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What is 'Illibuck'? The story behind the Ohio State-Illinois rivalry

What many fans may not know is that the Ohio State-Illinois matchup is (technically) a rivalry.
Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) hold up the Illibuck trophy after the game at Memorial Stadium. Ohio State defats Illinois 28-3.

On Saturday at 3:30 p.m., the Ohio State football team will take the field at Ohio Stadium for the last time this season. It will be senior day in Columbus, and several players like quarterback J.T. Barrett will have their chance to say goodbye.

With that backdrop, the game itself almost seems secondary, and for good reason: The Buckeyes will be taking on 2-8 Illinois, a team without a win in Big Ten play and with a coach (former Bears great Lovie Smith) who is in danger of being fired. Currently, OSU is a 41-point favorite, causing many fans to already look ahead to that season-ending rivalry against That Team Up North.

However, what many fans may not know is that the Ohio State-Illinois matchup is (technically) a rivalry. While the overall results on the field certainly wouldn't reflect that, it all revolves around perhaps the greatest trophy in college football: A wooden turtle named "Illibuck."

The story goes like this: Back in the 1920s, the Illini (not the Wolverines) were the Buckeyes' biggest rival, and the two teams actually met on the last day of the season from 1919-1933.

During that stretch, Illinois was by far the more dominant team, winning three national championships and sporting superstar players like Howard "Red" Grange. OSU held its own, however, winning seven out of 15 games in the series.

To further stoke the flames of the rivalry, two university junior honor societies (Bucket and Dipper at Ohio State and Atius-Sachem at Illinois) decided in 1925 to add a twist: The winner of the game would gain possession of a real, live turtle, appropriately named "Illibuck" as a play on Illini and Buckeyes. The turtle was (ironically, as it would turn out) chosen for its long lifespan, a symbol of the eternal rivalry between the two teams.

Sadly, Illibuck would not like to see many more years: In 1927, he died after escaping from an Illinois fraternity bathtub. To avoid a repeat of such an incident, both schools decided instead to construct a wooden replica of the turtle, and the winner of the Ohio-State Illinois game has received that trophy ever since.

Ohio State Buckeyes students hoist the Illibuck trophy during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illinois at Ohio Stadium on September 26, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio.

Illibuck is the second-oldest football trophy in the Big Ten, behind only Michigan and Minnesota's "Little Brown Jug." Unlike other trophies, though, the winning team does not officially receive Illibuck until halftime of the following year's game, during a ceremony between Bucket and Dipper and Atius-Sachem. This means a team could technically be in possession of the turtle despite coming off a loss in the series (a little awkward).

Meanwhile, much like the original live Illibuck, the Ohio State-Illinois rivalry has lost some of its luster over the years: The Buckeyes decided to make the Michigan game their season finale in 1935, and overall have dominated their matchups with the Illini, winning 67 of the 101 meetings, including 15 straight from 1968-82.

After Illinois finally beat Ohio State in 1983 (on its way to the Rose Bowl), the rivalry enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, and the next year the Buckeyes would take down the Illini in a 45-38 thriller after coming back from down 24 points. Keith Byers led the way with a then-school record 274 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns. The Illini would later win five straight of their own from 1988-92 over OSU head coach John Cooper (who went a disappointing 6-7 in the series).

Big Ten champ Illinois would beat OSU again in 2001 (Jim Tressel's first year) during a hard-fought game in the Horseshoe. The next year, the two teams met in Champaign in what is arguably the rivalry's most memorable game, as the 4-6 Illini gave the second-ranked Buckeyes all they could handle before the eventual national champions prevailed in overtime, 23-16.

Tailback Maurice Hall #28 of the Ohio State University Buckeyes carries the ball during the Big Ten game against the University of Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on November 16, 2002. OSU defeated Illinois 23-16, in overtime.

Since then, Ohio State has reclaimed its dominance in the series, and thanks to the Big Ten's divisional realignment the two teams don't even meet annually anymore. The last time the Illini beat the Buckeyes came back in 2007, when they shocked the nation's number one-ranked team 28-21 on senior day in Columbus.

Fans of the Illinois Fighting Illini cheer in the stands during the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium November 10, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio. Illinois defeated Ohio State 28-21.
Todd Boeckman #17 of the Ohio State Buckeyes walks off the field with head coach Jim Tressel after the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Ohio Stadium November 10, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio. Illinois defeated Ohio State 28-21.

So while Illinois may not garner the same hatred from the Ohio State faithful as Michigan or Penn State (or even Wisconsin or Michigan State), the rivalry survives, all because of a wooden turtle. Face it: If you aren't proud of Illibuck, you're not a Buckeye fan.

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