Before a college football team can go to bowl games and win championships, it must believe it can compete with the best. Confidence and some success are needed to create this belief. True confidence is attained when a team can look a great opponent in the eye as equals and then fight them on equal terms without submission or quit.
This is what the Fighting Illini football team did Saturday as they took everything number one ranked Ohio State could give them and asked for more in a close 17-10 loss in Memorial Stadium. It goes down as another close loss for the Illini, but it served a tremendously useful purpose. Illinois now KNOWS it can be good, real good. Coach Zook has been asking, cajoling, begging the Illini to believe in themselves, even going so far as to have pins made saying "I Believe" on them. They now believe.
Ohio State undoubtedly was not hitting on all cylinders. After nine straight wins against stiff competition, the Buckeyes probably felt they could beat Illinois handily. And their coaching staff went with a conservative game plan, figuring they could win without taking excessive risks or getting their star players hurt. But they still field a team possessing numerous future NFL draftees. They have great leadership from 16 fifth-year seniors, the same number of freshmen Illinois uses regularly. And they have the current frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy in quarterback Troy Smith running their offense.
Most teams have such reverence for these outstanding athletes there's a tendency to assume domination by them. Such an attitude guarantees a loss, and usually by a wide margin. Illinois began the game tight, and this ended up costing them the game. But they gained confidence throughout the contest and refused to allow tOSU to beat up on them. They actually had the proud Buckeyes back on their heels by the fourth quarter, the first time this year tOSU was playing to keep from losing. It was a sight seen only rarely, but it earned Illinois something it could obtain only through supreme ability and efffort: respect.
The Buckeyes respect the Illini for their game plan and the way they fought hard throughout the game. Many of the Ohio State fans have a newfound respect for Illinois as well. Teams around the Big Ten now know, if they didn't already, that Illinois is no longer a doormat and can win on any given Saturday.
People watching the game on national television have to respect the showing Illinois provided during a telecast preplanned to anoint the Buckeyes rulers of the world. Potential recruits have even more respect as well, and they have further reason to believe Coach Zook and his assistants when they state their plans for future championships. And Illini fans are walking around proud again for the first time since the BCS year of 2001.
Illinois has improved mightily since last year, and this is especially true of its defense. Illinois held the Buckeyes nearly 200 yards below their offensive average and completely shut down their ground game. Every defender can be singled out for special praise, but a few are especially notable. Ohioan Chris Norwell played like a man possessed and helped his improving defensive line neutralize the massive Ohio State offensive linemen. Walkon defensive tackles Josh Norris and Dave Lindquist continue to defy their status by playing with aggressive confidence. Derek Walker toughed out a painful ankle as he and defensive end mates Doug Pilcher, Will Davis and Antonio James put frequent pressure on the quarterback.
Illinois linebackers are making plays, in part due the job the Illini defensive line is doing in occupying blockers and keeping them away from the linebackers. J. Leman was player of the game for his 19 tackles, and his aggressiveness, intelligence, preparation and all-out hustle are the best we've seen at middle linebacker in a long time. Weakside linebacker Antonio Steele was all over the field, no doubt aroused by playing his state school. And Brit Miller made two open field tackles on the ultra quick Ted Ginn, an accomplishment he will likely remember the rest of his life.
Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell hit hard and offered both run and pass support. Mitchell gathered in only the third interception Troy Smith has thrown this year. Alan Ball made plays Illini fans were hoping he would make each of the last three years. And Vontae Davis deserves special praise for sticking close to Ginn on two long passes. He knocked one ball away and was called for pass interference on the other, but he ran step-for-step with a true superstar receiver.
The difference maker for tOSU was quarterback Smith, who used his superb running ability to advantage when his receivers were covered. But Coach Jim Tressel ordered Smith to forego his runs in the second half, conserving him with a 17-0 lead. This played into the Illini's hands as they could rush pass attempts without concern for Troy's escapability. The entire defense continued to improve and gain confidence as the game went along, and Ohio State was undoubtedly relieved to get out of the game with a win.
Illinois' offense struggled against the mighty Buckeye defense. The Illini never even crossed midfield in the first three quarters. Ohio State has great strength and quickness on their defense, but it also has a complex and confusing defensive package that flustered freshman quarterback Juice Williams. Ohio State blitzed at least one linebacker or defensive back on nearly every play, but it was difficult for Juice to determine from where that pressure would come. And Illinois' offensive line seemed slow and uncertain against the aggressive and unpredictable rush.
Juice was replaced by Tim Brasic for awhile in the second half to give him time to relax and observe the play on the field. The fifth year senior Brasic is to be commended for his important role in this game. Some people, when replaced by a raw freshman, would give up and become a liability to the team. But Brasic continued to prepare and stay positive each week, and his experience and ability to throw the short timing routes allowed him to move the offense to some degree.
Brasic led the Illini to their first points, a Jason Reda field goal, but he came back out after throwing an interception. Juice appeared rejuvenated at this point, helping move the Illini down the field on their best drive of the day before getting knocked out of the game temporarily by a hard hit to his jaw. Brasic came back in and finished the drive with a three yard option pitch to Rashard Mendenhall for the first touchdown against Ohio State's defense in twelve quarters. How much Brasic plays the rest of the year remains to be seen since Juice is still the starter. But he will remember the Ohio State game as one of his finest college memories.
Even the Illini special teams deserve praise on this day. Modifying the game plan to counter obvious weaknesses, Coach Zook went with two punters and two kickoff specialists. Freshman Kyle Yelton continued to punt when the wind was at his back, but he was asked to kick it high to add hang time and reduce the possibility of a Ginn runback.
When the strong wind was into Illini faces, freshman walkon Jared Bosch received his first game action and used a rugby style to advantage. He kept the punts low and let them bounce down the field for a 38 yard average. Against a strong wind, that is as good as most normal kickers ever accomplish. Ginn never had much opportunity to break a long one, and the field position differential was reduced from previous weeks.
Thanks to upset wins by Northwestern and Minnesota this week, Illinois is now tied for last in the Big Ten. In this view, it would be a travesty of Universal Justice for the Illini to end up last in the conference this year. They have shown week after week they are well coached and hungry. They are a definite obstacle for anyone facing them on their schedule and have proved worthy of being considered a good team. They have everyone's respect, and they are already considered a major threat for a bowl game next year.
There are two more difficult games on the schedule in Purdue and Northwestern. Given their inconsistencies on offense, Illinois cannot be considered a definite favorite in either game. But the Illini believe they are good, and they believe they can win. And they have earned the right to that belief.
We also believe. Do you?
Illini Gain Respect with Loss to Ohio State
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