The last time the Fighting Illini had a winning season was in 2014. However, even before that year, Illinois enjoyed their fair share of memorable moments.
One of those occurred in 2007, a season in which Illinois finished 9-4 (including the bowl game), and qualified for the Rose Bowl before losing to USC.
On Nov. 10, 2007, the Illini were on the fast track to success as they faced then-No. 1 ranked Ohio State on the road in Week 11.
Led by quarterback Juice Williams, Illinois controlled Ohio State for much of the game. Williams proved that he was ready for the big stage, finding a plethora of receivers in the endzone, and making clutch throws at the perfect time.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Illini held onto a seven point lead with just over eight minutes left to play. Williams, who had been criticized throughout the ‘07 season for his inconsistent passing ability, improvised and began to use his elusive legs.
With the adjustment, the Illini were able to run out the clock, and ultimately complete the 28-21 upset.
Prior to the game, Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes had a 28-game winning streak to hang their hat on. In addition, they had dominated Big Ten play throughout the last year and a half up to that point, making the bitter loss even more tough to swallow.
Former Buckeyes offensive tackle Kirk Barton gave his honest feelings after the defeat, and how much it hurt to lose to a long-time rival.
“This is a game I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Barton told ESPN. “This is disappointing.”
Jermey Leman, a former Illini linebacker and current Big Ten Network analyst, was jubilated with excitement after the upset win.
“I know ‘shock the world’ is overused,” Leman told ESPN. “It is pretty shocking to most people, but not to the guys in the locker room.”
The win marked the first time Illinois had defeated a No. 1 ranked team since 1956, and their first road win against a top-ranked team in school history.
Williams finished with 12-for-26 on passing competitions for 140 yards, along with 70 yards rushing on 16 carries of his own. Former Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals running back, Rashard Mendenhall, also set a season high (at the time) 88 yards on 26 carries.
The Illini finished with 260 yards rushing against a defense that had only given up 65 yards per game through Week 11.
While the game was an historical feat for the Illini, it ultimately did not matter from an Ohio State perspective. They eventually faced No. 2 LSU in the BCS Championship game, where they would lose 38-24.
This victory was arguably the most important during the Ron Zook era. In 2018 and beyond, the Fighting Illini look to start a new era of success with Lovie Smith at the helm.