This Saturday a rested Illini squad will come to Columbus, just off a bye week. Talk of Zook's crew has been hush hush after the 37-9 beating they took to open the season against Missouri, but that doesn't make them any less lethal come Saturday. For whatever reason, Illinois always seems to give the Buckeyes a little extra fight. Even the other Big Ten powerhouses, Penn State and Michigan, don't seem to get the same kind of physical play from the Illini that the Buckeyes do. At least in recent history, they are ready for blood when they see the Scarlet and Gray.
Fans will obviously never forget the showdown in Champaign in 2002, as the Buckeyes barely escaped with a 23-16 victory in overtime. Then the two teams would get a break for two years until they met again in 2005. That year, in Zook's first season, the Illini won zero conference games and got crushed 40-2 by the Buckeyes in Columbus (Smith and Ginn rocked them). Since 2005 though, the Buckeyes have not had an easy game against Zook and company. One has to believe that Zook, an Ohio native, feels beating the Buckeyes will build more momentum both for the program and for recruiting than any other game. It sure seems that the last three years, the Illini have circled their collision with Ohio State on the calender. Let's take a look back at how those games played out...
The Buckeyes, led by Troy Smith, had been mowing over Big Ten opponents as they headed to Champaign. Zook's boys had little to be positive about though, coming in with just 2 wins and a loss to Ohio. The first half went just as everyone had scripted, and the Illini headed into the locker room down 17-0. What happened in the second half was mind blowing. The Buckeyes would not score another point, and had six punts and a interception. Antonio Pittman had maybe the worst game in his career, and in the second half was shut down by the Illini while only averaging 1.8 a carry.
Fumble happy freshmen sensation, Beanie Wells (who was having more success), would only see four carries. Meanwhile, the young Illini squad would try to storm back behind Juice Williams, Pierre Thomas, and Jeff Cumberland. They would cut the lead to 17-10 with 2:03 left, where it would remain despite a fierce fight. Zook was already establishing in his second year that he was going to cause the Buckeyes trouble.
The next year, Zook found himself with a much different set of circumstances as his squad came to Columbus with a 7-3 record. Ohio State was feeling confident though at 10-0, and was coming off two impressive victories against Penn State and Wisconsin. Things looked promising early, as the Buckeyes scored in two plays thanks to a 65 yard pass from Boeckman to Hartline. The Illini wasted no time making a comeback statement, scoring on three plays themselves (thanks to no review on a Daniel Dufrene fumble).
Juice Williams stole the show after that, and played maybe the best game in his disappointing career. Besides throwing for 4 touchdowns, Williams bothered the Buckeye defense with his legs. Late in the fourth quarter, he would help the Illini along with Rashard Mendenhall to pick up multiple third downs on the ground to ice the game. They would go onto shock Buckeye nation with a 28-21 victory, and prove once again how tough they wanted to play the Buckeyes.
Illinois took a huge step back last season, but they didn't diminish how much they wanted to crush the Buckeyes on "Senior Day." The Buckeyes took the early lead from a Pryor rushing touchdown, and would never give it up. This game was anything but easy though. The final score was 30-20, and it easily could have been closer than that. They gained 455 yards in the game (100 more than OSU), and put 241 yards up through the air compared to the Buckeyes 49. It would be two turnovers to go along with some special teams mistakes that would help give Ohio State the win.
What does the 2009 edition of this showdown have in store? Well, no one can be totally sure. The Illini have the offensive potential to be deadly, but will rely on a defense that has a lack of playmakers. One thing is for certain, Zook will have them read to play tough, physical football against the Buckeyes this Saturday. Especially with two weeks to prepare (for the Zookster), Tressel and the staff better be ready for a dog fight!