Great Sports Moments: The Big Upset
They’ve been playing football at the University of Illinois since 1890.
That’s 132 years of touchdowns, takeaways and tackles.
One iconic photo stands above the rest, and it followed the most significant win in program history.
On Nov. 10, 2007, at a packed and roaring Ohio Stadium, Head Coach Ron Zook’s team shushed the 105,453 Buckeye believers. Led by quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams, ’09 LAS, Illinois beat top-ranked Ohio State 28-21, the first loss of the season for the national championship contenders.
Illinois had knocked off a No. 1 before. Twice in fact, in 1950 (also Ohio State) and ’56 (Michigan State). But those opponents weren’t close to the quality of ’07 Ohio State, which featured eight All–Big Ten first- or second-teamers. Conference Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis led the way.
Despite a 7-3 record, Illinois traveled to Columbus as a 15 ½–point underdog. The upset ranks among the biggest in Illini history.
Ask Illini All-American linebacker Jeremy “J” Leman, ’06 LAS, EDM ’08, his first thought on 2007 against Ohio State and the answer will surprise you. “First play of the game, we had a miscommunication on defense and gave up a huge play,” Leman says. Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman connected with Brian Hartline for a 65-yard gain. The next play, Beanie Wells took it in from 11. After 23 seconds, the Buckeyes were up 7-0.
To their credit, the Illini bounced back. Immediately. The late Daniel Dufrene took the ball and raced 80 yards to the Ohio State 3. Next play, Williams found tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, ’16 AHS, for the tying score. “That game was really won by the response of the offense in the first quarter,” Leman says.
Ohio State retook the lead and Illinois answered again. This time, it was a 33-yard pass from Williams to Champaign’s Jacob Willis, ’07 LAS. The Illini grabbed the lead for good late in the second quarter, when Williams hit Ohio native Brian Gamble for an 8-yard score. The underdogs bumped the margin to 28-14 on a 31-yard strike from Williams to Decatur’s Marques Wilkins, ’09 AHS.
Williams sealed the victory late in the final quarter, converting a fourth-and-inches deep in Illinois territory. “Juice looked at me and said, ‘I’ll get it. I’ll get it,’” Zook told The Champaign News-Gazette in 2017. “And I said, ‘You better.’ The rest is history.”
The conversion led to a wild postgame celebration. That’s when Illini defensive lineman Mike Ware, ’09 LAS, found roommate Leman on the field. “Mike turns to me and said, ‘You get on my shoulders right now!’” Leman says. “It was to reach up to the [Illinois] fans because they were up higher. He got fired up and started doing these circles.”
A large copy of the photo, taken by the late Mark Cowan, hangs in Leman’s house. Next to his unwashed, framed Rose Bowl jersey.