COLUMBUS - A year ago, Illinois came close to wrecking Ohio State`s national championship dreams.
Saturday at Ohio Stadium, the upstart Illini finished off the Buckeyes` nightmare.
In line for a return trip to the BCS national championship game, Ohio State instead will not get the chance to avenge its loss to Florida after falling 28-21 to unranked Illinois in front of 105,453 shell-shocked fans at the Horseshoe.
As fans sat silent in their seats, Illinois players celebrated on the "O" at midfield, touching off a brief skirmish when frustrated Ohio State players took exception to the display.
It was a fitting end to the Buckeyes` worst day of the season.
"It`s difficult, because a lot of our dreams and goals are down," said OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman, whose team was en route to completing its second consecutive unbeaten regular season, an accomplishment that would have sent them back to the BCS title game with a chance to win their second national championship in five seasons. "You set goals at the beginning of the season and we wanted to be national champions. We were on our way. To have a setback like this, it`s tough. It hurts."
"This stings," said Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. "But we`ve got to pick up and move forward."
What still lies ahead for the Buckeyes (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) is their annual regular-season ending showdown with archrival Michigan, a game that will still hold some significance with a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth on the line, but won`t loom as large for OSU, thanks to Illinois (8-3, 5-2).
An unheralded but dangerous Illinois team came as close as anyone to beating OSU in the regular season last year, losing 17-10 at Champaign, Ill.
With more experience - especially at quarterback with sophomore Juice Williams - the Illini made the most of their second chance.
With Williams leading the charge, Illinois played better on both sides of the ball, outgaining OSU 400-336 in total yards, while avoiding the mistakes that ultimately did in the Buckeyes, who turned the ball over three times (all on Todd Boeckman interceptions).
Ohio State`s defense, which entered the game leading the nation in scoring defense (9.7) and total defense (221.2), allowed a season-high 28 points, getting exposed on a large scale.
"They did the things you need to do to win a tough battle," Tressel said. "Unfortunately, we didn`t do all the things you need to do. We know that we can`t turn it over like that and come up on the right end against a good team."
Even with a subpar performance on all fronts, Ohio State still trailed by the final count with 8:09 to play after Boeckman was picked off for the third time on an underthrown deep ball to Brian Robiskie.
Needing to force a punt and score the game-tying touchdown, Ohio State instead watched as Illinois put together a clock-sapping drive that ended with the Illini taking a knee as time expired.
Williams was the culprit for much of the drive, picking up a first down on fourth-and-inches at the Illini 33-yard line, before running for three first downs in third-down situations that never allowed OSU`s offense back on the field.
Williams had a far more enjoyable day than Boeckman, who was harassed by Illini defenders for the majority of the game and was as inefficient as he has been all season, completing just 13 of 23 passes for 156 yards.
"I think you just have to take the whole offense to task for this one," Boeckman said. "I don`t know if it was me, the receivers, the line or what. I just made too many mistakes."
The Buckeyes didn`t have much of a running game either, with a banged-up Beanie Wells rushing for 82 yards on 20 carries after entering the game with 523 yards and four TDs in his last three games coming in. "We weren`t able to execute the things we needed to," said OSU senior tackle Kirk Barton. "We couldn`t run the ball and we turned it over three times."
It appeared that a WAC game had broken out between the two Big Ten rivals early with the teams combining to score 28 points through the game`s first 11 minutes.
Ohio State needed just two plays to score first, with Boeckman connecting with Brian Hartline on the first play from scrimmage on a 65-yard pass that set up Wells` 11-yard touchdown run.
It was the seventh straight game that the Buckeyes scored on their opening drive, but it didn`t deter Illinois, which needed just three plays to answer after Daniel Dufrene broke free for an 80-yard run on the Illini`s second play from scrimmage. It appeared that Dufrene fumbled the ball into the end zone, but Tressel did not ask for a review.
Both teams traded touchdowns before Illinois scored late in the second quarter to take a 21-14 lead at the half, which ballooned to 28-14 after Boeckman was picked off in the end zone and the Illini drove 80 yards for the score with 3:52 left in the third quarter.
OSU answered on Beanie Wells` 17-yard run with 34 seconds left in the quarter to pull within seven, but that was the end of the line for the Buckeyes, who lost on Senior Day.
"We didn`t send them out the right way," said junior linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or email@example.com.