Twice Bitten

For a program looking to recover from last year's BCS Championship game and straighten a damaged perception because of an SEC onslaught, Saturday's 28-21 loss to Illinois was an unproductive day for Ohio State. For the second time in less than a year, the Buckeyes suffered national embarrassment. Both times can be pointed to upstart Ron Zook. Kyle Lamb explains.

Even the usually stoic Jim Tressel couldn't hide his emotions. The "senator," the captain, head coach and leader extraordinaire angrily slapped his hands together and coiled around in disgust.

For one of the rare occasions in Tressel's seven-year tenure at Ohio State, the coach had the look of defeat. He had just witnessed his battered defense allow a key third-and-three conversion to slippery and slimy Illinois quarterback Juice Williams with less than five minutes remaining in the game.

As 105,000 stunned folks sat in stunned silence during the waning moments of the Illini's 28-21 shocking upset of their No. 1-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday evening at the Horseshoe, perhaps the only individuals more helpless than that sea of shocked Scarlet were the 11 OSU defenders that allowed Illinois to eat up 14 of the last 15 minutes of the game and also their National Title hopes along with it.

While most of those Buckeye fans were re-living 1998, when Michigan State pulled off a similar feat one game before Michigan came to town, this one was far more reminiscent of a more recent debacle.


Much like the BCS National Championship game on January 8, 2007, the Buckeyes struck first, though it did take two plays from scrimmage to go 76 yards instead of the 99-yard kickoff return by Ted Ginn. But just like Florida did, Illinois quickly countered with a game-tying touchdown.

Though the final score and the other 59 minutes were hardly indicative of the sheer domination by the Gators 11 months ago, Illinois similarly imposed their will with speed and skill. Led by Williams, a run-first quarterback that allegedly had accuracy issues before the game, the Illini ran nearly at will and passed at opportunity.

Williams, just a sophomore, pulled a Chris Leak on Ohio State. Though Leak was a pocket passer, and not known as a running quarterback, his accuracy also came into question in the weeks leading up to the title game. But in an ironic twist, both quarterbacks were recruited by the mastermind of this latest upset - Illinois head coach Ron Zook.

This past week, Big Ten Network analyst Chris Martin boldly predicted on-air that Illinois had too many athletes for Ohio State. While Martin is likely feeling vindicated Sunday for his prognostication, this loss was gut-wrenching because it was delivered by a former SEC coach adopting an all-too familiar penchant for "speed." 

Zook, a former Ohio native, has established himself out on the recruiting trail as one of the best in the business. In five previous seasons as a head coach, however, he's been unable to do any better than four losses in a season. This year's team is 8-3, but the future appears to be bright.

It was a triple-wammy for Ohio State.

There was losing to a former SEC coach that recruited a lion's share of the players that crushed it's title hopes in 2006. There were the obvious parallels to the 1998 season and the 28-24 loss to Michigan State. And lastly, it was the reverse of what happened on March 6, 2005.

On that day, the basketball Buckeyes beat No. 1 Illinois 65-64, snapping the Illini's 29-game regular season winning streak. This time, it was up-and-coming Zook that slayed the undefeated giant, giving Illinois fans revenge for that historic upset.

History really thumbed it's nose at Buckeye fans this time.

Ohio State was likely not just some paper tiger, benefitting from a conveniently soft schedule. But the 28-game regular season win streak is over because Illinois was too quick for the Buckeyes' defense. Normally allowing just 60 yards a game on the ground, the OSU defenders were gashed for 260 yards by Williams, Daniel Dufrene and Rashard Mendenhall. Ohio State limited Mendenhall, who entered the game fourth in the nation in rushing, to 96 yards on 26 carries. However, the other two combined on an additional 180 yards.

It was nothing fancy that Illinois did Saturday. They were often predictable, though Zook changed the script just enough to keep Ohio State off-balance. But perhaps that's where the loss was so reminiscent to Florida's National Championship. For the second time in less than a year, Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and his prominent defense were carved like a Thanksgiving turkey and seemed powerless to stop it.

Either by strategy, by confusion or sheer stubborn refusal to do so, the Buckeyes never budged in the second half from a 3-3-5 defense that was being shredded in similar fashion to the debacle in the desert.

It seems in recent years that Ohio State is a master of preparation for their forthcoming opponent. Sometimes, the size and strength of the silver bullets are simply too much for the opponent to overcome. But it's now being called into question the ability to make wholesale changes in stride on those rare days where the scheme just isn't working.

If Zook, by design, wanted to mimic the legend of SEC speed, he succeeded. Don't believe for a second that Ohio State doesn't own a "fast" defense, nor does it lack athletes, but does anyone want to argue Illinois simply had too much speed Saturday on offense for the Buckeyes' unit to keep up?

Kudos to Zook for doing what no one else in 20 games in the Big Ten could do. Maybe Zook will lead Illinois into the elite of college football with all that speed and talent, maybe he won't. But that's twice now Zook's guys have bitten the Buckeyes in less than a year, and one of those times he wasn't even on the sidelines. That's not mentioning the Buckeyes' struggles in Champaign last season, where Ohio State escaped with a 17-10 victory.

This time, Ohio State couldn't escape.

It seems trivial to bust the chops of a coach and program that has won a National Championship within the last five years. It seems like a waste of time to criticize a resume that is 3-1 in BCS games in that span. For that matter, a 5-1 record against your chief rivals is more than enough to hold over the masses.

But that's never enough. Sports, in this day and age, is full of "what have you done for me lately?"

Against Florida, you could argue that it was a superior team tripping and falling. Maybe it was the lay-off, maybe it was overlooking the Gators, maybe it was simply that Ohio State wasn't as good as one-loss Florida. Whatever excuse you can come up with, the Buckeyes didn't just trip and fall against Illinois on Saturday, they were shoved to the ground and bullied by the Illini.

For all of the talk of Ohio State being motivated to prove the BCS Championship was no fluke, that they sought revenge against all of the college football world this January and that it wouldn't happen again - it happened again. It was Illinois that looked motivated. It was Illinois that was the hungrier team. More importantly, it was Illinois that looked ready and focused.

Perhaps few would trade spots with Illinois, even today, with Ohio State ranked No. 6 in the latest BCS standings. But on that given Saturday, Illinois was the better team, had the better coach and was in the better position. Maybe the game goes differently for the Buckeyes if the first Illinois touchdown gets wiped out because of a non-call fumble after a long run from Dufrene to the 2-yard line. However, if the OSU defense was unable to stop the powerful Illinois offense, why should an instant replay official?

When it's all said and done, it's Michigan week for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will travel to Ann Arbor looking for an outright Big Ten Title, and (at very least) a trip to Pasadena, Calif. for the Rose Bowl. It's a chance to deliver an even bigger crushing blow to the Wolverines, who are looking to salvage anything they can from a disappointing 3-loss season.

Maybe when the dust settles, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri knock each other off in a Big 12 battle royal. Maybe LSU falls in the SEC title game or Oregon trips up against rival Oregon State. Maybe in-state Cincinnati upsets West Virginia, or at least the Mountaineers fall to backyard brawl foe Pittsburgh. If all the stars align, Ohio State could still creep back into the BCS Championship picture. Unlikely, though still possible. 

If the improbable happens, perhaps Ohio State should give Zook, the former OSU assistant, a call. Twice now, he's formulated the ingredients to beat No. 1. As for the Buckeyes? It's back to the drawing board.

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