Illini, Zook And Juice Prove Critics Wrong

Fighting Illini football fans, remember the date November 10, 2007. It was on this day the Illini ended 56 years of frustration by whipping the number one team in the land Ohio State Buckeyes in their own stadium, 28-21. QB Juice Williams came of age on this day, completing four touchdown passes and managing the offense. But it was a total team effort by a maturing, exciting football team.

Head Coach Ron Zook was understandably elated with the win.

"We've come a long way, we really have. I'm so proud of our players. They bought in to what we said we had to do. I'm so happy for our fans, the Illini Nation. I'm happy that Coach Guenther gave me this opportunity. These people have taken us in, and it's a neat thing, it really is."

This victory was no fluke. Ohio State appeared fired up and came out of the gate fast. But Illinois had an answer every time. No matter how loud the Buckeye fans became, the Illini kept their poise and played like the winners they are. Even when concussions benched stars Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn and a serious knee injury sidelined powerhouse fullback Russ Weil, other Illini took their place and made big plays.

Ohio State came into the game unbeaten and boasting the number one defense in the land. They were giving up only 43 yards rushing on average in the Big Ten, but the Illini accumulated 260 yards. Illinois' total offense totalled 400 yards, by far the best day anyone has had against the vaunted Buckeyes all year. Rashard Mendenhall became the all-time single season rushing leader with his 88 yards.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley and his staff had a brilliant game plan that kept the Buckeyes off balance and uncertain. The Illini knew they had to pass effectively to open up their running game, so Juice Williams completed 12 of his 22 passes to 9 different receivers for 140 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. They knew tOSU would be keying on Rashard Mendenhall's rushes, so they countered with second stringer Daniel Dufrene's 106 rushing yards. The Buckeyes were back on their heels all day.

Defensively, the Illini bent but never broke, gaining confidence and strength as the game went on. Linebacker J. Leman had a monster game, his emotional play inspiring his teammates. The Illini defensive front four kept the pressure on Buckeye quarterback Todd Boeckman, forcing errant throws and garnering sacks by Jerry Brown and Will Davis.

The Illini defensive backfield did an excellent job covering the speedy Buckeye receivers, and they came up with three big interceptions. True freshman Marcus "Miami" Thomas, subbing for Vontae Davis most of the game, had a big fourth quarter interception. Perhaps more importantly, he broke up a pass in the endzone that would otherwise have tied the game in the third quarter, popping it up so that linebacker Antonio Steele could stop the drive. Dere Hicks also had a big interception.

"I told him to just go out there and play like he's at Morgan Park (high school)," said Zook describing Thomas. "Sometimes, what you don't know is good. He's going to be a heck of a football player for us. He's going to continue to grow. Obviously, this is going to be a big win for him."

Ohio State began the game in impressive fashion, needing only 2 plays to cover 76 yards. A 65 yard pass from Boeckman to Brian Hartline was the big play, and Chris "Beanie" Wells ran 11 more to paydirt. But Illinois countered with the same quickness, covering 83 yards in three plays. Dufrene's 80 yard run set up Juice Williams' 3 yard pass to wide open tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to tie the score.

Again the Buckeyes marched impressively down the field, needing nine plays to cover 76 yards. Boeckman's 23 yard scramble and 22 yard pass to Ballard were big plays in the drive, which culminated with Maurice Wells' 19 yard TD scamper.

The Illini offense stalled on their next series, but Hicks' interception gave them the ball back at their own 45 yard line. Juice Williams hit Kyle Hudson for 14 yards and ran for 8 yards to highlight this possession. On second down at the Ohio State 33 yard line, Juice used play action to draw up a safety, allowing Jacob Willis the freedom to haul in the touchdown pass to tie the score 14-14.

After this offensive explosion by both teams, there was still 4:04 left in the first quarter. But any thought of a high scoring game was quickly squashed when both defenses began to show their strength. It appeared they might enter halftime tied, but Illinois began to move the ball again near the end of the half. Mendenhall finally broke loose for his first big run of the game, a 25 yarder when Coach Zook decided to gamble on fourth and one. Juice then hit freshman Brian Gamble on a 7 yard strike to make the score 21-14 at the half.

The Buckeyes had a good drive on their first possession of the second half. Using 13 short runs and passes, tOSU moved into scoring position. But on third and goal at the 10 yard line, Thomas made his brilliant deflection that Steele caught to snuff out the drive.

This was the turning point of the game. The Illini used their momentum to march downfield for the clinching touchdown. Starting at their own 20 yard line on the touchback, Juice began to dominate. He ran four straight times for 17 yards following a 12 yard Dufrene run. Gamble then made a great catch for 15 big yards. After a five yard gain by Mendenhall, Juice went up top, hitting a wide open Marquis Wilkins for the 31 yard touchdown. The Buckeyes never recovered.

Ohio State has been known for its second half dominance all year, but not on this day. They did counter Illinois' two touchdown lead with a score of their own on an 18 yard run by Chris Wells. But they had the ball for only three plays in the entire fourth quarter. Thomas' interception ended the Buckeyes' only drive of that quarter.

Repeating their exploits at the end of the Ball State game, Illinois then kept the ball the rest of the game. They held the ball for 16 plays covering only 42 yards while consuming the final 8:09 of the game. Four times they needed a first down to keep possession, and Juice came through with a big run each time. The biggest play was a one yard sneak on fourth down on their own 34 yard line. It was a big gamble that ultimately won the game for Illinois. Zook recalls that decision.

"Coach Tressel called a time out. I was going to punt it, but Juice grabbed me and said 'Coach, I promise you I can get it.' You ask them to trust you, and sometimes you have to trust them too."

Juice Williams was named Player Of The Game, and rightly so. Besides his 140 passing yards, he also gained 70 yards rushing, and most of those were clutch carries under extreme pressure. Juice was emotional after the game but gave proper credit to his teammates.

"I take my hat off to the offensive line, running backs and receivers. They made all this happen for me. Now we can pass the ball a little bit. A lot of guys said we are one-dimensional. There's still room for improvement, but this game proved we can pass the ball as well."

Coach Zook was more to the point about Juice's play.

"He's going to get better and better. You saw in the fourth quarter why he's our quarterback. He's a player who's going to figure a way to get it done. He's a winner, and I'm glad he's with the University of Illinois."

Senior safety Kevin Mitchell wanted to share the victory with those who suffered through the difficult times with him and the other seniors in the recent past.

"This feels great. Words can't describe it. I want to share this with the guys who aren't with us anymore, the ones who went through the hard times with us. We had a great week of practice, we stayed focused, and the seniors showed good leadership."

Ohio State had won 28 straight regular season games, 20 straight Big Ten games and 18 straight home games. Illinois ended those streaks and their own lengthy drought against teams ranked number 1 in the country. The Illini players and coaches believe, and now their fans do as well.

A team of destiny won a game that will be remembered forever.

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