CHAMPAIGN — Illinois was sky high with an unbeaten record and a top 25 ranking. Ohio State was spiraling downward with an 0-2 start in the Big Ten and the stench of an offseason scandal trailing them.
The role reversal ended on a blustery Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
No. 16 Illinois failed to cash in on the perfect timing to beat Ohio State at home for the first time in 20 years and stumbled to a 17-7 loss — its first of the season.
"When the dust settles (my players) are going to look at this game and they're going to be sick," coach Ron Zook said. "They had the opportunity to beat a good football team and we didn't capitalize on it."
Three Illinois (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) turnovers nullified Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's 1 of 4 passing.
Despite the Buckeyes' obvious game plan, the Illini still could not stop the running game.
Dan Herron, making his season debut after a six-game suspension, ran for 114 yards on 23 carries as the Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2) totaled 211 rushing yards with just 17 through the air.
But Miller's one completion was a killer.
Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Miller found Jake Stoneburner in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown that gave Ohio State at 17-0 lead.
That score, as well as the Buckeyes' other touchdown, came after a turnover.
On the second, Ohio State recovered A.J. Jenkins fumbled reception at the Illini 37-yard line and moved up to the 22 on a personal foul. Two runs later, the touchdown pass put the Illini in a deep hole.
That was because Ohio State capitalized on Bradley Roby's interception of a Nathan Scheelhaase pass just two plays into the second half at the Illini 48.
Roby returned it 36 yards to the 12, and Herron ran it in on the next play.
"That was all me," Scheelhaase said. "You can't have those plays."
Illinois finally clicked offensively late in the fourth quarter when Scheelhaase hit tight end Evan Wilson for a 3-yard touchdown. But on the Illini's next possession, he threw another interception on the first play.
The Illini still found themselves in position to make a comeback when they drove to the Ohio State 17 with more than a minute remaining. Trailing by 10, Illinois decided to go for it on fourth-and-3 instead of going for a field goal.
But Scheelhaase and Jenkins had a miscommunication and the pass fell incomplete as Jenkins ran the wrong route.
"I told (Zook) I thought I had a call," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "I could see what defense they were in and we had an easy first down. That's my fault."
The Illini defense sacked Miller, who was coming back from an ankle injury, four times and held Ohio State to just 3-for-12 on third downs.
But Herron's return to action and Illinois' errors were too much for the Illini.
Zook's message to his players afterward was clear.
"We have to regroup," he said. "We're still in a position where we control our own destiny."