Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Complete Game Preview
A week after escaping Happy Valley with a 31-24 overtime win over Penn State, the Ohio State football team will return to action on Saturday for a prime-time matchup with Illinois. All eyes might already be looking at the Buckeyes' Nov. 8 matchup with Michigan State, but Ohio State must first past make it past a Fighting Illini team that's riding some momentum of its own.
With the Spartans sitting at 7-1 and enjoying a bye week, the Buckeyes will hope to match MSU's record with a win on Saturday, making the much-anticipated showdown between the two squads a de facto Big Ten East championship game. After averaging 56 points per game from Sept. 13-Oct. 18, Ohio State came back to Earth against the Nittany Lions but will hope to head to East Lansing on a high note.
Illinois, meanwhile, managed to end a three-game losing streak last Saturday with an impressive 28-24 win over 6-2 Minnesota. Whether that game says more about the Illini or Golden Gophers remains to be seen, but it could be the start of a much-needed second-half surge for Tim Beckman's 4-4 team.
Whether the Buckeyes will regain momentum or Illinois will maintain it will be determined on Saturday. Until then, here's everything you need to know about this weekend's Big Ten battle:
Date: Saturday, Nov. 1
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio
TV: ABC, ESPN 3
Spread: Ohio State (-28.5), via Odds Shark
Ohio State Keys to Victory
Don't Look Ahead
It may not be for another week, but most people in Columbus seem to already be looking ahead to Nov. 8 and Michigan State, and not the Buckeyes' upcoming game. Urban Meyer, however, remains confident that his team doesn't fall into that category, as he's made it clear that Ohio State can't afford to underestimate the Illini.
"Illinois just won a big game," the Buckeyes head coach said. "There will be no overlooking anyone."
That, of course, is sometimes easier said than done, but Meyer maintains that Illinois is better than its record indicates. After going 4-8 a season ago, the Illini have already matched their win total from last year, which has given Meyer ammo to keep his team focused.
"Illinois is much improved from a year ago," Meyer insisted.
Block for Barrett
After quarterback J.T. Barrett struggled through Ohio State's most recent win, Meyer revealed that the redshirt freshman quarterback suffered a sprained MCL in the first half of the Buckeyes' trip to State College. That's the same injury that sidelined Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller for three weeks last season, and running back Carlos Hyde a year before that.
Barrett, however, will be able to participate in practice and presumably this weekend's game, although his head coach admitted that the OSU signal-caller will be limited. That will place a larger spotlight on the Buckeyes offensive line, which struggled with a talented Penn State front seven on Saturday.
Should the Ohio State front five keep Barrett upright, it will be interesting to see how he performs after throwing for just 74 yards against the Nittany Lions. And if it can't, the Buckeyes quarterbacking responsibilities will fall to Cardale Jones, who has attempted just five passes in his redshirt sophomore season.
Illinois Keys to Victory
As Meyer mentioned, Illinois is coming off of its biggest win of the season, beating a Minnesota team that many expected to win the Big Ten West. The Illini even managed to upset the Golden Gophers despite being out-gained by a 411-263 yard margin.
If Illinois is going to pull off a second upset in a row, it's going to need to maintain momentum, which won't exactly be easy as it enters the nighttime atmosphere of Ohio Stadium. After playing against the Penn State "White Out," it will be the Buckeyes turn to have the home-field advantage, as they play in their second of three consecutive 8 p.m. starts.
But if the Illini can create turnovers—they forced three against Minnesota—things could get interesting in Columbus. After all, Ohio State isn't unbeatable on its home field at night, as evidenced by Virginia Tech's beating of the Buckeyes on Sept. 6.
Air It Out
While it may not be a strength just yet, the Ohio State defense is rapidly improving, as the Buckeyes limited the Nittany Lions to 224 yards last Saturday. On Monday, Meyer admitted that he's been pleased with the progress of the unit, which was littered with red flags just a season ago.
"Defensively, other than the final drive, I was very pleased with the effort," Meyer said. "We are getting better on defense."
But while Ohio State's defense is getting better, it remains far from a proven commodity. And it will be even more imperative for Illinois to score its points in bunches on Saturday, as it's hard to imagine the Illini defense stifling the Buckeyes offensive attack.
If Illinois can exploit an improving but still young Ohio State secondary, a shootout on Saturday could put the game in anybody's hands. That may prove to be too tall of a task, however, for an Illini offense that ranks 77th in the nation with 28.5 points per game.
Ohio State Players to Watch
After posting six tackles and 2.5 sacks in Ohio State's win over Penn State, Joey Bosa unsurprisingly finds himself the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. The Buckeyes' super sophomore has enjoyed a stellar 2014 season so far, totaling eight sacks in just seven games.
And while Ohio State was admittedly worn down in double-overtime, Bosa saved his best for last, pushing Penn State running back Akeel Lynch into quarterback Christian Hackenberg for the game-clinching sack. Referring to Bosa as a "physical specimen," Meyer admitted to being wowed by that particular play.
"He's better than he was at the beginning of the season," Meyer said. "That was a back trying to block that monster."
As Penn State proved, that might not be the best idea, although it's also worth noting that Bosa abandoned his contain on the game-winning play. In front of national audience this Saturday, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native has another opportunity to make a statement as he continues to prove that he is one of the top players in the country.
While it may not have been his best statistical performance, Barrett's showing in State College was one of his most impressive. Playing on a sprained MCL, the freshman signal-caller carried the Buckeyes to their victory, scoring both Ohio State's two rushing touchdowns in overtime.
"He's one of the toughest cats I've ever been around," Meyer said of Barrett. "I'm just so impressed by him."
Considering the severity of his injury, it will be worth watching how Barrett responds to treatment and practice this week. Regardless, it's hard to imagine the Buckeyes won't make an effort to keep him from running the ball, a part of his game that has proved reliable in recent weeks.
“We’re going to see how it goes," Meyer said. "He’s probably going to be a guy that we won’t tell him he’s limited, but we’ll make sure he’s limited. It’s not throwing that’s a concern, it’s running.”
Illinois Players to Watch
While he may have entered the season as Wes Lunt's backup, Reilly O'Toole has proved reliable in the former starter's absence, throwing for 642 yards and four touchdowns since taking over the Illini offense in the fifth week of the season. And while the 6'4", 220-pound senior isn't your prototypical runner, he did manage to gain 59 yards on the ground against the Gophers.
“Unbelievable," Beckman said of O'Toole, via Jim Cotter of The Commercial-News. "I thought he was very consistent with what he did. He was efficient, and he’s not the only one that won the football game for us, but he really had a lot to do with us being successful on offense."
How O'Toole responds to the pressure that he's likely to see from Bosa and the Buckeyes defensive line will likely play a large role in determining Illinois' success on Saturday. He's not the most talented quarterback that Ohio State will see this season, but he has improved since taking over as the Illini's starter.
Nevertheless, O'Toole remains 1-3 as Illinois' starter this season, suffering losses to Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin. It's hard to imagine the Illini making Saturday competitive without his best effort, as he looks to prove that his most recent outing was far from a fluke.
O'Toole's favorite target, Mike Dudek has put together a stellar freshman season, totaling 42 receptions, 639 yards and three touchdowns through the first eight games of his college career. He's been particularly effective with O'Toole in the lineup too, catching 23 balls in in Illinois' last four games.
In fact, Dudek's standout performance came in O'Toole's second start, as he recorded eight receptions for 200 yards in the team's Oct. 4 loss to Nebraska. Since O'Toole took over at quarterback, the 5'11", 180-pounder has never caught fewer than four balls in a game.
If O'Toole, and in turn, Illinois, are going to have big games on Saturday, they will need to come with similar type of efforts from Dudek. And while the Buckeyes defense has been improving, it remains susceptible to big plays, which could very well come from by way of Dudek this Saturday.
What They're Saying
While Meyer wasn't necessarily pleased with his team's performance at Penn State, he did admit that last Saturday's close call may have ultimately been a positive for the Buckeyes. After enjoying four consecutive blowouts, Ohio State managed to eek out a close one, overcoming a hostile atmosphere and one the nation's top defenses in the process.
"It's just the environment, but the toughness element," Meyer said. "You just won a street fight. You were winning, you started getting your tail kicked and you came back and won. That builds toughness."
As for Illinois, Meyer is plenty familiar with Illini head coach Tim Beckman, who served as an assistant under Meyer at Bowling Green. The third-year Buckeyes head coach said that the two still keep in touch but rarely talk football as a result of both now being a part of the Big Ten.
"He's a colleague and a good friend. It's more conversations about our families," Meyer said of Beckman, who is 10-22 in his two-and-a-half seasons in Champaign. "We don't talk football because we're in the same league. I have a lot of respect for Tim. You watch his team, they're getting better. It's just a matter of how much better they can get."
While Meyer and the Buckeyes may be saying all of the right things, it's hard to imagine they aren't actually looking ahead to next weekend's prime-time showdown at Michigan State. Even before the season started, that game seemed to be highlight on Ohio State's schedule, with players knowing the date of the game off the to top of their heads.
That could ultimately bode well for the Illini, who at the very least have a history of playing the Buckeyes tough. Last season, a bad Illinois team still managed to score 35 points against Ohio State, although it also happened to give up 60 in the process.
If the Buckeyes falter on Saturday, however, I suspect that it will be due to Barrett's limitations more than anything. A sprained MCL is a somewhat significant injury for a mobile quarterback, although Barrett certainly looked fine during his two overtime drives.
I see Ohio State getting up early and getting the majority of its starters out of the game by the start of the fourth quarterback. Meyer may not say it, but at the very least, the Spartans are in the back of the Buckeyes' minds and have been since last season's Big Ten Championship Game.
Final Score: Ohio State 52, Illinois 10
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.