The tone for this game was set on the Fighting Beckmans' opening possession. The Buckeyes' new big play linebacker Darron Lee intercepted Rielly O'Toole, which quickly led to Curtis Samuel touchdown run.
Samuel, who started the game in place of Ezekiel Elliot, continued the Buckeyes' streak of six straight touchdowns on their opening drives. These fast starts have been crucial all season in allowing the Buckeyes to dictate the pace of the game and forcing opposing offensive coordinators to become more constrained in their playcalling.
Barrett began by overthrowing his receivers -- a first quarter overthrow of a wide open Jeff Heuerman was particularly notable -- but also had several critical third down conversions. Being able to convert on passing downs, where Ohio State was 5th in the S&P+, will be critical for next week against the Spartans. One particularly impressive throw was J.T.'s pass to Jalin Marshall for 18 yards on third-and-12 in the first quarter.
However, it's admittedly tough to project much from this game onto next week. The Buckeye offenses has outplayed inferior defenses, but struggled against top-notch defenses like Virginia Tech and Penn State this season. While the Spartans aren't quite what they were last year on defense (7th in Defensive F/+), they present the same kind of challenge as the Hokies and Nittany Lions.
The defense clearly plays better when the Buckeye offense is on point and can establish an early comfortable lead. The Buckeyes picked O'Toole off twice and played tight coverage on Illini receivers. That was apparent twice in the first half. First, the Illini reeled off a 56-yard play on a trick formation, but then the Buckeyes tightened down to force an incompletion and a missed field goal in what would be first of many red zone struggles for the Illini. The second came when backup quarterback Aaron Bailey entered the game and drove the Illini offense to the Ohio State 12 yard line. However, Joey "shrug" Bosa tackled Bailey for a loss of two on fourth down to force a turnover on downs.
Bosa wasn't the only defender with a huge game: Curtis Grant had a fumble recovery and an interception, while Eli Apple had two huge tackles for loss on perimeter wide receiver screens.
3 Things we learned
1) The Buckeyes play best when they have the field position advantage. In the first half -- the only one that really mattered for the outcome of the game -- the Buckeyes started eight drives on an average of the 50 yard line. Not only is that insane, but the Illini averaged just where they should -- their own 25 yard line.
The Buckeyes managed that crazy starting field position due to three Illini first half turnovers compared to zero from the Buckeyes. This is not a new thing for the Buckeyes, as they entered the game third in the country in FEI's Field Position Advantage.
One other thing that certainly helped was that the Buckeyes only had one punt in the first half, but V'Angelo Bentley didn't have any chance and was tackled immeditately. The Buckeyes allow just 5.3 opponent punt return yards per game (22nd in the country).
2) Short-yardage situations are still a problem. It's hard to find things to criticize in this performance. The Buckeyes played near flawless football in both halves, with an aggressive defense and an offense that averaged .53 points per play in the first half. However, the offense does still have some issues in short-yardage situations that could be an issue against Michigan State.
On 4th-and-2 in the first half, the Buckeyes went in to an empty set while Illinois brought the house to get their first sack of the game. While the game was still competitive, the Buckeyes went just one for five on third and three or less, and the play calls seemed to take into account that the Buckeyes wouldn't be able to count on Hyde to power for at least four yards.
3) The Buckeyes made the right move sitting Barrett at the half. Cardale Jones finally got extended playing time, which is excellent considering Barrett's knee issues. Astoundingly, Jones only had five attempts entering the game, so this second half practice was great for resting Barrett and giving Jones some work with the first team offense.
Jones wasn't asked to do much through the air (attempting just ten passes for 82 yards), but it was clear that the offense changes when he is in.