CHAMPAIGN — For a brief moment on Saturday, the clouds above Memorial Stadium parted and things didn't look so bad for Illini fans. Like Cliff Alexander and his hat gag, however, the Ohio State football team did not allow the home fans to feel hopeful for long.
With just under nine minutes left in the game, Illinois trailed by as few as 12 points, perhaps poised to start a comeback and stun the No. 3 team in the nation. It wasn't to be, however, as the Buckeyes halted Illinois and scored twice more to secure a 60-35 win.
“I think the players have been [resilient] this whole football season. That’s why it’s so disheartening when we don’t get the win. They’re fighting to the end,” said head coach Tim Beckman. “There are no moral victories here — we want to win.”
The loss extended Illinois’ Big Ten losing streak to 20 games, which became the longest such streak in the nation after Kansas’ victory. The loss was also the seventh on the year for the Illini, officially ending their hopes for bowl eligibility.
The Illini (3-7, 0-4) played well on Saturday, with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase passing for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns while running for 46 and a touchdown of his own. Likewise, Steve Hull posted his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game, going for 105 and a touchdown. The solid offensive numbers could not salvage the game, though, and left a bad taste in the players’ mouths.
“It just sucks,” Hull said. “I think as a unit we played well, but I think we did things we can’t do like penalties, or missed assignments or allowing sacks…we just have to execute.”
The good play to come was not evident in this Illinois team on the first drive of the game. It took just 36 seconds for the Buckeyes to score, with quarterback Braxton Miller faking the hand-off and taking the ball 70 yards uncontested. Conversely, just four plays into the opening Illinois drive Scheelhaase was picked off by C.J. Barnett, setting an ominous tone for the home fans.
“We didn’t make a tackle,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said of the Buckeyes’ opening drive. “We got out-athleted and they ended up scoring.”
The Buckeyes were ruthlessly efficient afterward, gaining positive yards on all but nine plays until the end of the first half (8 drives) and scoring on an 18-yard pass and an eight-yard run from Carlos Hyde as well as an 11-yard touchdown pass to Corey Brown. The defense was also effective, with Bradley Roby picking off Scheelhaase with 3:30 left in the first quarter and returning it 63 yards for the game’s third touchdown.
Illinois’ special teams did a good job all game, and midway through the second quarter when V’Angelo Bentley returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown. It was the first punt return for a touchdown for Illinois in a decade and Bentley’s second return touchdown this season (100-yard kick return against Southern Illinois on Aug. 31). Bentley is the first Illini to have both a kick and a punt return in one season.
“V'Angelo has done a special job this year as a returner,” Beckman said.
The return was not Illinois’ only highlight of the first half, however. With two minutes to play, Scheelhaase threw his 50th career touchdown pass for the Illini, hitting Hull on an out route from 19 yards out. The final two minutes of the half would go down quietly, and Ohio State carried a 35-14 lead to the break.
Illinois started the second half very strongly, with Scheelhaase moving the ball well in the air and on the ground. On the drive the Illinois quarterback broke off a 20-yard run, the first allowed by the Buckeyes this season, and tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Evan Wilson to bring the score to 35-21.
For a 10-minute span, from the Bentley return to the Wilson touchdown, the Illini compiled 151 yards and scored responsible for three touchdowns. Then, on the ensuing drive, Illinois looked to have more good fortune. Shortly after OSU had cracked Illinois territory, Miller fumbled the ball and defensive end Tim Kynard fell on it to put the offense back on the field. The offense did not have the same vigor afterward, and were forced to punt after three plays killing Illinois’ momentum.
Ohio State was unable to conjure anything on the next drive, but the punt from Cameron Johnston was downed inside the Illinois 10. On third down, with Reilly O’Toole in because Scheelhaase’s helmet came off, Ryan Shazier forced a fumble in the endzone. Matt LaCosse secured the fumble for Illinois, but could not leave the endzone and the Buckeyes were on the board again with a safety.
Beckman took the blame for the error on the safety, and admitted it came at a critical juncture in the game.
“I should have called a timeout to get Nathan back into the game. That’s something we should have done,” he said. “Other than the miscues we had, the interception and safety, the players performed well.”
Miller showed no mercy after the safety, hitting Chris Fields for a 47-yard gain on the first play of the next drive, moving the Buckeyes down to the Illinois eight-yard line. Three plays later Hyde scored his third touchdown of the game from one yard out.
Illinois came up with some good offense at the start of the fourth quarter. Scheelhaase ran for 35 yards on the first play of the quarter, reaching the redzone, then scored two plays later on a five-yard run. He completed the two-point conversion with a pass to Miles Osei to make the score 44-29.
Ohio State kept the ball on the ground on the ensuing drive and tore up the Illini. They ran six times for 62 yards over 3:39, finishing with a 30-yard field goal from Drew Basil.
Illinois wasn’t done, though, and Scheelhaase’s arm propelled the team to another touchdown. He had passes of 15 to Hull and 18 to LaCosse on a 62-yard drive that culminated in a four-yard Josh Ferguson rushing touchdown that brought the score to 47-35. The Illini would get no closer, however, as Hyde stepped up to score on runs of 51 and 55 yards to kill off the game for OSU.
“It’s crushing for everyone involved because you work so hard for such few opportunities and when you don’t get to cash in it’s tough, it really is,” Banks said. “Our kids are resilient…we’ll continue to fight until the very last game.”
Illinois has two chances left this year to end its conference losing streak, and Beckman stressed that he wants to work hard to send his seniors off with the win “they deserve.” The Illini will try for that win next week in West Lafayette against Purdue (1-9, 0-6).