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Instant Analysis: Illinois-Ohio State

Staff Columnist
Posted Nov 10, 2007

In college football's year of craziness, how fitting was it that precisely when you least expected it, hell froze over. No, it wasn't that Illinois knocked Ohio State out of the BCS national title game. It was the fact that Ron Zook outcoached Jim Tressel in a fourth-quarter game of chicken.

In the past several years of college football, few coaches have acquired reputations more different than the ones that have come to define Zook and Tressel. Zook has found himself easily portrayed, right or wrong, as a rah-rah motivator and recruiter par excellence. Come gameday, though, the man who failed and fell so fully and forcefully at Florida was never able to cover himself in dust and glory. Three rough years in the SEC forced the Zooker to start fresh with a lower-division Big Ten program. Only this year did Zook finally begin to create new and improved credentials as a head coach, but even then, the Illinois boss was the last man you'd expect to win in Columbus in mid-November.

Zook's counterpart, after all, was Tressel, Mr. Sweater Vest. Mr. Detail. The man who hadn't lost a regular season game in his last 28 attempts. The dude who hadn't lost a Big Ten game in 20 tries or a home game in 18 outings. Ever since the 2002 season, Tressel and USC coach Pete Carroll have been the two near-automatic men in college football. They don't lose games they're supposed to win at home. After the coaching job Tressel did this season to improbably bring the Buckeyes within two wins of New Orleans, it seemed almost impossible that--so close to the finish line--the Scarlet and Gray could blink against Ron Zook. Illinois has been a solid team in 2007, but the Illini clearly lost a lot of steam ever since a conquest of Wisconsin on Oct. 6. Juice Williams and a high-octane offense had been thoroughly contained by upper-level competition, leading sane observers to think that James Laurinaitis and Co. could stop Illinois when it really counted.

As this whole season has pointed out, conventional wisdom hasn't been very wise at all.

Everything mentioned above got turned on its head in this game. After Pete Carroll lost to Stanford this season, Jim Tressel lost to Illinois. Laurinaitis and his defensive teammates could not prevent the Juice from getting loose throughout a fourth quarter in which the Illini improbably held the ball for 13 minutes and 46 seconds. And in the most shocking development of this Superdome-shifting, BCS-busting upset, Ron Zook outcoached Tressel when it really mattered. The defining moment of this contest won't soon be forgotten when college football historians put this remarkable season in perspective.

Everyone in the Horseshoe, and every soul watching the national television broadcast, will remember where they were when the planets shifted, a lunar eclipse occurred, the earth shook, long-dormant volcanoes bubbled up with activity, and Bill Belichick became a sweet, sensitive metrosexual. They'll remember where they were when Jim Tressel lost a game with a poor piece of game management, and Ron Zook--given a second chance--made the right decision to help his team steal an upset for the ages.

Illinois led by seven with 6:53 left in the game. The Illini had been stopped one chain link short on third down, bringing up 4th and a solitary inch. Zook, ironically displaying (for a brief moment) the very kind of stupidity that caused him to fail at Florida, sent out the punt team, giving the Buckeyes a get-out-of-jail-free card. But then, it happened: before the Illini could hand the ball over, Tressel found it necessary to call timeout. Perhaps he had a good reason (twelve men on the field, perhaps, but with this story going to press just one hour after the game's end, that information won't be determined until later on in the evening), but the fact remains that Illinois was prepared to punt, and Ohio State gave Zook a chance to reconsider his jawdropping initial decision to punt. Sure enough, the Zooker--given time to think--sent Juice Williams back onto the field. Just as surely, the revived quarterback--still somewhat slowed but effective enough against a formidable defense--got the first down on a sneak. Three more first-down conversions later--all gained on third down with Williams keepers up the middle that succeeded because Laurinaitis got caught prematurely running upfield to create pressure--and the college football world received its latest, greatest thunderbolt from the blue... make that the Orange and Blue of Illinois, Ron Zook, and Juice Williams.

Jim Tressel is still a college football legend, and nothing less. Ohio State--if told before the season that it would enter the Michigan game 10-1 and with a chance at the outright Big Ten title--surely would have accepted such a scenario. Tonight, however, that 10-1 tally will hurt, because of a very rare instance in which Mr. Sweater Vest flinched in a staredown with Ron Zook. In the year of pure and unfiltered gridiron insanity, this turn of events in Columbus fit in just fine... especially for the residents of Baton Rouge and Eugene.

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