Illini fall short of OSU upset

Quarterback Troy Smith (10) is sacked by linebacker J Leman (47) during the second quarter of the game against Ohio State University, Saturday Nov 4, 2006 at Memorial Stadium. Ohio State won 17-10. Beck Diefenbach The Daily Illini

Quarterback Troy Smith (10) is sacked by linebacker J Leman (47) during the second quarter of the game against Ohio State University, Saturday Nov 4, 2006 at Memorial Stadium. Ohio State won 17-10. Beck Diefenbach The Daily Illini

By Jason Grodsky

Illinois nearly did the unthinkable.

Trailing 17-0 to No. 1-ranked Ohio State, the Illini outplayed the Buckeyes in the second half of Saturday’s football game at Memorial Stadium, clawing within a touchdown but falling just short in the final seconds, allowing the Buckeyes to escape Champaign with a 17-10 victory.

“I’m proud of our guys,” head coach Ron Zook said. “I’m proud of the way we fought. They went out there in the second half and played loose and played the way that we can play.”

After Illinois’ defense forced Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) to punt, the Illini (2-7, 1-5) took over the ball with four seconds remaining in the game at their own two-yard line, needing a 98-yard miracle to force overtime against the Buckeyes.

But when Illinois sophomore receiver Derrick McPhearson was ruled out of bounds following a series of laterals, Illinois’ dream faded and Ohio State walked away with its 17th-consecutive victory and its perfect season intact.

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“Everybody on this team knows we can play with anybody,” sophomore running back Rashard Mendenhall said. “I’m sure everyone else was a little surprised, but we knew coming into the game we we’re going to be able to play with them.”

Ohio State came out of the gate with a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Chris Wells on fourth-and-two to grab an early 7-0 lead over the Illini. The Buckeyes added 10 more points by the end of the first half and held the Illini to just 72 yards of total offense in the first half.

Illinois’ lone highlight from the first half came on its second play of scrimmage when senior running back Pierre Thomas took the ball down the left sideline for a 43-yard run. The play accounted for nearly 60 percent of Illinois’ yards in the first half.

“In the first half we played a little tight,” junior safety Kevin Mitchell said. “But the coaches did a great job of making adjustments and we continued to play like we have all year and gave our offense a chance to win the game.”

Illinois’ defense turned up the heat on Ohio State in the second half.

The Illini held the Buckeyes to just nine total yards of offense in the third quarter and recorded four tackles for loss and two sacks, including a seven-yard sack by sophomore Will Davis on a third-and-eight.

Illinois maintained its intensity in the fourth quarter and held Ohio State to its lowest scoring, total yards and passing yards this season. Illinois junior linebacker J Leman led the way for the Illini with a team-high 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

“The defensive coaches made good adjustments,” Leman said. “We brought more pressure on Troy Smith, probably the most pressure he has been under all year. We were able to get guys in the backfield and disrupt them.”

While the defense stepped up its play in the second half, the Illini offense still struggled, but eventually built up steam with the play of senior quarterback Tim Brasic, who replaced freshman Juice Williams late in the third quarter.

“Juice just couldn’t settle down,” Zook said. “Timmy came in and gave us a spark. It’s hard to be the backup quarterback and go into a game like that and compete the way he did. I’m proud of him for that.”

Following a 27-yard field goal by junior place kicker Jason Reda midway through the fourth quarter, the Illini offense kicked in gear. After consecutive completions of 9, 12 and 11 yards by Brasic, Mendenhall found the endzone on a three-yard run to pull Illinois within a touchdown.

With less than two minutes remaining, Illinois was forced to attempt an onside kick and nearly recovered the kick after the ball bounced through the hands of an Ohio State player. Unfortunately, Buckeye sophomore Brian Robiskie fell on the ball, stalling Illinois’ upset bid.

“That was the number one team in the country and we just proved we can play with anyone,” Leman said. “It’s just a matter of finishing the games right now.”