Memory Lane: Knocking off No. 1
EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: In 2007, the Illini's trip to Ohio State ended in a history-making upset — and kind words from Loren Tate on then-popular Ron Zook. Think it can happen again this Saturday?
Date: Nov. 11, 2007
Headline: Zook again show he's building a winner
By LOREN TATE
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Why not Illinois? WHY NOT?
In a long football season marked by coast-to-coast upsets, Ron Zook’s Illini pulled off the most significant shocker of all Saturday.
And now, after dispatching Ohio State 28-21 with a game-ending, eight-minute march, these gritty Illini, reflecting the unquenchable energy of their leader, possess a triumph that will mark them throughout their careers and their lives.
Not since 1956 had Illinois defeated a No. 1, and that long-ago win against Michigan State didn’t carry postseason significance. This one guarantees a tie for second in the Big Ten if the Illini defeat Northwestern and could propel this 8-3 team all the way into a Jan. 1 bowl.
And if Zook isn’t Big Ten Coach of the Year, who is?
His imprint on this UI program is getting larger every day. Last season, Zook’s recruits at Florida deprived Ohio State of the national title. And on Saturday, in the gathering darkness with 105,453 desperate fans roaring and pleading for a rally, the Illini broke Ohio State’s 20-game Big Ten win streak and shattered the Buckeye dream.
And yes, Yes, YES, the Illini have an inexplicable tendency to play their best against Ohio State. These were the same old Illini knights felling their favorite dragon. Unbeknownst to anyone in this state, they’ve won three of the last four in Ohio Stadium and have split the last 18 games in the series.
A promise kept
If you complained about Zook accepting unnecessary penalties at Iowa, bite your tongue. If you were critical when 10 UI infractions spoiled the effort against Michigan, go sit in the corner. If you called for Eddie McGee to replace Juice Williams, don the dunce cap.
A master schemer on this day, Zook gambled twice on fourth down and won. Shortly before halftime, with the score 14-14, it was fourth and 1 at the OSU 43, and Rashard Mendenhall bounced outside for a 25-yard romp to set up the go-ahead TD.
More dangerous was a fourth-down call from his own 33 with less than seven minutes to go.
’I knew it was only an inch,’ Zook said, ’and during the timeout, Juice grabbed me and said, ‘I can get you 1 inch.’ I could see it in his eyes and I said, ‘You’d better.’ Juice is a tough competitor. People saw in that fourth quarter why he’s our starter.’
Zook tied his program to Juice two years ago, calling the Chicago Vocational senior from Columbus after a 40-2 loss and promising, ’When we return here in two years, it will be different.’
There were bumps along the way, just like Zook said there would be. There were times earlier this season when McGee came in out of the bullpen. But Illinois started every new week with Williams No. 1, and Zook never wavered on that.
Not that Williams didn’t suffer.
’For a long time, I stopped reading the paper,’ he said. ’I let the negative things get to me. I was down after I took a hit (and was sidelined) in the Missouri game, and after the Western Illinois game, I didn’t know if I deserved to be No. 1. But after we lost to Iowa, I said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m just going to have fun.’
’Today was very satisfying, with all that noise in the locker room, guys on chairs and water flying everywhere.’
Every which way
Saturday was the payoff of the great Zook experiment. When Ohio State scored on the second play from scrimmage, the Illini popped Daniel Dufrene for 80 yards to set up a score. When Ohio State struck again, so did Williams with a precision 33-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Willis.
It looked like a shootout at 14-14, but the UI defense shut down the Buckeyes for nearly the next 40 minutes. That gave Williams time to build a 28-14 lead with four touchdown passes against a team that had permitted five in 10 previous games. And he managed this stunning effort without a turnover and with one penalty. Illinois netted 260 yards on the ground, just 88 of it by the UI’s new all-time single-season rushing leader Mendenhall, against a foe that was giving up 65 rushing yards per game.
And it was Juice, bursting up the middle as Ohio State protected the perimeter, who kept the late clock ticking with clutch 13- and 12-yard third-down runs. Juice was right at home in this hard-hitting encounter.
It was the level of nearperfect football that Zook proclaimed would be required. And he got it from both sides, whether it was J Leman turning in a spectacular 12-tackle game, whether it was an attacking D-line putting pressure on Todd Boeckman or whether it was Dere Hicks, Miami Thomas and Antonio Steele spearing interceptions.
A work of art
Before the game, two trusted Columbus authorities spoke with concern about the Buckeyes, noting that a favorable schedule and ’a weak conference’ allowed them to reach No. 1 in a path cleared by shocking upsets. And athletic director Ron Guenther, ever the optimist, reminded that Illinois was only three crucial plays from being undefeated.
Maybe these old rivals were closer in ability than some of us realized. And once the dust settled from the game’s early breakaways, it became clear that Illinois had the strength up front to take Jim Tressel’s club to the limit, that Zook had backups ready to fill in for injured standouts Vontae Davis, Arrelious Benn and Russ Weil, that Illinois had a battle-hardened quarterback whose time had arrived.
’Zook painted the vision for this team,’ Leman said. ’He brought in the talent, and he pushed us through hard, speedy practices. I only had eight wins in my career, and now I have eight wins this season. We got beat on some plays early today, but I had good keys and intuition on what they were doing. I knew their personnel and I read the guards on runs and the tackles on passes. They run a lot of power plays, and we like that.’
Illinois still might have pass defense problems, although 14 interceptions this year is a marked improvement. And Illinois might not be able to play 60 minutes without a turnover next Saturday. But it is obvious, from a pure physical standpoint, that Illinois hasn’t been overpowered in a game all season. Zook has successfully meshed the old with the new, the veterans like Leman, Chris Norwell and Martin O’Donnell from the Ron Turner era, with the more highly touted youngsters.
He put them together and got a masterpiece Saturday.