BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — CHAMPAIGN — Judging by the crowd on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the final outcome of the Big Ten football contest between Ohio State and Illinois was never in doubt.
The fans clad in the scarlet and gray colors for the third-rated Buckeyes nearly outnumbered the orange and blue for the Fighting Illini and when Ohio State jumped out to a 28-0 lead, the sounds of those fans and the Ohio State band made you feel like you were in Columbus, Ohio.
“It started with believing. Ohio State is No. 3 and we’re not ranked,’’ said Illinois sophomore defensive back V’Angelo Bentley. “We want to get to where they are at.
“All week, we tried to get all of our guys to believe that we could do this. We knew we could play with them. We got ourselves in a hole early, and it was time for someone to make a play.’’
And Bentley was just the guy.
His 67-yard punt return for a touchdown, the first for the Illini in 10 years, ignited a spirited effort from the Illinois football team, but the Ohio State Buckeyes, with their eyes firmly set on a spot in the BCS National Championship game, won their 22nd consecutive game with a 60-35 victory before 44,095 at Memorial Stadium.
“They have some skilled athletes, and they are very well coached,’’ said Illinois coach Tim Beckman. “I thought our players battled to the dang end. They never came up short, they continued to fight.’’
But in the end, it was a 1-2 punch of Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller that was just too much for Illinois to handle.
Hyde ran for 246 yards on just 24 carries while also scoring four times; while Miller ran for 184 and passed for another 150 and two touchdowns. Those two combined for 430 of Ohio State’s 441 rushing yards.
“Against a team like that with Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, they are a really tough offense,’’ said Illinois senior wide receiver Steve Hull, who had his second straight 100-yard game with eight receptions for 105 yards and a score. “At the end of the day, it’s our job on offense to put the ball in the end zone and score one more point than them — whether that’s 100 points or seven.’’
While the Buckeyes (10-0 overall, 6-0 in the Big Ten) are talking about their win streak under second-year coach Urban Meyer, most of the discussion for the Illini (3-7, 0-6) focused a 20-game Big Ten Conference losing streak.
“I only have two games left here, and we still don’t have that Big Ten win,’’ said Hull as Illinois will finish its season with a road game at Purdue next week and the home finale on Nov. 30 against Northwestern. “That void in your heart grows with each week that slips by, so it’s frustrating. But we know that we have to angle that frustration in the right way.’’
But, it appeared some of that frustration boiled over on Saturday when Beckman, in his second season, had a heated discussion with first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit after backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole was sacked in the end zone for a safety with 4 minutes, 59 seconds left in the third quarter. It was O’Toole’s only action of the game as senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was 33-of-50 for 288 yards and two scores, was forced out of the game with a broken helmet.
“It’s never happened in my career,’’ said Beckman when asked about the situation. “I’m the head football coach — it goes on my shoulders.
“It was a heat of the moment thing. We both want to be successful.’’
Cubit said “that sort of thing happens all of the time.’’
The two coaches got things straightened out on the sidelines and Beckman suggested that he probably should have called a timeout.
While the sideline disagreement may have looked bad, it was indicative of how the Illini have played this season. Even with a three-year conference losing streak and six straight losses this year, this group of coaches and players are not giving up.
“This group has been that way this whole football season,’’ Beckman said. “That’s why it’s so disheartening when they don’t get that victory. They are fighting to the end, there is not question about that.
“Through adversity, good things will come if you continue to fight — that’s exactly what they are doing.’’
Saturday’s loss also ended any hopes of a postseason bowl game for Illinois, but Scheelhaase, who became the fifth quarterback in school history with 50 or more touchdown passes on Saturday, said this team still has it’s pride.
“Any time, we put on a jersey representing this university — you always have something to play for,’’ he said.
Beckman admitted the focus for Illinois is to end the conference losing streak.
“We want to win,’’ he said, rejecting the notion that Illinois earned a moral victory. “I want these senior to be successful, and get that monkey off their back. We have two opportunities to get that victory, and we still have two trophies left to play for.’’
On Saturday, Ohio State retained the Illibuck, while next week Illinois and Purdue will play for “Cannon” at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m.