Illini have heartache history for OSU

Published 2:49 am Tuesday, September 22, 2009

COLUMBUS — Over the last three decades, not many teams have caused Ohio State more headaches and heartache than Illinois.

From 1930 to 1982, the Buckeyes went 43-8-2 against the Illini, an .830 winning percentage.

In the 24 meetings since, Ohio State is 13-11. The teams meet for the 96th time on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

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Just as there is give and take in most games, teams rise and fall through the years. And they sometimes can go on hot or cold streaks when playing a particular opponent.

Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce harkened back to his days as a student in Columbus in 1953, when the Buckeyes hosted the Illini having lost only three of the previous 18 meetings.

‘‘I can remember when Illinois beat Ohio State in Woody Hayes’ third year, 41-20,’’ he said. ‘‘They had two great halfbacks and a great coach (Ray Eliot) and they became a great program.

‘‘If you get a great player or two, they can turn things around quickly.’’

The same holds true for the modern era. A blue-chip quarterback here, a blossoming linebacker there and all of a sudden one program can rise up against another.

In the early days of football, Illinois was the rage. Coach Bob Zuppke was on the sidelines for 29 years, starting in 1913, coaxing the program through World War I and the Depression. He originated the flea-flicker, screen pass, spiral snap from center, spring practices and the huddle.

Oh, and he won. He led the Illini to national championships in 1914, 1919, 1923 and 1927.

Zuppke, born in Germany, controlled the series against Ohio State back in the days when they annually closed the season against one another.

His rise — and that of Illinois’ program — paralleled that of Ohio State and coaches John Wilce, Sam Willaman and Francis Schmidt. The Buckeyes also grew into a national power, building a mammoth concrete stadium on the banks of the Olentangy River in 1922 that many people scoffed at and said was far too big. In time, the Buckeyes filled it and sent those fans home happy.

Zuppke’s teams were 10-5-1 against Ohio State before the tide turned, with the Buckeyes winning 12 of the last 13 against him.

Ohio State dominated the series for the next half-century. Hayes steamrolled the Illini, losing just four times in his 28 seasons. Bruce, a former assistant under Hayes, took over for his mentor in 1979 and won his first four meetings with the Illini — giving the Buckeyes 15 consecutive wins in the series.

Since then, however, it’s almost been a toss-up.

‘‘I wasn’t around those times,’’ Illinois quarterback Juice Williams said Monday. ‘‘It’s a rivalry game for us. … It’s kind of up in the air why it’s always a good game.’’

For the most part the Illinois regimes of Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper and Ron Turner won’t be remembered as vintage years in Champaign/Urbana, but those teams seemed to have a knack for knocking off the Buckeyes.

Ohio State coach John Cooper had particular problems with the Illini, losing his first five meetings and six of the first seven. He gave way to current Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, who is 4-2 — with both losses coming in Columbus. The stunning 28-21 defeat in 2007 engineered by current coach Ron Zook knocked the Buckeyes, who came in at 10-0, out of the No. 1 spot in the polls.

Rest assured, the Illini have the Buckeyes full attention.

‘‘When you’re playing teams year after year, the respect factor is built upon how much of a hard-hitting game was it, how tough were they and did they keep bringing it?’’ Tressel said. ‘‘You remember how bruising they were and how much respect you had for the competition.’’

The Illinois-Ohio State game is played for a ‘‘trophy’’ of sorts. A real turtle was the prize in the series until 1927, when it died due to the wear and tear of traveling. It was replaced with a carved wooden replica. Now two junior honorary societies present the big turtle to the previous year’s winning school at halftime.

And, believe it or not, the two student groups used to smoke a peace pipe as a sign of fellowship and good will.

They don’t do that anymore.

Ohio State now holds a 61-30-4 lead in the rivalry.

Illinois controlled the matchups early, Ohio State did in the middle and the two have fought on even terms over the past 25 years.

‘‘Good programs are good programs,’’ Bruce said. ‘‘The great ones seem to always stay up there, while there’s always some ebb and flow. That happens in college football.’’