day.
"We've got to regroup," Zook admits. "We're still in a position where we can control our own destiny. Our guys are hurt right now, but they understand it. We're 6-1, and two of the better teams in the Big 10 have to come here. The positive thing, I don't think you scrap the season. We've still got a chance to be pretty good."
Bandit Michael Buchanan reminded he and his teammates still have a lot to play for these next five games.
"It's pretty disappointing. We really wanted the win. But it's not the end of our season. We're still a really good team. We're gonna learn from this and be a lot better team. It's over, we've just got to focus on being 7-1 now."
Even defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, normally morose after a loss or poor play, felt his defense played well most of the time.
"They had 211 rushing yards, but that was in 51 rushes. That's four yards a rush. That's not great, but not awful either. I think the national average is probably 4.7, something like that. As a goal, you want to hold them at about 3.5. They've got some good players. I think if you take out the one quarterback run (35 yards) that's a bunch right there.
"I don't think we played as good as we can play. I don't think we were electric, but we were probably pretty solid. They're good at running the football."
Illini offensive statistics reflected their inconsistency and OSU defensive excellence. Scheelhaase was the leading rusher with 49 net yards. Ford added 30 in six tries, Troy Pollard 24 in five rushes, and Donovonn Young just 13 in 8 carries. In contrast, Herron ran for 114 yards in 23 carries, breaking tackles and changing directions beautifully for extra yardage.
Scheelhaase completed 20 of 34 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Jenkins again led the Illini with 8 catches for 80 yards, although at times Scheelhaase needed to look for secondary receivers with Jenkins covered. Freshman Jon Davis had his best game with three receptions for 37 yards, and Ryan Lankford also had three grabs.
Punter Justin DuVernois had possibly the best day of his brief Illini career. He belted a huge 66 yarder while also pinning OSU back inside it's own twenty twice. He averaged 38.3 despite a strong, swirling wind.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown had a monster game for the Illini after missing last week with a suspension. He was credited with 17 tackles including 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus continued his fine play with 9 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble. Buchanan added 8 tackles and half a sack.
Offensive tackle Jeff Allen admitted the Buckeyes have a good defense, but he's a leader and insists his teammates put this loss behind them.
"My first thought is, we've got to get over this. We can't stay in this funk. We've got to bounce back and prepare for next week."