Over the years, a surprising number of Illini football teams have come to Ohio Stadium on a wing and a prayer and had that prayer answered.
In the last 30 years, only Michigan (12) has more victories against the Buckeyes than Illinois (9).
When Illini fans gather to kick around the memorable upsets in Columbus, two games get chewed to a soft pulp.
The first of those happened on Oct. 8, 1994 when the Illini upended 17th-ranked Ohio State 24-10.
The real story, however, transpired earlier in the week when, on a teleconference with reporters, Illini linebacker Dana Howard “guaranteed” an Illini victory.
That’s not really what happened, but over time, as stories are refined, revised and treated to a great degree of poetic license, Howard’s “guarantee” has become a part of Illini lore.
When he learned of the “guarantee,” Lou Tepper, the even-tempered Illinois head coach at the time, became furious with Howard. Tepper made the tackling machine from East St. Louis run the stairs of Memorial Stadium even though Howard’s sin was merely promising that Illinois would come ready to play its very best.
By the time the game rolled around, Howard was ready show Ohio State that whatever was said, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Howard had an interception, two sacks and 14 tackles and the Illini seemed inspired by Howard’s willingness to back up words with action.
The second of those upsets in Columbus came 10 seasons ago. That’s when Juice Williams threw four touchdown passes and Illinois toppled No. 1 and unbeaten Ohio State 28-21.
That game was the high water mark of the Ron Zook coaching era and it was a call on fourth down that resonates 10 years later.
Illinois faced fourth down and inches at its own 34 with 6:53 to go, hanging onto a 28-21 lead.
But as the Illini prepared to punt, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel called timeout.
During the stoppage, Juice Williams pleaded with Zook to reconsider the punt call. Ohio State, he reasoned, might get the ball back and win the game.
“Don’t you think we can get an inch, coach?” Williams asked at the time.
What happened next is also blurred by time and interpretation.
Williams said Zook agreed to go for it but said the coach looked him in the eye and told him, “If you don’t get it, I’ll hurt you.”
Zook remembered it differently. When Williams promised he could pick up the first down on a quarterback sneak, Zook said he told him, “You’d better.”
Either way, Williams ran for the first down and Illinois never let the Buckeyes touch the ball again. Seven weeks later Illinois was playing in the Rose Bowl.
After the game, Tressel was asked about calling the timeout that allowed Zook to reconsider the punt.
“I’d like to have that one back,” Tressel said.
There’s only one reason to rehash history today. That’s because it’s too painful to revisit the history that happened Saturday.
Illinois found itself in one of the bigger Big Ten mismatches in recent memory, arriving as a 41-point underdog and beating the spread in a driving rain, losing 52-14.
All the magic of Dana Howard and Juice Williams could not have stopped what happened when a vastly undermanned Illini team ran into a talented, angry Ohio State team trying to send messages to the College Football Playoff committee. That message: Don’t forget about us.
It’s true, Illinois is young and in the first step of a major rebuild. And with both Cam Thomas and Jeff George Jr. injured, it was painful to watch Chayce Crouch back in there at quarterback. The lone bright spot came when fourth-string QB Cam Miller, a walkon, ran for a TD and celebrated like he’d just hit the lottery.
This season will end Saturday where it began on Sept. 2, back in Memorial Stadium where the Illini will take on a Northwestern team that has its own magic going on.
The Wildcats have won six in a row, three of those in overtime, and are also flexing their muscles for post-season consideration.
The days of magical Illini football upsets seemed a million miles away this weekend.
We miss you Dana Howard. We miss you Juice Williams.
Some might even add, we miss you Ron Zook.