FINAL: Cincinnati 49, Illinois 36
The opportunity came ... and went.
Illinois coach Ron Zook spent two weeks talking about the chance his players had to show their ability on national television. Against No. 5-ranked Cincinnati. At a full Nippert Stadium.
Cincinnati didn't get the memo, rolling to their 11th win of the season, 49-36. Illinois dropped to 3-8, the fifth time in the last seven seasons it has lost as many as eight games.
The Illini had their moments. On their first drive, they took the 87 yards in 12 plays for a 7-0 lead. Juice Williams capped the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Fred Sykes on third down.
But the joy on the Illinois sideline didn't last long. Exactly 13 seconds. Cincinnati star returner Mardy Gilyard took Derek Dimke's kick at the 10, found a gap in the Illinois coverage and raced 90 yards for a touchdown.
The Bearcats scored the next 21 points to seemingly take command of the game. Tony Pike, back in the starting lineup after missing time with an arm injury, threw a pair of touchdown passes to Ben Guidugli and one to DJ Woods, putting Cincinnati up 28-7 early in the second quarter. Guidugli finished the first half with six catches for 144 yards.
Illinois didn't fold. Juice Williams threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Chris Duvalt and Dimke hit a 39-yard field goal to cut the Cincinnati advantage to 28-17. Gilyard's second touchdown of the game, this one on an 11-yard pass from Pike, gave Cincinnati a 35-17 lead.
Dimke, who took over the place kicking duties for Matt Eller against Northwestern, hit a 48-yard field goal on the final play of the half to make the score 35-20.
Illinois actually outgained Cincinnati in the first half, 267 yards to 239. The Illinois defense held the Bearcats to minus-6 yards rushing.
The teams traded punts the opening half of the third quarter. Illinois had a chance to score, but Duvalt dropped a 56-yard pass at the Cincinnati 17.
The only touchdown of the third quarter was by the Bearcats on a 10-yard pass from Pike to Armon Binns. It was Pike's fifth touchdown pass of the game, tying a school record. After three quarters, Pike was 26 of 40 for
327 yards. Williams completed 15 of 27 passes in the first three quarters for 185 yards.
Dimke hit a 30-yard field goal, his third of the game, late in the third quarter.
Cincinnati 42, Illinois 30, 10:03 in the fourth quarter:
Don't look now, but Illinois is within 12 points with 10 minutes left. Illinois is going to look back at missed chances in the game, like dropped passes or drives deep into Cincinnati territory that ended with field goals.
The crowd seems to have lost interest. The sun has come out, but it's still cold. Few fans have left, but they aren't making the noise they were earlier.
Cincinnati 42, Illinois 20, 4:02 in the third quarter:
About the last thing Illinois wants to see is Mikel Leshoure limping off the field with an apparent leg injury. Jason Ford also is apparently hurt, so Justin Green is on the field now.
Juice Williams remains in the game. Not sure if we will get to see Jacob Charest today. Williams has struggled this half, but is still in the game.
Tony Pike just tied Cincinnati's single-game touchdown pass record with his fifth.
Mardy Gilyard isn't perfect after all. He just dropped a high Anthony Santella punt, setting up the Illini at the Cincinnati 12.
Cincinnati 35, Illinois 20, 10:38 in the third quarter:
Rivals.com national football writer Tom Dienhart is at today's game. Why? Dienhart is following Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly for a couple of days as the Bearcats prepare for Pitt. Good move by Kelly to be friendly to the media. It helps his program as it moves up the attention list.
St. Louis-based Dienhart has followed the Illinois program for years. He said the Illinois problems this season start at quarterback.
"The big thing is the lack of development offensively by Juice Williams," Dienhart said. "That would have to be at the core of it. Sophomore year was probably his best. Since then, he's seemingly taken a step back each year. He's to the point now where he just looks like a shell of his former self."
Dienhart said he is surprised the Illinois program has dropped out of bowl contention two years after playing in Pasadena.
"I think about Kansas and I think about Illinois," Dienhart said. "Two years ago, both those programs are riding high on the hog, the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl. It looked like nothing could go wrong. The trajectory of each was going to go sky high. Twoyears later, (Mark) Mangino is about to lose his job and Ron Zook's going to back, but 2010 is obviously going to be his year for him in the crosshairs."
The problems have been different for the two schools.
"Kansas, the issue there was the behavior of Mangino," Dienhart said. "Where I think at Illinois, I seem to hear time and again that the team doesn't seem to be very well coached. The players don't seem like they develop. You hear about all the talent that comes into the program. Are they becoming better football players when they get there?"
Cincinnati 35, Illinois 20, start of the third quarter:
Some quick halftime stats:
Illinois has outgained the Bearcats 267 yards to 239. Juice Williams is 12 of 18 for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Though he has missed some opportunities, it is one of his better 30 minutes of the season. Williams also has 32 rushing yards to lead Illinois.
Illinois is dominating the time of possession, with a 21:04 to 8:56 advantage. With Cincinnati's offense, it isn't going to keep the ball very long.
A good sign for the Illinois offense: no turnovers. A bad sign for the Illinois defense: no turnovers.
Tony Pike has been very good, hitting 18 of 25 passes for 245 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. The Orange Bowl scouts in the stadium have to like the aerial show from Cincinnati.
Officially, the Bearcats have 2 runs for minus-6 yards, both by Isaiah Pead.
Mardy Gilyard is hurting the Illini with his returns. He has two kickoff returns for 131 yards and a touchdown and two punt returns for 26 yards.
Cincinnati 35, Illinois 20, halftime
Derek Dimke did it again, nailing a 48-yard field goal on the last play of the half. He is now 3 for 3 in his career.
Give Illinois credit for converting a pair of fourth downs late in the quarter. That kept Cincinnati's offense off the field and gave the Illinois defense a needed rest.
Juice Williams got hurt on a play that didn't count, gingerly running away from the huddle after a run. Illinois was penalized on the play for illegal formation.
Cincinnati has an 18-point lead despite going backward on runs in the first half. The Bearcats have minus-6 yards rushing.
One part of the Nippert Stadium experience that you aren't getting on television is the constant music being played. Before Illinois faces a third down, creepy Halloween music is played.
Tony Pike already has a career high with four touchdown passes. He'll have a chance to get some more after intermission.
Cincinnati's defense lost 10 starters from a year ago. You can tell. There isn't as much pressure on the quarterback as you might expect and the Bearcats haven't forced a turnover.
Tuscola won the Class 1A title, beating Lexington 14-7. Congratulations to the school, which bounced back from a rough start early in the season. The Warriors did a good job slowing down Lexington star T.J. Stinde. Thanks to Marcus Jackson for the updates. Later, maybe he can fill us in on Unity-Stillman Valley.
Cincinnati 35, Illinois 17, 4:04 in the second quarter:
The scores we gave you earlier from the few Illinois reporters covering the game were meant to be halftime predictions. We'll give you new ones in a few minutes (just kidding). Who knows, maybe it will be a scoreless second half. And maybe pigs will be landing at Willard Airport later in the day.
It seems like Illinois got Cincinnati's attention. Thanks to great field position and the passing of Tony Pike, the Bearcats were able to zip down the field for a quick touchdown. Cincinnati has a small advantage in yards, 239-237.
Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17, 6:01 in the second quarter:
Derek Dimke just nailed a 39-yard field goal to cut the Cincinnati lead. But Illinois could have had more. Normally, Arrelious Benn is a smart player. But he got called for a personal foul on Chris Duvalt's 18-yard completion. Instead of having the ball at the Cincinnati 8, the Illini got knocked back to the 23 and had to settle for the field goal.
Illinois has not stopped playing. And the Cincinnati fans have gotten quiet. Maybe leading 28-7 so early created a false sense of confidence.
Another update from Memorial Stadium, Phil Meyer has just scored the go-ahead touchdown for Tuscola with less than five minutes to go in the game. Neither team is playing very well on offense. Tuscola has five turnovers and Lexington has four. It's 14-7 in the final minutes and Jud Wienke is playing well.
Cincinnati 28, Illinois 14, 9:36 in the second quarter:
The News-Gazette's Marcus Jackson is at the Class 1A title game at Memorial Stadium. He's sent word that Jud Wienke has come in to rescue Tuscola's title hopes. The brother of Iowa quarterback John Wienke has hit 6 of 12 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. And he's been the victim of at least three drops in a 7-7 game. We will keep you updated.
The Illinois defense is putting up a fight, stopping the Bearcats on fourth down. You have to wonder why Cincinnati threw a pass when it needed just inches to continue the drive. Another Illinois touchdown and the upset watch goes back on.
Cincinnati 28, Illinois 14, 11:21 in the second quarter:
Ben Guidugli just called the press box and said he wants to play against Illinois next week too. The Cincinnati tight end has six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Illinois desperately needed to grind out some yards and keep Cincinnati's offense off the field. They did it, with Juice Williams throwing a touchdown pass to Chris Duvalt.
Arrelious Benn looks as healthy as he has been all season. He just had a 43-yard catch, which is closest to his longest of the season, a 49-yarder. The NFL scouts in the press box have to be impressed, even though they can't acknowledge the junior. We've been asked a lot about the chances of his staying after a subpar season, most of which has been hampered by injuries. I would say its 99.9 percent that he goes to the NFL early. The only way he comes back is if the NFL convinces him he won't be a first-round pick.
Cincinnati 21, Illinois 7, end of the first quarter:
Playing the No. 5 team in the country on national TV is an opportunity, if you don't get wiped off the field by said No. 5 team. That's what is happening at Nippert Stadium. At its current pace, Cincinnati will finish with 84 points. And if you are the Bearcats with the spotlight on you at the moment, you score as many points as you can.
It doesn't look like Jacob Charest is warming up yet, so Illinois must be planning to continue with Juice Williams at quarterback. At some point, if the offense continues to struggle, you'd have to think Charest will get a chance.
Tony Pike was very, very good in the first quarter, hitting 9 of 13 passes for 139 yards. Cincinnati isn't doing anything against the Illini on the ground, with negative-5 yards. Illinois had 97 yards in the first quarter.
Cincinnati 21, Illinois 7, 1:50 in the first quarter:
Nothing colds fans enjoy more than a bunch of instant replay reviews. Of course, both have gone Cincinnati's way, including the most recent, a 6-yard touchdown catch for DJ Woods.
Tony Pike is now 8 of 12 for 134 yards. Tight ends continue to give the Illini fits (think Missouri), with Ben Guidugli already over 100 yards. It's his first career 100-yard game and he's got three more quarters to go.
The News-Gazette has a vote in the AP Top 25. Might be time to move the Bearcats up a spot or two.
Cincinnati 14, Illinois 7, 3:04 in the first quarter:
Illinois had the advantage in yardage before the most recent Cincinnati series. But that was wiped out by a pass from Tony Pike to Armon Binns that was originally ruled an incompletion. After review by the replay official, the catch was allowed and the Beacats have a 101-94 yard edge. And growing.
Cincinnati 14, Illinois 7, 5:56 in the first quarter:
Upset alert has been canceled after the Cincinnati tight end got wide open for an easy touchdown. Tony Pike looks healthy. If he had been able to play the entire season, he would have been a strong candidate for the Heisman.
The Illinois players don't look as fired up as they did a few minutes ago. More sitting on the bench. Less shouting. All of the Cincinnati players are on their feet.
It looks like it is getting colder. And windier. Fans are ultra bundled. There is a small patch of Illinois fans in one corner.
Lots of fun stuff going on during timeouts. A guy just tried to kick a field goal for some cash. Wide left. And short. He was kicking Fred Cox-style.
Illinois 7, Cincinnati 7, 7:25 in the first quarter:
So much for the upset alert and the crowd not being into the game. Mardy Gilyard just returned a kickoff 90 yards to tie the game. The crowd let out a collective "Whew."
That's two long kickoff returns for the Illini, who might want to pooch the ball or kick it out of bounds or try onsides kicks. Somewhere in the Illinois game plan, it had to say "Don't kick to No. 1."
Illinois 7, Cincinnati 0, 7:38 in the first quarter:
Apparently, Illinois is ready to play. And so is Juice Williams. On the opening touchdown drive, Williams hit 4 of 4 passes for 53 yards and ran twice for 25 yards. He went over 10,000 total yards for his career during the drive.
Illinois did a lot of things against character on the opening drive. It deferred after winning the coin toss, then stuffed the Bearcats on three plays. It took the ball deep in its own territory and methodically went down the field. There were just two third downs on the drive and Illinois converted them both, including the 21-yard touchdown pass to Fred Sykes.
The crowd is quiet. If Illinois stops the Bearcats on the next drive, we are issuing an upset alert.
5 minutes before kickoff:
My quick thoughts:
-- Juice Williams didn't look 100 percent, especially when he tried to run. Don't be surprised if Jacob Charest gets an early series or two.
-- The crowd will have an impact. The place isn't big, but it goes down into the ground and seems to hold the noise. The stands are now packed, with a good chunk of the crowd in red.
-- Watch Illinois the first half of the first quarter. If it moves the ball and plays some defense, it will be in the game. But if Cincinnati scores a quick early touchdown, it could be a long day for Illinois. The coaches can sell the players on the opportunity to beat a No. 5 team, but this place and those Bearcats don't feel like a No. 5 team. This isn't Oklahoma or Southern Cal. And the Illini know it.
20 minutes before kickoff:
The consensus in the press box is that Cincinnati is going to roll today. Stu Durando of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch picks the Bearcats 38-14. Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune says 35-13. And Tom Dienhart of Rivals.com is going with Cincinnati 38-21. The News-Gazette pick was 38-9.
The Orange Bowl might be expecting a repeat appearance by the Bearcats. There are two scouts here from the Miami game.
There are also some big-time scouts from the NFL, including Rick Spielman of the Vikings (Chris' brother) and Bill Polian of the Indianapolis Colts. They are here to see Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard, quarterback Tony Pike, Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn and guard Jon Asamoah.
The sun has gone away. There is a giant blowup Bearcat at one end of the field. And the place is filling up.
40 minutes before kickoff:
ABC is covering today's game and the broadcast will be shown nationally. The broadcast team includes Dave Pasch, Bob Griese, Chris Spielman and Quint Kessenich.
Spielman recently lost his wife, Stefanie, who had a long battle with breast cancer. To read about Stefanie, go to chrisspielman.com. Hard to imagine what the Spielman is going through right now. We all wish them the best in a difficult time.
Not all TV guys are easy to deal with. But Spielman is about the easiest. The former Ohio State and NFL linebacker has always been a friend of The News-Gazette. He's a former player who has made a smooth transition into broadcasting. He is a very good analyst, using his experiences as a player to help the fans get into the game. Not everybody can do that.
Spielman has always been a big supporter of the Big Ten. And he has a good relationship with the Illinois program and Ron Zook. He has followed the teams both as an announcer for ABC/ESPN and as a radio personality in Columbus.
55 minutes before kickoff:
Both teams are on the field, the Bearcats in red jerseys and black pants and the Illini in all white.
Cincinnati spent Thursday night at the Kingsgate Marriott, which is about a mile to the north of the stadium. The swanky hotel wasn't very full beyond the Cincinnati travel party and some Illinois fans.
One of the Illinois fans who made the trip was Red Grange historian Charlie Finn, who was featured on the Grange movie that the Big Ten Network aired Thursday night. Finn met this morning with Army buddy and Basketball Hall of Famer Jack Twyman, who was a star at Cincinnati. Twyman said when he was in school, the basketball players lived in the east side of Nippert Stadium. Players filled coffee cans full of water and put them under their bed legs to keep the mice off the beds.
After his playing days ended with the Cincinnati Royals, he was an NBA analyst for ABC for five years.
1:15 before kickoff:
A couple of news items real quick. First, receiver A.J. Jenkins and safety Donsay Hardeman did not make the trip. Walt Aikens will fill the one safety vacancy.
Also, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is expected to start. He has been plagued all season by an ankle injury.
Illinois is in the market for another tight end after the defection of News-Gazette All-Stater C.J. Fiedorowicz to Iowa.
The fans are not filing into the stadium quickly. Maybe they are staying close to their cars until the last possible minute. Or in one of the nearby buildings that shadow Nippert Stadium. You can't see the stadium from more than block away.
I was just on the Illini Sports Network with Steve Kelly and Brian Barnhart. They are a couple of floors above us, with a great sight line. Steve was talking to Loren Tate, who mentioned the apple crisp he ate for Thanksgiving dinner. Ummm, apple crisp.
90 minutes before kickoff:
It's a crisp and cold morning in Cincinnati. But the sun is out, which should add about 10 degrees of warmth for the folks who are going to fill the place. And they will fill it. Even with the Cincinnati students on Thanksgiving break, tickets were scalping at a fairly high cost. It's definitely a seller's market.
Nippert Stadium isn't the biggest college football building in the world, but for atmosphere, it works for me.
The 36,518-seat stadium is one of the oldest in the country. You can't really tell because they've fixed the place up. With plans to do more. The Cincinnati athletic facilities surround the football stadium, with the soccer complex to the south and the basketball arena nearby.
There are inflatable games at a practice field to the east of the stadium. The school is making an effort, which is a good idea if it wants to entice Brian Kelly to stay. He will be a hot commodity during the coaching carousel, with Notre Dame being mentioned as a possibility.
I've got to tell you about the press box, which is old school. No fancy desks or flat screen TVs. The Cincinnati SID told a story about the West Virginia media asking for 48 parking passes. His response was "We don't have 48 spots in our press box." Good point.
The press box isn't crowded. Besides myself and the Daily Illini, the only other reporters covering today's game are Stu Durando of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune. I'll get everybody's scores later.