Williams ignites Illini upset of top-ranked Buckeyes
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Amid all the debate about whether Ohio State deserved to be No. 1, one voice scarcely could be heard. They shouted in Oregon. They bellowed in Baton Rouge. But the voice of authority had yet to speak.
On Saturday, before 105,453 subdued fans at Ohio Stadium, the Ohio State Buckeyes spoke as one, if not as No. 1. Two games away from a return trip to the BCS National Championship Game, the scarlet and gray said, "Who? Us?"
One team at Ohio Stadium played a virtually flawless game. One team committed only one penalty, and not until the fourth quarter. One team won the field-position game, twice scoring on short drives. One team intercepted three passes, causing a swing of 14 points, and committed no turnovers itself. One team dominated the fourth quarter, holding the ball for 13:46.
Imitation is the sincerest form of upset.
Illinois did all of the above and defeated No. 1 Ohio State, 28-21. Although the champagne surely flowed Saturday night in Champaign, the Illini set off victory parades from Eugene to Norman. And maybe even in Lawrence, too. The BCS is as wide open as the holes that the Illini offense created all game. Ohio State (10-1, 6-1) can console itself by winning at Michigan and winning the Big Ten championship.
Illinois (8-3, 5-2) stunned a team that had won 28 consecutive regular-season games, and 20 consecutive Big Ten games. The statistics defy logic. Illinois rushed for 260 yards against a defense that had been giving up 65.0 per game.
The upset provided sweet redemption for Illini coach Ron Zook and his quarterback Juice Williams, both of whom proved their critics wrong.
Zook, who has carried a reputation for six seasons as a recruiter beset by the Peter Principle, put a better team on the field than did the coach across the field, Jim Tressel. The guy who watched his Florida players win a national championship for a different coach proved something Saturday, if not to himself, then to his everyone else.
"Obviously, I'm not going to say it didn't hurt -- I've said this before -- when people question whether you can coach or not," Zook said. "But if you believe in something, and you know you're doing the right thing, you just got to stay the course."
Williams threw for four touchdowns against an Ohio State defense that had allowed only seven TDs all season. The sophomore, who came into the game having thrown for more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight), gave the performance of his life. He threw for 140 yards and ran for another 70.
Two games into the season, all Williams heard was his biggest critic: himself. He had just struggled to complete 12-of-24 passes for 123 yards and an interception against I-AA Western Illinois. He stayed down on himself for another month.
"I didn't know if I was able to play Division I football," Williams said. "I didn't know if I deserved to be the starting quarterback of the team. After we played Iowa, I just said, 'Forget it.' Just go out there, throw the ball around and forget about everything else that happened. Just go out there and play with confidence. I was saying, 'Enough is enough.'"
Cross that problem off the list. In fact, the entire Illini team played with newfound confidence.
The Buckeyes opened the game by delivering a haymaker to the Illini jaw. Todd Boeckman connected with Brian Hartline on a 65-yard pass down the Buckeye sideline to the Illinois 11. On the next snap, Beanie Wells took the ball into the end zone.
The rout lasted exactly one down. On Illinois's second snap, Daniel Dufrene burst through the middle of the line and ran 80 yards to the Ohio State 3. That's 80 yards against a defense that had allowed no run longer than 28 yards all season.
Williams threw a touchdown on the next snap to Michael Hoomanawanui, and 1:12 into the game, Illinois had tied the score, 7-7.
When sophomore corner Vontae Davis, suffered a slight concussion in the second quarter, freshman Marcus Thomas, all 5-11, 173 pounds of him, replaced the standout defender. Thomas tipped one Boeckman pass into the end zone into the arms of Antonio Steele in the third quarter, then picked off one of his own in the fourth.
When wide receiver Arrelious Benn went out in the third quarter, Williams found sophomore Marcus Wilkins for a 31-yard touchdown pass. It was the third catch of Wilkins' career.
After Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman threw his third unforced error of an interception, Illinois took over at its 24-yard line with 8:09 to play. Williams admitted to being nervous, but he and the Illini had played with remarkable cool from the outset.
On third-and-1, the Buckeyes stuffed Rashard Mendenhall inches short of the first-down stick. Zook waited, and then rushed his punt team onto the field. The ploy worked. Ohio State got caught with too many players on the field, and Tressel called timeout.
"I wish I wouldn't have," Tressel said after the game. " It's hard to get people off the field. It's loud out there and I'd like to have that one back."
Williams wanted to tell Zook he could get the first down, but he had never challenged the head coach that way before.
"I was contemplating back and forth whether I was going to do it," Williams said.
Freshman Brian Gamble spoke up.
"Juice, go tell him you're going to get the first down," Gamble said, according to Williams. "If you feel like you're going to get it, go tell him."
"That gave me an OK to go ahead and do it," Williams added.
"I knew it was just an inch or less," Zook said. "Juice kind of grabbed me and said, 'I will get you an inch.' I said, 'You better.'"
That's not exactly how Williams told it.
"He kind of scared me," Williams said of Zook. "He said, 'Get it or I'm going to hurt you.' That kind of motivated me even more to get the first."
Williams surged forward, and on second effort, made it to the 35. The tension flowed out of him. Juice got loose.
On third-and-7, with 5:00 to play, he ran for 12 yards to midfield.
On third-and-10, with 3:38 to play, Williams ran 12 yards to the Ohio State 38.
And on third-and-2, with 2:19 to play, and Ohio State out of timeouts -- that's why Tressel regretted calling the first one -- Williams pulled the ball out of Rashard Mendenhall's belly and kept it for three yards to the Ohio State 27. The clock ran out before fourth down arrived.
Williams rushed for 32 of his 70 yards on that final drive. When the game ended, he had tears in his eyes. So did a lot of Buckeyes, although for an entirely different reason.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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