Illini Fight Bravely But Lose to Ohio State

The Fighting Illini football team fought mightily against talented and focused Ohio State Saturday at Memorial Stadium Saturday, but they came up short on the scoreboard, 30-20. In many ways, the game was a microcosm of the entire season. Great plays were intermixed with errors and inconsistency, frustrating the team and fans alike.

As has been the case all year, turnovers, penalties at inopportune times, special teams breakdowns, and red zone inadequacies prevented a possible victory. Illinois coach Ron Zook cited two major issues, but there were others.

"Two things," Zook singled out. "One, you can't turn the ball over with a chance to win. And you can't give up 300 yards rushing and have a chance to win. You can't be a successful team and do those things. That's a good football team, and they did a good job."

The game was lost early. Quarterback Juice Williams gave up a fumble at the Illinois 19 yard line on his second possession, and the Buckeyes covered those yards to paydirt for a 7-0 lead. After the Illini tied the game on a 7 yard pass from Williams to Jeff Cumberland, Anthony Santella had his punt blocked through his own end zone. The safety gave OSU a 9-7 lead and forced Santella to punt again into a stiff Northerly wind.

That free kick was weak, allowing Ohio State to take over at the Illinois 43 yard line. Another short field, another Buckeye touchdown. A. J. Jenkins bobbled the ensuing kick and returned it only to the 18. The Illini began a promising march, highlighted by Juice completions to Cumberland, Arrelious Benn, and Eddie McGee plus a 15 yard run by Daniel Dufrene.

At this point, Juice was intercepted by Ohio State's Kurt Coleman. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley and Benn both thought Benn was interfered with on the play, but no call was made. Juice thought so also.

"What I saw was that Rejus (Benn) had a step on the guy, and while the ball was in the air he got tripped up. The official made his call, so we've got to live with it."

Ohio State took advantage of its break, marching 76 yards to make the score 23-7. Illinois never gave up after that, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Illinois outgained Ohio State 455 yards to 354, this against one of the nation's best defenses. They gained 214 yards on the ground, led by Dufrene with 79, Williams 48 and Jason Ford 43. And Juice was a respectable 17 for 26 passing for 192 yards and two touchdowns.

Unfortunately Ohio State dominated the line of scrimmage, especially in the second half. Star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells ran around, through and over Illini defenders to the tune of 143 yards in 24 carries. But the man for whom the Illini had no answer was freshman quarterback sensation Terrelle Pryor.

The 6'-6" Pryor was only asked to do the things he does well, but the Illini rarely laid a hand on him. Planned draws and sweeps, plus the ocasional scramble, netted Pryor 110 yards in 13 carries. Whenever an Ohio State drive stalled, Pryor would bail them out. He completed only 6 of 10 passes for 49 yards, but he needed to pass only twice in the second half. He managed their offense well and didn't make mistakes.

Illinois middle linebacker Brit Miller recognized Pryor's talent.

"Pryor is a great quarterback, athlete wise right now. They kept the routes simple for him. I think he will develop as a terror for a lot of teams in the Big Ten."

Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch was frustrated in his unit's inability to stop the run to force the pass. Overall, he is frustrated by how the entire season has gone.

"You've gotta have your 'A' game every week. That's what the good teams do, and we haven't captured that this year, I don't think. We've got one more week to go. Hopefully, we'll find a way to fly around and have more fun."

Dufrene had one of his best games as an Illini. Besides fighting for good yardage on runs, he was the leading receiver with five grabs for 42 yards. But foremost on his mind was how Illinois' offense continues to sputter in the red zone.

"Once we got down to the red zone, we didn't execute like we'd been doing all week in practice. That's what it comes down to, execution. When we execute, no one can stop us except ourselves. It takes us all coming together and playing as a team. Going out and playing for each other."

Juice agreed about the red zone issues.

"We made a bunch of mistakes. Sometimes, we're on different pages out there. We've got to take advantage of our opportunities. When we get in the red zone, we've got to get points instead of just a field goal."

All Illini are groping for solutions to their inconsistencies. And they are discouraged by unusual events that didn't occur during last year's Rose Bowl run. What makes it especially discouraging is how close they are to having a great season.

"It's so frustrating because you're so close," Juice admitted. "Every time it's just right there. Whether it be communication problems, guys on a different page, a drop here, an interception there, it's hard to get out of. We have to find a way to do so."

One bright spot for the Illini was Matt Eller's two field goals. He broke the Illinois freshman record for field goals in a season. He is happy about the record, but he also realizes how close he was to a more dubious one.

"It's a nice record to have. I also heard that if I missed one more, I also would have tied another record."

Coach Zook takes these losses personally. He is probably more disappointed for his players than himself. He understands the agony and ecstasy of college football better than most.

"It hurts like heck. It's brutal. You do it for that feeling you get on Saturday when you win. You have to understand it's gonna be painful, but you've just got to keep going.

"I only know one way, and that's to go back to work. We have one game left, and we can still get bowl eligible. It's a rivalry game, it's a big, big game. We've gotta keep grinding our way through this stuff."

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