At this point in the 2009 season, the Illini were reeling and unconfident after taking a 30-0 beating at Ohio State. But after this years loss to the second-ranked Buckeyes -- a 24-13 verdict Saturday afternoon in Champaign -- the Illini walked off the field believing they proved something to themselves and others.
Not only did Illinois limit one of the nations top five offenses to 24 points and 291 total yards, Ron Zooks crew took two early leads against the Buckeyes and never trailed by more than seven points until Dan Herrons clinching touchdown run with 1:49 to play.
I know you all are surprised, but were not surprised, Zook told reporters after the game. We expected to go in there and compete. We knew it was going to be a tough game. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game and we expected to be in it at the end, which we were.
As Zook suggested, the Illini competed on even footing with the Buckeyes almost the entire way. In the end, Illinois inability to turn red-zone drives into touchdowns and its penchant to commit key penalties ruined the upset bid.
Trailing 17-10 midway through the fourth quarter, Illinois marched 67 yards to Ohio States 13. But rather than go for it on fourth-and-7 in a bid to knot the game, Zook opted for a field goal that made it 17-13 with 4:36 to go. Zook hoped his stout defense would do no worse than allow a field goal and keep the game within reach, but things didnt pan out as planned as penalties and fatigue took their toll.
For starters, Jack Ramsey committed a dead-ball unnecessary roughness penalty on the kickoff. Then, on a play where the Illini stuffed Herron on third-and-1, cornerback Justin Green was flagged for offside even though he was a long way from the action. Then, as Ohio State kept handing it to Herron every play, linebacker Nate Bussey committed his second facemask penalty of the second half to make it even easier for Herron to ultimately get into the end zone.
I know we made a lot of ignorant penalties that we shouldnt have, said Illinois middle linebacker Martez Wilson, who paced the defense with nine tackles and one sack. Besides that, I think we played well. We were getting the offense the ball back with turnovers and three-and-outs ... I feel like it was a game that we should have definitely pulled away with.
The Illini plan to carry that confidence in their road games at Penn State and Michigan State.
Had junior running back Mikel Leshoure put together a 100-yard game against traditionally stingy Ohio State, he would have set an Illinois record with a fifth consecutive 100-yard effort. Instead, Leshoure found tough sledding from the get-go and needed a late 26-yard run to finish with 80 yards on 19 carries.
Leshoure entered Illinois 24-13 loss to the second-ranked Buckeyes as the nations No. 7 rusher with 132.7 yards per game, but dropped to 119.5 yards per game. He shares Illinois modern-day record (since 1950) for consecutive 100-yard games with all-time leading rusher Robert Holcombe and long-time NFL two-way player J.C. Caroline.
Zook reinstated suspended defensive end Michael Buchanan prior to the Ohio State game. He also decided not to suspend starting guard Hugh Thornton after he was charged with simple battery and damage to property during an accident at a Champaign bar on Sept. 26. Neither player started against Ohio State, but both made contributions. Buchanan produced a career-high seven tackles.
Both those guys, their discipline is going to be handled within, Zook said in the Daily Herald. And believe me, its strong discipline. Mike had been suspended for three weeks. I thought he had paid his price. Hes not done. Same with Hugh. I think there were a lot of things that were blown out of proportion in Hughs situation. Once we found all the facts, I felt like it was again something we can handle within.
Illinois dropped its 16th Big Ten opener in the last 17 years. No. 2 Ohio State became the 12th opponent in that run to be nationally ranked.
GAME BALL GOES TO: S Trulon Henry -- The junior-college transfer from Washington, D.C., known primarily as Arrelious Benns older brother, earned the first two interceptions of his career during the Ohio State game. Henry, who also contributed four tackles, became the first Illini to intercept two passes in a game since Kelvin Hayden in the 2004 opener against Florida A&M.
KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Jarred Fayson -- The fifth-year senior, who was regarded as a five-star recruit when he signed with Florida in 2006, caught a career-high eight passes for 83 yards. The former high school quarterback also completed a 23-yard pass to QB Nathan Scheelhaase and did his usual sterling job as a gunner on the punt team. Fayson downed a first-quarter punt at Ohio States 1-yard line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: We know what were capable of. We have it in our mind that were the best in the country. There are so many small things that we can tighten up. Its a downer, but it builds some confidence at the same time. -- Henry revealing the defenses mind-set to the Chicago Tribune after Saturdays loss.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: Against an Ohio State team averaging 49.3 points and 506.8 yards per game, Illinois defense limited the Buckeyes to 24 points and 291 total yards. The Illini sacked Terrelle Pryor three times -- including blitzes from Wilson and fellow LB Nate Bussey -- while they intercepted multiple passes against an FBS team for the first time since Nov. 1, 2008, against Iowa.
Against an Ohio State defense that hadnt allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 consecutive games, Leshoure battled for 80 yards on 19 carries. Backup Jason Ford, who occasionally played in the same backfield with Leshoure, contributed 28 yards in 6 carries.
Punter Anthony Santella and his cohorts maintained their terrific level of play. They entered the game as the nations No. 4 unit in net punting (43.3 ypp) and they averaged 43.5 net yards on six punts against OSU. With help from Fayson, Santella dropped a punt at Ohio States 1-yard line and finished with three kicks inside the 20 without any touchbacks.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Illinois averaged just 5.7 yards per passing attempt as Scheelhaase struggled to find time and open receivers. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 109 yards. He also underthrew WR A.J. Jenkins for a deep interception when Jenkins had a few steps on the secondary and Scheelhaase had a stiff wind behind him.
Illinois committed nine penalties that cost 74 yards. That included two facemask penalties on the strong-side linebacker Bussey and an offside penalty on cornerback Justin Green that overrode Illinois stop of running back Dan Herron on third-and-1.
WR A.J. Jenkins, who entered the game as the teams top receiver, caught just 1 pass for 16 yards. He dropped one pass that couldve been a first down.
Thornton (neck strain) did not start after being arrested the previous weekend for simple battery and damage of property at a local bar, but he played a handful of series. Strong-side guard Randall Hunt took Thorntons spot while junior Jack Cornell made his first career start at strong-side guard.
Starting Bandit (DE/OLB combo) Michael Buchanan played for the first time since the Sept. 4 opener at Missouri. Buchanan, who was suspended after being arrested Sept. 5 and charged with DUI, came off the bench to contribute a career-high seven tackles. Look for him to return to the starting lineup next week at Penn State.
Starting WR Eddie McGee (sprained left ankle) dressed for the Ohio State game and he was listed as a participant, but he saw limited snaps and didnt catch a pass.
Starting CB Terry Hawthorne and starting TE Zach Becker havent played this year due to stress fractures in their right feet, but both looked better when they walked the sidelines during the Ohio State game. Theres a decent chance one or both could return for Penn State.
Starting safety Supo Sanni (ruptured right Achilles tendon) is out for the year.