For the first five seasons of Cooper's reign in Columbus, the Michigan games and bowl games were tragedy- and the Illinois games were pure, unadulterated farce. The Buckeyes lost five straight to the Illini from 1988 through '92, finding ever more creative ways to lose as the streak went on and the Illibuck turtle found a seemingly permanent resting place in Champaign. In the early years, the problems against Michigan and in bowl games were relatively easy to explain- the Wolverines were better than the Buckeyes, and with the notable exception of Air Force in the 1990 Liberty Bowl, so were their postseason opponents. But Ohio State's futility against Illinois wasn't really an issue of talent, although the Illini had some solid teams during the period. Something always seemed to go wrong at the most inopportune time.
John Cooper opened his first season of Big Ten play against Illinois on October 1, 1988 in Columbus, and John Mackovic's Illini were happy to welcome the new coach with open arms, closed fists, and a mullet-headed nemesis in quarterback Jeff George. The future top overall NFL Draft selection riddled Ohio State's questionable secondary for 224 yards, the Illinois defense shut down the Buckeye running game- crippled by the loss of Vince Workman due to contact with an agent- and the Illini, a two-touchdown underdog going in, won easily, 31-12. The next year in Champaign, the outcome was even more lopsided, as the Illini, moving the ball at will on the arm of George and the legs of Howard Griffith, busted open a tight game in the second half, and cruised to a 34-14 victory.
Jeff George moved on to the NFL after the 1989 season, and with the undersized Jason Verduzco replacing him under center for Illinois, Buckeye fans probably figured their troubles with the Illini were over. They were only just beginning. Illinois came into the Horseshoe on October 6, 1990, and Verduzco with and wide receiver Shawn Wax doing their best Montana-to-Rice impersonation, handed Ohio State its third consecutive loss in the series, 31-20. The Illini put the game away in the fourth quarter with a blocked field-goal return for a touchdown, a score made possible by a forward lateral that was just as blatant as Daniel Dufrene's fumble last year- and just as uncalled.
Whether the culprit was bad officiating, bad defense, or bad coaching, or a combination of the three, Illinois was becoming a major problem for John Cooper. Compounding matters was the fact that the Illinois game was the Big Ten opener for Ohio State in 1988, '89, and '90, which meant that, thanks to the pesky Illini, the Buckeyes were continually behind the eight-ball in the conference race almost before it had begun. In 1991, Illinois wasn't the conference opener: Wisconsin was, and for the first time in Coop's reign, the Buckeyes went to 1-0 in the Big Ten with a win over the Badgers. A week later, Ohio State journeyed to Champaign and for the fourth straight year lost to Illinois, 10-7, as the diminutive Verduzco led his team to Chris Richardson's 41-yard field goal that gave the Illini the lead for good with 36 seconds to play. The Buckeyes had blown a golden opportunity early in the fourth quarter when Kirk Herbstreit threw an option pitch off of Butler By'not'e's shoulder pads inside the Illinois five-yard line. The gaffe proved an ominous portent.
On the afternoon of October 10, 1992, Ohio State figured it finally had the Illini right where it wanted them. Now coached by defensive specialist Lou Tepper (best known for allegedly calling the punt "the most exciting play in football") Illinois came into Columbus struggling, having suffered back-to-back losses to mediocre Houston and Minnesota teams, while the Buckeyes were 3-1 and apparently unfazed by an upset defeat at Wisconsin in the Big Ten lid-lifter. On its first possession, Ohio State marched to the Illinois two-yard line and called for the power play with freshman tailback Eddie George, who had scored three touchdowns against Syracuse a couple of weeks earlier. As he jackknifed into the line George had the ball knocked loose, and after a scramble, Illinois defensive back Jeff Arneson scooped it up and dashed 96 yards for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter another George fumble, this one at the Illinois one-yard line, set up a drive to a field goal that gave the Illini the lead, 18-16, with 4:56 to play. When Buckeye kicker Tim Williams missed his third field-goal attempt of the afternoon with 48 seconds left, Illinois had its fifth straight win in the series, despite being out-gained by nearly a hundred yards.
Shell-shocked by his butter-fingered escapades near the goal line, Eddie George would vanish into a two-year sojourn in Ohio State's version of the Witness Protection Program. John Cooper, alas, didn't have that option.
On October 9, 1993, Coop finally got off the schneid against his Orange and Blue tormentors, as the Buckeyes hung on for a 20-12 victory over the Illini in wind-swept Memorial Stadium. The crowning insult, however, was still to come. Prior to his team's meeting with Ohio State on October 8, 1994, Illinois linebacker Dana Howard guaranteed a victory in Columbus. Fired up by Howard's bold words, the Illini defense intercepted Bob Hoying three times, knocked him on his butt several times more, and led the way to a decisive 24-10 victory at the Horseshoe. Not one to shy away from backing up his talk, Howard himself got the ball rolling on the upset by picking off a Hoying slant pass in the end zone in the first quarter- yet another Buckeye turnover deep in Illini territory. It was the fourth straight win for Illinois at Ohio Stadium.
After the humiliation in 1994, Ohio State finally restored a measure of order to its rivalry with Illinois. From 1995 through '98, the Buckeyes crushed the Illini by scores of 41-3, 48-0, 41-6, and 41-0. Eddie George settled some personal scores by rolling up 314 yards on the ground and cementing his Heisman Trophy campaign against Illinois in '95. But the Orange and Blue had one more unpleasant surprise in store for John Cooper. On November 13, 1999, Ron Turner's revivified Illini came into the Horseshoe and drilled the Buckeyes 46-20, running their road record to 5-2 against John Cooper's team. In fact, Coop lost more times at home to Illinois in eleven years than the Buckeye program had in the previous fifty-seven years before his arrival.
So if you're a young Buckeye fan, and all you know about John Cooper is that he recruited like crazy and couldn't beat Michigan or an SEC team in the Citrus Bowl, well... now you know a little more. And be thankful you didn't see the Scarlet and Gray getting owned by the likes of Illinois, back in the day.