What a difference a week makes. Last week seemingly every national media member was writing their own version of "Don't Count the Buckeyes Out" for the Playoff, while the Fighting Illini wered underdogs to Minnesota.
Then, of course, the Buckeyes go down to the wire with Penn State and the Illini capture a dramatic win on a fumble recovery for a touchdown over the Golden Gophers. That's not to say that the Illini are or should be favored against the Buckeyes (in fact, they're 28.5 point underdogs), but the Playoff talk on the Buckeyes hasn't certainly cooled. It cooled for the Playoff Selection Committee as well, who put the Buckeyes 16th in their first-ever rankings. I think that's a fair assessment of where the Buckeyes are at now.
But the good news is that the Illini should be a much better tune-up game for the Spartans than Penn State was. The Fighting Illini are 4-4, but with losses to decent teams in Washington, Wisconsin, and Nebraska (as well as a shameful loss to Purdue).
|Field Position Advantage||42||3|
The Illini on Offense
|When Illinois has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Adjusted Line Yards||119||75|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||73||22|
The Illini are (or were) a fairly explosive, but inconsistent offense with a poor offensive line. I say "were" because starting quarterback Wes Lunt broke his leg and was replaced by senior backup Reilly O'Toole a few weeks ago. The O'Toole-led Illini managed to upset Minnesota (32nd in Defensive F/+) last week, but it didn't have much to do with him. O'Toole averaged just 5.6 yards per pass and had a long of just 22 yards. It was the same story the previous week against Wisconsin (17th in Defensive F/+), where he again averaged 5.6 yards per pass and had a long of 26 yards. So while the stats above suggest that the Fighting Illini are one of the top explosive offenses in the country, that really was more Wes Lunt's doing than what we'll see on Saturday night. Backup quarterback Aaron Bailey also saw some time against Wisconsin and Minnesota, but he is much more of a running threat than a passing one, as he is just 2/6 for 39 yards on the season.
The Fighting Illini's big problem seems to be their offensive line, which has made rushing the ball very difficult. Combining the Adjusted Pace and Adjusted Line Yards rankings, you begin to see a picture of an old and bad Big Ten offense - slow, but poor at running the ball. Again, the problem for Illinois was consistency, as they were solid in explosive plays but below average in Success Rate. Having an offensive line that rushes the ball poorly will do that.
The Buckeyes' defensive stats are decent, but not world-class, particularly because of the rush defense. I tend to think that the impact of the Navy game is still being felt in those Defensive Rushing S&P+ stats, but nevertheless, the Buckeyes have a mediocre rush defense according the numbers above. Despite being ranked 17th in pass defense and 19th in IsoPPP, I'm still more concerned on defense with passing offenses. However, the Buckeyes' strengths and weaknesses match up very well with the Illini: while the Illini are extremely weak running the ball, but were decent passing with Wes Lunt, the Buckeyes should be able to contain O'Toole and work to shut down any rushing offense from the Illini. Unless things get way out of hand in terms of turnover margin or very poor field position, the Buckeye defense could probably win this game by themselves.
The Buckeyes on Offense
|When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Adjusted Line Yards||36||15|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||73||102|
I'd imagine not to many people expected Penn State to hold J.T. Barrett to 3.9 yards per pass and force two interceptions. I certainly didn't especially when the Nittany Lions were worse in Passing S&P+ than in rush defense. Barrett ended up looking a lot like young Braxton or Virginia Tech Barrett -- winning the game, but despite Barrett's arm, not because of it.
However, I don't think Illinois will be able to have that kind of success against Barrett this week. Here we're looking more for improvement to see if Barrett has learned how to respond in case teams apply the same confusing pre-snap reads and defensive movement (and the Spartans certainly will) that Penn State did.
The Illini are more vulnerable to the pass than the run, and equally bad per-play as susceptible to explosive plays. So look for some play action passes to Devin Smith and Corey Smith, as well as some attempts to remind fans that Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall are in fact on the team. I will say that the Illiniois defensive line has been very good against the run even if overall the defense as a whole has been just average against the run. Against the pass, however, they leave a little to be desired. This will be a good test for the Buckeye offensive line in pass protection growth (not because the Illini are good at rushing the quarterback, but because they're not good at it).
This should be a game that the Buckeyes win easily. I'm not sure if I'd go for the Buckeyes covering that four touchdown spread, but it shouldn't feel close. Look for the Buckeyes to repair the offensive line and reestablish some rapport between Barrett and his receivers. Defensively, we should be disappointed if they allow more than 10-14 points.