Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Complete Game Preview
No. 3 Ohio State made a huge surge in the national title race during its bye week when Oregon stumbled on the road against Stanford. Illinois broke down defensively in a 52-35 loss to Indiana and is still looking for its first conference victory since October 2011.
The two will take the field in Champaign, Ill., for a Big Ten matchup this Saturday.
The Buckeyes (9-0) are playing their best football of the season. After defeating Iowa 34-24 four weeks ago, Ohio State hammered Penn State and Purdue by a combined score of 119-14.
The Fighting Illini (3-6) will stumble into Saturday's contest riding a five-game losing streak. Their weak defense has been gashed during that stretch, giving up more than 42 points per game.
Ohio State and Illinois are trending in different directions, and because of that, the Buckeyes are favored by 33 points, according to Vegas Insider.
Is there anything Illinois can do to slow down Ohio State and capture the rivalry's Illibuck Trophy, or will the Buckeyes continue to roll? Get all the details with this complete game preview.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 16
Time: Noon ET
Place: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
Ohio State Keys to Victory
Pass Early, Run Late
In its last two victories, Ohio State has implemented a game plan that got the passing game going early, only to grind it out with the running game late.
Against the Boilermakers, Braxton Miller threw for 233 yards, and the team only ran for 110 in the first half. In the second half, the script flipped, as the Buckeyes piled up 235 rushing yards compared to just 62 through the air.
Much of that had to do with the blowout nature of the game, which is what Ohio State wants this Saturday. Weather permitting, look for head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes to air it out early.
Pressure the Quarterback
The Fighting Illini haven't done a very good job protecting their quarterbacks, as they're tied 77th nationally in sacks allowed (2.2 per game).
Ohio State is averaging nearly three sacks per game, but that number is on the rise, as the Buckeyes have registered 10 combined sacks against Penn State and Purdue.
That's the result of a more aggressive scheme from the coaching staff. The improved pass rush has helped the defense overall—the Buckeyes only gave up an average of 236.5 yards per game against the Nittany Lions and the Boilermakers.
Illinois Keys to Victory
Underdogs battling the kind of odds Illinois face this Saturday need everything to go right for the upset, and that starts with turnovers.
Winning the turnover battle is something Illinois has struggled with, though. The Fighting Illini rank 97th in turnover margin, both because the defense struggles to force mistakes and because the offense has made too many.
When the Fighting Illini played their two toughest games against Michigan State and Wisconsin, they turned the ball over four times while forcing just one.
That won't fly against the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer is expecting Illinois to blitz a lot, per Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch, and Fighting Illini head coach Tim Beckman can only hope that will rattle the red-hot Braxton Miller.
Limit Ohio State's Rushing Attack
To say Illinois has struggled defending the run would be an understatement.
Against Big Ten competition, the Fighting Illini are giving up an average of 301 rushing yards per game. Last week, Indiana's offense rushed for 371 yards on 43 carries (8.3 per rush).
This week, Illinois will be facing the Big Ten's top rushing attack.
The Buckeyes, coincidentally, are averaging 301 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks eighth nationally. Carlos Hyde is picking up steam, averaging 143 rushing yards over the Buckeyes' last four games.
It's hard to imagine Illinois shutting down Ohio State's rushing attack, but it has to find a way to slow it down. According to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors, Beckman said the only way to limit Hyde is to disrupt his rhythm and gang tackle.
Players to Watch for the Buckeyes
The last time Braxton Miller played in Memorial Stadium, he completed just one of four passes, but that's all the Buckeyes needed in a 17-7 victory.
Miller was just a freshman then, and his growth over the last two years should be on full display this Saturday.
Since Miller's shaky performance against Northwestern, the junior signal-caller has played nearly flawless football. Miller has completed 80 percent of his passes for 707 yards and nine touchdowns against just one interception over the last three games. He has also run for 177 yards and two touchdowns during that stretch.
Illinois is giving up 243 passing yards per game this year, which ranks 89th nationally, so Miller could be in for another big day.
Much like Miller, Noah Spence has surged for the Buckeyes in recent games.
The 6'3", 252-pound defensive end and former 5-star prospect, per 247Sports, leads the team with six sacks, but three of those came in the Buckeyes' last two games. Spence has a knack for getting in the backfield and only trails Ryan Shazier in tackles for loss with 10.
Players to Watch for the Fighting Illini
While Illinois has struggled this year, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has thrived.
The senior signal-caller leads the Big Ten with 2,410 passing yards. Scheelhaase is completing 65 percent of his passes and has 15 passing touchdowns against eight interceptions. He has also run for 151 yards and added three more rushing touchdowns.
Last week against Indiana, Scheelhaase did all he could in the loss, throwing for a career-high 450 yards while running for 45 with three total touchdowns.
The offense's success is largely dependent on the quarterback's play. Scheelhaase threw nine of his 15 touchdown passes in Illinois' three victories this year.
Jonathan Brown, who turned down the 2013 NFL draft to return for his senior season, is one of the most instinctive linebackers in the Big Ten. The All-Conference candidate leads the Big Ten with 9.8 tackles per game as one of the few defensive playmakers for the Fighting Illini.
Brown is also disruptive, boasting 10.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks.
The 6'1", 230-pounder will need to be all over the field to give Illinois a chance. Watch for Brown to be used in a variety of blitz packages and zone coverages in an attempt to confuse Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense.
What They Are Saying
Urban Meyer thinks Braxton Miller is much improved as a quarterback compared to last year, according to the team's official website:
Braxton would be the first one to tell you, Braxton at this point last year we weren't real fired up at times throwing the ball.
If you remember against Wisconsin, but it's a whole different we're in a completely different mindset. I have complete confidence in both our quarterbacks and our guys behind them. Excuse me, the guys catching the passes. It's apples to oranges, completely different scenario.
It's disheartening missing tackles or overrunning plays. (The offense) just goes back out there on the football field and tries to score points. There's no finger-pointing or anything like that going on (with) this football team. It's not effort. It's more of intelligence, I'd say. Not that our players aren't smart, but ... we're trying to get to the football so hard that at times (against Indiana) Coleman just cut it right back on us and hit the seam.
This is a very invested team. I'm watching that. I'm just telling you as of Monday, no issue whatsoever. It will be a bomb go off if I start to see that or we all start to see that, because this is a very invested team. Invested teams don't (that).
Beckman has a strategy to try to limit Miller, according to the team's official website:
What they're able to do with him by enabling him as a passer and as a runner just makes his game even more. I think his passing game has continued to improve as he's progressed through college football. You're going to have to make sure that you have a timed spy, spy him so that if he does break contain there is somebody there to address that, but you have to be able to put pressure on him too because he's got the arm that can beat you deep so we're going to have to mix it up.
Ohio State 59, Illinois 13
Braxton Miller will throw for 235 yards and three touchdowns and run for 50 yards and a touchdown in a big victory for the Buckeyes. Carlos Hyde will also have a big game, running for 140 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries.
Illinois will get on the board first, taking the opening drive deep into Ohio State territory before settling for a field goal.
That lead won't last long as the Buckeyes will answer quickly. Miller will rip off a 20-yard touchdown run to spark a 21-0 run for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will cruise from there.
Ohio State's defense will fluster Nathan Scheelhaase, sacking him four times and picking him off twice. The Buckeyes will limit Illinois to less than 300 yards of total offense in a 46-point victory.
All stats via NCAA.com.
David Regimbal is the Ohio State Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.