A chance to turn the tables on Ohio State

Jack Cornell still remembers watching Illinois’ game against Ohio State in 2007 — when the Illini took down the then-No. 1 Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio — from the basement of a friend’s house in Springfield, Ill. Cornell was a true freshman who ended up redshirting that season, and was left off the Illini travel roster in favor of some Ohio natives because he was “a small little Illinois boy.”

That was the last time the Illini defeated the Buckeyes, making Cornell among only a handful of players who were a part of the program the last time they accomplished the feat.

“Only the fifth-year guys, there’s like six of us left, know what that feels like,” Cornell said.

Illinois isn’t the only team to struggle against the Buckeyes, who are perennially one of the top teams in college football. In fact, the Illini have fared better than most, posting nine victories in the rivalry since 1988, second only to Michigan’s 11.

But close doesn’t cut it for players like senior Tavon Wilson.

“I’ve never beaten them,” Wilson said. “I wanna win a game. That’s something that I wanna do.”

Even players who haven’t been around the program long realize the significance of playing a program with tradition like Ohio State’s.

“You’re definitely excited. You know what tradition comes with Ohio State, what they’ve done over the years, how they’ve established themselves as a program,” sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “It’s definitely one you really get excited about.”

And it’s not just players from the Midwest who know the history of the Buckeyes.

“It’s one of the big time, one of the prominent programs in college football,” said freshman Donovonn Young, a native of Houston, Texas. “I always grew up watching them on ABC in big-time games and stuff like that, and it feels funny to finally be playing the scarlet and silver.”

Even more impressive than Ohio State’s current three-game winning streak is its dominance on the road at Memorial Stadium, where the Buckeyes haven’t lost in more than 20 years — their last defeat in Champaign came on Oct. 12, 1991.

This year represents a unique opportunity, though, as the Illini enter ranked No. 16 while the Buckeyes haven’t made an appearance in the top 25 since a Week Three loss to Miami. The last time a ranked Illinois squad took on an unranked Buckeyes team was 1989, and it has only happened five times in 98 meetings since 1902.

The Buckeyes also come to Champaign looking to avoid their first three-game Big Ten losing streak since 2004, when they started 0-3 in conference play en route to a 4-4 finish and fourth-place tie in the Big Ten.

But for all their struggles, the Illini still know they can’t take Ohio State lightly.

“You don’t really worry about rankings once that whistle blows,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s two teams that are both trying to win a game, that’s what it really comes down to. I’m sure it’s going to be one heck of a game. … Especially when you get into Big Ten, the rankings don’t really matter at all.”

And while the Illinois players say they don’t pay attention to the streaks or firsts during the season, senior Trulon Henry said he wouldn’t mind breaking a few of them anyway.

“Of course we go out there not caring about it, because if you think about it, that’s when you spill the beans,” Henry said. “It’s always cool to make history. I can’t tell you when it’s not cool to make history. So walking off the field knowing that we made history is always a beautiful thing. I’m not gonna sit here and lie to you, making history is big.”