Wednesday, November 14, 2007

PERFECT GAME, IMPERFECT SEASON: Why Illinois toppled the formerly No. 1 Buckeyes.

As Juice Williams, Illinois' highly under-rated option quarterback, stood in front of TV cameras Saturday evening after his Illini knocked off the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, the hushed tones of the Horseshoe allowed for his emotions to carry off louder than even he expected.

"I just want to thank God and Jesus Christ," Williams said. "All the glory goes to Him."

Well, obviously. God had to be pulling for Illinois, for them to play as perfectly as they did.

As the text messages and phone calls started to swarm in after the 28-21 loss took Ohio State out of the national championship hunt, I had really only one response: "Give credit to Illinois. They played a perfect game."

Though it's debatable whether a college football team could be perfect on every play, Illinois came close. They didn't have a single penalty until a fourth-quarter holding call (they weren't flagged again, by the way). They had zero turnovers to Ohio State's three. They executed a spread option that has been the Buckeyes' achilles heal since Florida exposed it last year. Ron Zook and the Illinois coaching staff came into Ohio State with a golden game plan and the right personnel. They executed perfection.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as distraught about the Buckeyes' loss as all of you are. I had visions of national redemption for the Scarlet and Gray against an SEC foe (LSU) in the national championship game. I thought that, maybe, this Ohio State team of lower expectations and lower talent than last year's super, senior-laden squad would tiptoe into history. I say "tiptoe" because no one, no one, expected Ohio State to be a national title contender that late into the season. So, I should be still in mourning, but I'm going to say something here that will make me sound like a bad fan.

I'm a little, just a little, happy for Ohio native Ron Zook. I smiled on the inside a little bit for Illinois' Juice Williams. Illinois won the conference in 2001, and then the bottom fell out. Suddenly, they couldn't get recruits, they couldn't win close games and they became a laughingstock of the conference. It came with seemingly no explanation. I remember sitting in the 'Shoe in 2005 when Ohio State embarrassed the Illini 40-2. I thought that teams like Bowling Green and Toledo would be more competition in the Big Ten than Illinois was. Now, obviously, I have to recant that.

The Illini have two very understandable losses: one to Missouri in St. Louis near the beginning of the season and one to Wisconsin on the road. The loss that kills them is the road loss at Iowa, or else they would have been a top-20 team last week, and this week, they'd be in the BCS bowl-game conversation. Though perhaps they are deserving for even more national attention--if for no other reason than to prove the Big Ten isn't a total pushover--I have a bowl wish for Illinois: Capital One on New Year's Day.

Where would that leave the Buckeyes? Think about it. Full "Keeping Score" coverage of "The Game" is coming.

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