Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Very Big Win

On March 6, 2005, I got a phone call from my grandmother. She was calling to rub it in. You see, Ohio State (where a number of her children went to college) had just upset my alma mater Illinois on the last regular season basketball game, ending Illinois' perfect season. As it turns out, Illinois' difficulty with talented big men like Ohio State had that year would manifest itself again a few weeks later vs Loren Woods and Arizona and finally in their only other loss that year vs Sean May and North Carolina. Ohio State was in the midst of a rather terrific turnaround which manifested in last year's National Championship loss to Florida. Thad Matta rebuilt the Ohio State basketball program from a unti that struggled to make the tournament to a national power. That game was a big turning point for them.

Illinois was watching that game with great interest, but not for their basketball team. Their football team was in one of the worst stretches in school history. Newly hired coach Ron Zook had a monumental task in front of him to rebulid a horribly crippled football program. Prior to 2007, the University of Illinois had won 8 games in FOUR YEARS. That's an average record of 2-10 for four years. That's bad, really bad.

The recruiting improved immeasurably starting with the star of the day, Mr. Isaiah Williams, aka Juice. They almost broke out last season beginning with a great win against Michigan State. They had Indiana and Wisconsin in deep deep holes before giving up big leads in the second half. They even took #1 Ohio State last yera to a closer than expected 17-10 dogfight loss. My father, a big OSU fan, told me that usually the year after you lose all the close games, you start winining them.

This year didn't start out that way - a loss to Missouri that in hindsight looks much better now than it did then. Wins vs Western Illinois and a weak Syracuse team did little to bolster my confidence. But then they handled Indiana on the road rather convincingly, and they beat ranked Penn State at home. And then they really surprised me by putting away Wisconsin at home. Losses to Iowa and Michigan put things back in perspective - this team still had problems. Wins versus Ball State and Minnesota were expected, although I was impressed with the way they beat Minnesota with Juice having his best game of the season. Up until that point, I was a big fan of pulling Juice in favor of freshman McGee.

I loosely jabbed an OSU alum coworker on Friday, asking him if he had enough alcohol around to drown the sorrows of a loss. I gotta be honest - I didn't really think they'd win. The opening drive felt a lot like their only loss of the 2001 Sugar Bowl season when they were absolutely ripped by Michigan. But they responded. They took every punch that Ohio State handed out and then delivered some of their own.

In my mind, Jim Tressel bet heavily on his team's ability to stop the run, and when Juice beat them with his arm (4 TD passes), OSU just had no idea what hit them. On almost every big play that Illinois had, OSU was caught trying to crowd the line to stop the run. If the run got past their front 7 or if they decided to throw deep, there was all kinds of green grass out there to run in with no safeties to help cover.

Illinois' defense also got much better as the game went on. J Leman played like a man possessed and the DBs were very opportunistic with Boeckman's errant throws. You just can't understate the power of Illinois' blocking late in the game though. That's unheard of - they're running the ball - OSU knows that Illinois is running the ball. And OSU time and time again couldn't stop them. Illinois ran off the final 8:09 to kill the game and they never threw a pass. That's amazing.

So, Grandma, instead of a phone call, I give you this blog to return the favor. We won. And I hope that Illinois is in Ohio State's position soon.

GO Illini!

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