COLUMBUS, Ohio – Andrew Norwell has firsthand knowledge of Illinois' surprising success at Ohio Stadium over the past 20 or so years.
He vividly remembers one historic game in particular.
The year was 2007 and Norwell was in middle school. His brother Chris was a four-year starter on the defensive line for the Illini, who on that day sprung a stunning 28-21 upset on the top-ranked and unbeaten Buckeyes.
"I was here in orange and blue," Ohio State's starting left guard said. "I was pretty fired up. I was sitting in the Illinois section. That last drive is what I remember most."
Against a Buckeyes team that had dominated all season, the Illini, behind quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams, played keep-away with the ball for the final 8:09 to hang on for the win.
Now the teams meet again. It might surprise many to know that Illinois has won three of the last five meetings in Ohio Stadium, and seven of 11 dating to 1988.
Even though Ohio State is again unbeaten and Illinois is struggling, the Illini have some history of playing over their heads in the Horseshoe. But Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer doesn't believe a team has another's "number."
"I don't really buy into that," he said.
Right now, the Illini are plumbing the depths of the Big Ten standings (2-6, 0-4) and Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) is alone atop the Leaders Division. Despite NCAA sanctions that prevent the Buckeyes from playing in the Big Ten title game or a bowl, they are still permitted to win their division and get a trophy. A win over the Illini, coupled with a Penn State loss at Purdue, and Ohio State will win a share of the division crown.
Even though the teams' current status would point to the game being a blowout — the Buckeyes are favored by 27.5 points — the ledger in recent years isn't nearly so definitive.
Ohio State has frequently spun its wheels against mediocre teams this season, saving its best for the strongest teams. Linebacker Zach Boren doesn't know why.
"If I knew the answer, in my career we wouldn't be 2-2 against Purdue and we wouldn't have our hands full against a team like Illinois," he said.
Over the 11 official games Illinois has played at Ohio Stadium since 1988, the Illini have beaten six ranked Ohio State teams, including three wins when Illinois was unranked and the Buckeyes were in the AP Top 25. In 1992, Illinois beat No. 21 Ohio State 18-16; in 1994, it was the Illini winning 24-10 over the 17th-ranked Buckeyes; and then there was the 2007 stunner.
A year ago, Illinois was 6-0 coming into the game at its Memorial Stadium against an Ohio State team that was 3-3 and on the way to a woeful 6-7 season. The Buckeyes won 17-7, starting the Illini on a six-game losing skid that resulted in coach Ron Zook losing his job. He was replaced by Tim Beckman, a former assistant to Meyer at Bowling Green and the head coach at Toledo the past three years.
Since that 2011 game, Ohio State has gone 12-4 and Illinois 3-12 with a 10-game Big Ten losing skid.
Meyer says Illinois won't slip up on his team.
"These players know Illinois," he said. "They've won seven of 11 in Ohio Stadium, so I'll bring that up. But at the end of the day they'll look at me and say, 'Move on, Coach, let's go.' The thing is us getting better."
So Ohio State won't emphasize the big picture over the past two decades, but rather how things are going right now for both teams. And there's a clear divide from that perspective.
"They've struggled, obviously," Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby said. "But any team can win any Saturday; you see it all the time. So you can't take anybody lightly."
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