As a relatively young Illini fan, I enjoyed a long stretch of football success against Ohio State. The Fighting Illini won 5 straight against the Buckeyes from 1988-1992. Those were some fairly weak teams by the Buckeye’s typically lofty standards. The John Cooper-led squads finished no higher than 2nd in the Big Ten during that 5-year period. In 1988, Ohio State finished with a losing record, the only time this has happened since 1966. The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, were enjoying a run of success unique in recent history. They went to 5 consecutive bowl games, and had 5 consecutive non-losing seasons. Re-read that last sentence. Illini football has truly been hard-pressed for sustained success in the last 80 years or so. So with this in mind, I was curious as to the previous high-stakes matchups between the football Illini and the Buckeyes. I compiled a list based on the stakes for Illinois, not OSU, though most of these games had important implications for each team.
In chronological order:
November 16, 1946:
(9)Illinois 16, (13) Ohio State 7.
It was a weird time for Big Ten football, and indeed, for all football. Immediately after the war, former soldiers returned to college. Buddy Young was back for the war effort for the Illini. He was a little rusty; his performance was a shadow of his electrifying freshman year for Illinois. Dike Eddleman was also featured; the future Olympian from Centralia punted for Illinois.The Illini were having a tremendous year; they’d lost to Indiana and Notre Dame but were sitting atop the Big
Ten Nine conference for the tilt against the Buckeyes. The Illini had dropped 11 straight and 17 of 18 to the Buckeyes.
The Illini fell behind early, giving up a touchdown in the first 4 minutes. The rest was all Illini. The Illini got a safety and a touchdown in the second quarter and a 98 yard interception return in the third quarter by Julie Rykovich to ice it. The Big Ten had just approved annual participation in the Rose Bowl, and the Illini would appear in January 1947, beating UCLA 45-14.
Illinois 20, (8)Ohio State 20.
Fast forward 17 years. The now-Big Ten had been in an unusual period of parity-the previous ten years had seen 7 different schools win the conference title. The only non-winners? Northwestern, Indiana and, suprisingly, Michigan. Michigan State had joined the conference in 1953 and won the title that same year under the delightfully named Biggie Munn.
This edition of Illini football featured two of the most famous Illini footballers of all time, Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski. The Buckeyes had Paul Warfield and several other future pros. Ohio State was unscored upon through their first 2 games, though they had played some weak opposition. The Fighting Illini were coming off a shocking victory over 4th ranked Northwestern.
Ohio State packed in a record crowd of 84,172. The game was billed as a battle between the kickers; both Dick Van Raaphorst of Ohio State (who had set the Big Ten record for longest field goal at 48 yards) and Jim Plankenhorn of Illinois were highly regarded. The game was a see-saw affair, marked by many crucial turnovers. Four of the five touchdowns came on short fields after turnovers. Illinois drew first blood after a Dick Butkus interception set them up on the OSU 27. Ohio State subsequently built a 17-7 lead before Illinois scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The first of these scores was marked by a missed two-point conversion. This decision came back to bite the Illini in the ass, as van Raaphorst hit an new-record 49 yard field goal late in the game to tie it. The Ohio State kicker also missed a 57 yarder as time expired. The Illini wound up winning the Rose Bowl in January ’64.
October 15, 1983.
(19) Illinois 17, (6) Ohio State 13
Twenty years later, the Illini were riding a 15 game losing streak to the Buckeyes. The Big Ten was just awakening from a long stretch of dominance by the Buckeyes and Wolverines; one or both of the two teams had won at least a share of the Big Ten title every year from 1968 until 1982, thus engendering the epithet “the Big 2 and the Little 8″. Only Iowa and Michigan State managed to usurp even a share of the title in that span. Each did it once, each time sharing with one of the Big 2. The Illini had Black Jack Trudeau, Thomas Rooks, and David Williams, who went on to amass the second-highest single-season total in receptions in NCAA history the following year. Ohio State was led by Keith Byars, who went on to enjoy a long career in the NFL
Illinois jumped out to a 10-3 halftime lead on an interception by Dave Edwards, who picked off two passes on the day, and a field goal by Chris White. Ohio State came back to lead 13-10 on a field goal and a touchdown. Late in the fourth quarter, Ohio State went for it on fourth and 4 from the Illinois 20, trying to chew up the final 103 seconds on the clock. The bootleg run failed, and Illinois needed just 37 seconds to tie the score on a 21 yard run from Rooks. The Champaign crowd went wild, tearing down the goalposts in its celebration. The Fighting Illini had cleared a significant hurdle on the road to Pasadena, a road which would see them become the only Big Ten champion to defeat all other conference members.
November 17, 2001
(12)Illinois 34, (25)Ohio State 22
The Big Ten was now 11 strong with the addition of Penn State. The bowl system had been irrationally rationalized into the BCS setup, a move which had proven as controversial as subjective voting for a mythical college championship had been. The Big Ten had moved into an era of relative parity, as only Indiana and Minnesota had not won at least a share of the conference title in the previous ten seasons. Illinois had struggled during this time span. Its 8-4 record in 1999 represented the only time it had managed to win at least 2/3 of its games in the previous ten seasons. These Illini featured Kurt Kittner, Brandon Lloyd, Eugene Wilson, and a three-headed monster at running back (Harris, Harvey, and Davis). The Buckeyes were led by Mike Doss, Jonathan Wells, and Steve Bellisari. Oh, wait, it seems that Bellisari was suspended for a drunken driving incident.
Illinois opened the scoring with a punt-block-and-return for a touchdown, only to fall behind 10-7. Kittner threw two touchdown passes to put the Illini back up at the half, before the habitual third quarter woes set in. OSU ultimately took a 22-21 lead on the last play of the third quarter. The fourth quarter belonged to the Illini. Kittner led an 80-yard drive to put Illinois ahead for good. In a final twist of irony, Toledo product Ty Myers sealed the victory with a 5 yard interception return score to provide the final margin. At the time, Illinois was expected to go to the Citrus Bowl. However, Ohio State managed to knock off Michigan the next week to allow the Fighting Illini to snag the Big 10’s BCS berth.
November 10, 2007
Illinois 28, (1)Ohio State 21
Since the 2001 season, the Illini had gone into a tailspin winning just 6 conference games in the 5 seasons in between. The previous 4 seasons had seen Illinois win just 2 games in the Big Ten. Ohio State, on the other hand, had been quite successful, appearing in the first BCS Championship game in the 2006 season. Ohio State featured a great defense, anchored by James Laurinaitis and Vernon Gholston, and a powerful rushing attack led by Chris Wells. The Illini featured names we know well now: Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, J Leman, Vontae Davis. Illinois was unranked heading into this matchup; they had briefly breached the polls at #18 before a flailing loss at Iowa dropped them out of the top 25.
OSU and Illinois traded scores for the first quarter. Each team struck paydirt twice, leading to a 14-14 score at the end of the quarter. What looked to be a shootout slowed down considerably after that. Boeckmann, the Buckeye quarterback was intercepted three times by the Illini defense. Juice threw for a touchdown to put the Illini in front for good in the second quarter after a 25 yard run by Mendenhall on 4th and one at the OSU 43. THe Illini added another score after intercepting an OSU pass in the end zone and subsequently putting together a 9-play, 80-yard drive. OSU scored once more in the third quarter, but great rushing by the Illini (260 yards) combined with poor passing for the Buckeyes spelled victory for Illinois. The unranked Illini were winners in Columbus and ultimately made a BCS bowl.
October 15, 2011?