Despite loss, Illini show heart

By Derek Barichello

COLUMBUS, Ohio – For a half of football, the Illini played on par with No. 13 Ohio State, but in the second half, they were overmatched, falling 40-2 in front of 104,799 in Columbus on Saturday.

The loss was especially tough for the Illini (2-7, 0-6) because Purdue won, making them the lone team in the Big Ten without a conference win.

The Buckeyes outgained the Illini 218-64 in total yards going into halftime but only held a 13-0 lead. The one thing that will not appear in the box score that kept the Illini in the game was intensity.

Linebacker Brit Miller said the team’s energy level was the highest it has been all year coming into the game.

“When you come to play at a stadium like this, the energy is going to be there,” Miller said. “Once you hit that grass, it’s beautiful, and you’re fired up.”

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The Illini were able to convert that energy into a competitive half of football with one of the best teams in the nation, highlighted by four defensive stops.

After forcing two Buckeyes punts, the Illini held them from first and goal twice to field goals, giving the Illini confidence.

“Coach (Ron) Zook kept saying we could play with these guys,” running back E.B. Halsey said.

But as the defense kept the Illini within one score, the offense was unable to get anything going. They managed only 160 total yards in the game

“We left a lot of plays out there and a lot of yards out there,” Halsey said.

For the Illini to be successful against the Big Ten’s top-rated defense, Zook said the Illini were going to have to take advantage of every opportunity.

In the first half, the Illini had opportunities, but could not capitalize.

In the first quarter with the game still scoreless, the Illini called a flea flicker on third down and two and had wide receiver Kyle Hudson wide open down the field, but quarterback Tim Brasic was sacked before he could get the ball off.

“If I had another second, I would have had an 80-yard touchdown pass,” Brasic said.

At the end of the second half with the game 13-0, Buckeyes punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. fumbled, and the Illini’s James Cooper recovered at midfield.

But after a first down pass, the Illini were shut down, and the team went into halftime without a score.

“Our offense has to have better production,” Halsey said. “We left the defense out there the whole game. We let them down.”

Ginn Jr. made up for his mistake by returning the opening kickoff of the second half to the Illinois 35-yard line, setting up a three-yard touchdown pass on third down to Santonio Holmes.

The Illini’s only score came from a mistake on the PAT attempt. A poor snap sent the ball flying over the holder’s head and Illinois’ Kevin Mitchell picked the ball up and took it 75 yards, making it 19-2.

When the Illini got the ball back, they gained two yards on three plays and set up for a punt. For the second time this season, punter Steve Weatherford took the snap and tried for a first down, but came up short.

“After they dropped the extra point, I felt like we could get this now,” Zook said. “We could keep the momentum.”

The failed fake started an avalanche of Buckeyes scoring.

Seven plays and 35 yards later, the Buckeyes scored another touchdown on a 16-yard run from running back Antonio Pittman.

On the next drive, the Buckeyes scored again on a 73-yard touchdown pass to Ginn Jr. and scored another touchdown on the next drive.

The offense took the blame for leaving the defense on the field too long, but gave a lot of credit to Ohio State’s defense.

“They might be the best defense we’ve played all year,” Hudson said.

When it was all said and done, the final score was lopsided, but the Illini had gained respect from the Buckeyes.

“When they wake up tomorrow morning, they will be sore,” Miller said. “When we walked off the field, they gave us a couple compliments and said if we keep it up, we’ll be good in a couple years. That means a lot coming from them.”

Zook was also happy with his team’s performance.

“We would have liked a better showing, but I’m proud of this team,” Zook said. “In two years, when we come back here, I promise you a different team.”