Ohio State is coming off an emotional 31-24 double overtime win over Penn State in Happy Valley, overcoming a dramatic second half collapse to improve to 6-1 on the season and 3-0 in Big Ten play. This week, we'll see the Buckeyes host the Fighting Illini in Columbus for the Illibuck trophy. Ohio State will also be looking to match its Big Ten record for consecutive regular season victories (20), as they kept the streak alive on the road last weekend.
With the mammoth road trip to East Lansing looming next week, the Buckeyes will have to stay focused on the game in front of them and make sure to stay healthy in the process. Redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a sprained knee against Penn State and was limited in practice this week. The coaching staff feels he's ready to go for the game on Saturday, so it will be up to the team to try and keep their quarterback protected as much as possible to have him ready for the game against the Spartans next week.
After starting the season 2-0 against weaker opponents, Illinois hasn't had the greatest of seasons or the one that head coach Tim Beckman envisioned for them. The good news for the Illini is that despite losing their starting quarterback Wes Lunt for the 4-6 weeks against Purdue a few weeks back, senior Riley O'Toole has filled in relatively well. Leading Illinois to an upset 28-24 win over a 6-1 (at the time) Minnesota team for their first Big Ten win of the year helped alleviate some of the woes of this season. Now the Illini will try their luck against the Buckeyes in Columbus in hopes to secure another upset victory.
The troubles for Illinois this season are hard to pin down to one area in particular. Offensively, the Illini are somewhat of a middle-of-the-pack unit in the Big Ten this season, while defensively, Illinois rests at the bottom of almost every defensive category. Head coach Tim Beckman will have to figure out a gameplan that works against the Buckeyes, but if they can't stop Ohio State, it's going to be a long night for the Illini.
|Team||Record||CFP||F/+ Rk||Line||Off F/+ Rk||Def F/+ Rk||ST F/+ Rk|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Defense||31||42||62||17||13||26||23|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Offense||7||5||18||3||11||50||97|
Illinois' biggest advantages
Potentially limited J.T. Barrett. Part of what has made J.T. Barrett so great in his first year under center has been his balanced attack and decision making with the ball in his hands. Now, with Barrett slowed by a bum knee, Illinois might have caught a break that their defense will desperately need against this prolific Ohio State offense. The Illini rank among the worst defenses in the Big Ten, but are coming off a win over Minnesota where Illinois was able to create turnovers and take advantage on the other side of the ball.
Ohio State-Illinois Advanced Stats Preview
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).
While Barrett might be limited to stay in the pocket for much of the night, Illinois will still have to be wary of the quarterback taking off on a read-option after handing it to one of his running backs on previous attempts. Against Penn State in the second half, the Buckeyes opted to use some packages featuring Dontre Wilson taking direct snaps, something Ohio State hasn't used all year. Whether Coach Meyer tries to do the same against Illinois remains to be seen, but it might be a blessing in disguise for the Illini if that were the case.
Because of the potential limitations for Barrett, this could also allow Illinois to focus on stopping the run, or at least slowing it down. The Illini were able to step up against the Golden Gophers last week, even forcing a fumble from running back David Cobb that helped seal a win over Minnesota. Illinois might not have as much success against Ohio State, but it's their best chance at making the Buckeyes uncomfortable.
Respectable passing attack. Despite their subpar record and deficiencies on defense, Illinois actually ranks as the top passing team in the Big Ten. Completing 63 percent of their passes this season for an average of 284 yards per game, the Illini have a legitimate threat through the air for teams to worry about. Going against Ohio State's secondary will provide a few opportunities for Reilly O'Toole to try and put points on the board.
Unfortunately, not much else has been working for Illinois. So far this season, the Illini have ranked second to last in the Big Ten, just ahead of last place Penn State, in rushing offense. If the game against the Nittany Lions was any indication, Illinois could be in for a long one facing this Ohio State defensive front.
The Buckeyes made Christian Hackenberg's night pretty miserable for the most part, and a lack of a consistent running game hurt the Nittany Lions. The same could happen for Illinois, unless by some miracle, they can find a few holes up front and establish a rushing attack on Saturday night.
Rivalry game ... in Columbus? Whatever the reason is, Illinois has given Ohio State relatively competitive games in many of their recent previous meetings. While the Illini haven't won the rights to the Illibuck trophy since 2007, the last five games Illinois has won against Ohio State have come in Columbus, surprisingly. The Illini had victories in 2007, 2001, 1999, 1994 and 1992. In fact, Illinois is 5-5 against the Buckeyes at The Horseshoe since 1992 but OSU has won the last two meetings there.
Those were different years with different circumstances, but it's enough to work off of for motivation if you're head coach Tim Beckman trying to get his team believing they can pull a potential upset of their own. Beckman might not be in Champaign much longer, but if he could pull off back-to-back upsets with this team, it could go a long way in convincing the powers that be to keep him for a bit longer.
Ohio State has no plans of overlooking the Illini, though the game against Michigan State has to be in the back of their minds, no matter how focused they are on Illinois. The Buckeyes are looking to make up ground in the College Football Playoff rankings as well and could be on a mission to score as many points as possible to help in part restore their reputation with the selection committee. If things don't start out of the gates as they had in mind, approaching the game from that vantage could back fire on them if they press the issue.
Ohio State's biggest advantages
Running game should have a field day. When preparing for Illinois this weekend, the Ohio State coaching staff has to love the defensive rankings they've seen from the Illini. Illinois is ranked 104th nationally in scoring defense (34.4 points per game), 112th in total defense (475.4 yards per game) and 120th in rushing yards allowed (258.6 yards per game). The combined efforts of Ezekiel Elliott, Curtis Samuel, and even Warren Ball, should be able to run just about wherever they please on Saturday. Elliott has carried the ball 117 times for 640 yards and five touchdowns this season and might see an increase in carries at the goal line, with the recent loss of Rod Smith.
Don't expect J.T. Barrett to be running nearly as much this Saturday, either. The quarterback sprained his knee against Penn State and has been limited in practice all week long. With Michigan State on the horizon, expect the play-calling to help keep Barrett in the pocket for the most part and stay away from further hindering his knee.
Ohio State boasts the 18th best rushing attack in the country, averaging 254 yards a game. Against such a porous defense like Illinois, the Buckeyes should quickly take advantage early in the game and establish the running game from their opening possession. Of course, Illinois did step up last week against Minnesota, keying in on running back David Cobb and slowing him down for much of the game. To his credit, Cobb still finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns, so it still should be a great day for Elliott to run wild.
Defensive front four causing havoc. The impact the defensive line, especially sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa, has had on Ohio State's defense cannot be overstated. Coming into the 2014 season, it was expected that the defensive front would be one of the best in the Big Ten and potentially one of the best in the country. Despite the loss of Noah Spence earlier this year, the defensive line has helped Ohio State move up to the 25th ranked defense in the country with opponents averaging 20.7 points per game.
Against Illinois, the defensive front will have to bring pressure to try and force bad throws from Illinois quarterback Rickey O'Toole. The Illini are a formidable threat through the air and will certainly test Ohio State's secondary throughout most of the game. If Bosa and the rest of the defensive line can get in O'Toole's face enough during the game, the defense will have a much easier time containing the Illini.
Joey Bosa leads the charge, and after last week's game-clinching sack on Christian Hackenberg, he'll look to continue his dominance of the Big Ten. Bosa currently leads the conference with 11.5 tackles for loss and an impressive 8 sacks this season. The defensive end is also tied for the lead in forced fumbles, with three. All three of those fumbles have gone for touchdowns this season.
Bouncing back for momentum. Before the Penn State game, Ohio State's offense had scored 50 or more points on its previous four opponents, lead by J.T. Barrett and his outstanding efficiency when throwing the ball. After a disappointing second half against the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes will look to get their offense back on track as they try and build momentum heading into next week's matchup with Michigan State.
Entering Saturday's game ranked second in the NCAA in passing efficiency with a 171.1 rating, Ohio State's offense has elevated itself to seventh in the country for scoring by averaging 44.3 points per game. What's more, the Buckeyes have scored a touchdown on its opening possession in the last five games and is outscoring opponents 158-33 in the first half. Barrett has helped lead the charge, throwing for 18 touchdowns to only three interceptions since the loss to Virginia Tech, with two of those coming against Penn State last weekend.
With Illinois owning one of the worst defenses in the country, I wouldn't expect any issues on Saturday when trying to move the ball. From the ground or through the air, Ohio State has plenty of talent on the field and should be successful with whatever gameplan they have in store for the Illini. If last season's 60-35 win over Illinois is any indication, expect big numbers from the Buckeyes.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 64, Illinois 7
Win Probability: Ohio State 99%
By the numbers, an easy Ohio State win is projected, and should end up in an easy victory over the Illini. Still, we've all witnessed better Ohio State teams somehow struggle against lesser Illinois teams. I don't expect the Buckeyes to be too concerned either way, as they should be looking forward to trying to impress the College Football Playoff committee.
The talent and depth that Ohio State has over Illinois should be more than enough to lift them to their fifth straight victory. The recent win over Minnesota might put Illinois in high spirits and believing they can upend the Buckeyes in Columbus, but they'll need a perfect game on both sides of the ball if they want to succeed and against a team like Ohio State at home.
Even if Illinois comes strong out of the gate, the Illini most likely won't be able to keep Ohio State's offense off the field for very long. Their best bet is to hope for some early mistakes from J.T. Barrett and to capitalize with touchdowns, not just field goals. But Ohio State's running game should have an easy day and the defensive front could cause plenty of problems for a weaker Illinois team as well.