Illinois scored first against the heavily favored Bearcats, but Mardy Ginyard returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to tie the score. Senior quarterback Tony Pike then led the Bearcats to three straight touchdowns to take a 28-7 lead. The Illini kept it close but couldn't catch up. Afterward, Ron Zook praised Cincinnati but wondered, 'What if?'
"We had our chances against a good, good football team. It was a frustrating thing. Those are the things we've got to get fixed. As I've said, this thing ain't broke. Obviously, we have some work to do.
"When they go back to watch the tape, they'll be sick because of the big plays, the big return, the dropped passes, the things you can't do against a good football team."
A breakdown in the secondary allowed second string tight end Ben Guidugli to grab 7 balls for 149 yards and two first half touchdowns. Once the Illini figured him out, the Bearcats found their star Ginyard for 102 yards and seven catches and another touchdown. Ginyard ended with 234 all-purpose yards.
But the Illini continued to fight. Quarterback Juice Williams, playing on an extremely painful ankle that was worse than announced, showed tremendous courage and played the whole way. He went over the 10,000 yard mark for his career early in the game and finished with 282 yards passing on 21 completions in 34 attempts and two touchdowns plus 67 rushing yards.
Williams hit Fred Sykes for a 21 yard TD in the first series of the game, Chris Duvalt for a 19 yard score in the second quarter to narrow the gap to 28-14, and he ran an option for a two yard score early in the fourth quarter. Zook's voice cracked with emotion when describing Williams' effort.
"I told Juice, and I mean this. If I had a son, I'd want him around Juice."
Field position played a major role in this game, the first time all year Illini kickoff coverage failed the team. Besides Ginyard's long return, he and Darrin Williams each put the Bearcats in favorable position after long returns. It was asking too much to expect the Illini defense to contain the Bearcats' offense with that advantage all day.
But even then, the Illini had their moments on defense. They held Cincinnati to just 21 rushing yards. Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike completed 32 of 46 passses for 397 yards and 6 touchdowns, but this was expected. Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne each had interceptions in their grasp but dropped them.
In addition, replays appeared to indicate that Ginyard stepped on the end line while juggling the pass that was ruled complete for Cincinnati's final TD. The outcome might have remained the same regardless, but that call gave the Bearcats' too big a lead for the Illini to overcome.
Illinois had nearly 15 minutes more time of possession, their goal to keep the Bearcat offense off the field relatively successful. They had 7 more first downs and outgained them 476 to 420. But penalties and other inconsistencies kept the Illini from scoring as often as their opponent.
Chris Duvalt had 6 catches for 94 yards on the day, but a long bomb to a wide open Duvalt fell off his fingertips. Zook remembered that one later.
"That's six, and then he had a chance to catch the two in the end zone, that's eight. Obviously, it's not his fault, but those are plays we've got to make."
The Illini never gave up, they just weren't as efficient as their opponent. That has typified the entire season.
"They never did," Zook agreed. "They fought all year. For whatever reason, they just haven't gotten it done."
Jason Ford hurt his elbow, and Mikel Leshoure tweaked an ankle, limiting the Illini running game somewhat. But the Illini were also stymied by a lack of originality in play calling at times, making themselves more predictable. Still, their overall offensive statistics were enough to win.
Besides Duvalt's good receiving day, Arrelious Benn, Sykes and Leshoure each added three catches, and Jarred Fayson caught two for 67 yards. Fayson might have scored on one big play had he recovered his speed fully after a severe ankle sprain earlier in the year.
Other than losing Guidugli early, the Illini kept most of the other passes in front of them. Garrett Edwards led the Illini with 7 tackles, Ian Thomas added 6 and Tavon Wilson 5. Thomas, Wilson, Doug Pilcher and Corey Liuget were all credited with tackles for loss.
Illini fans are upset with the 3-8 season record, and rightfully so. But Zook hopes they will support the seniors in their final home game next Saturday against Fresno State.
"This week is dedicated to our seniors. This program was much worse off when they came in and what it is now. Even though our record is not where it needs to be, they've given their all to this place. Our coaching staff is gonna do everything we can possibly do to win this game."