Ohio State raced out to a 17-0 first quarter lead and never looked back. The Zook-less Illini had no hope of a 2007 style upset this time, as a varied offense and aggressive defense stymied any effort Illinois had, ultimately turning the game into an extended scout team practice. That allowed Urban Meyer and the most of the starters to turn the page to Michigan State week with around twenty seconds left in the second quarter as Devin Smith caught his second touchdown pass.
That 31-0 halftime lead was indicative of the Buckeyes' play against lesser opponents all season. Since the first game of the season, the Buckeyes haven't played down to their opponents, but have stomped each inferior team by over 50 points each. Virginia Tech (a bad loss) and Penn State (almost a bad loss) are inferior overall, but their defenses are elite, and the Buckeyes have struggled to establish any kind of consistency against strong defenses.
I think part of that goes back to their fast starts. As I said last night, the Buckeyes continued their six-game streak of scoring on their opening possession (the Buckeyes opened the Virginia Tech game with a three-and-out). The effect goes beyond just morale and the point value of the touchdown. A fast start begins to constrain opposing offensive coordinators, because playing from behind limits the number of effective offensive strategies. This in turn helps the Buckeye defense, with Ash and Fickell able to mix in blitzes and pressure from the front seven to make opposing offenses even more one dimensional.
No Buckeye running back crossed the hundred yard mark, but four averaged over 6.7 yards per carry and the Buckeyes totaled 296 total rushing yards.
The runnning backs' yards per carry averages align fairly well with their success rates. Both of the features backs Elliott and Samuel averaged over seven yards per carry and mixed explosive rushes with consistent gains, while the supporting cast also found some room to run as the Buckeyes tried to run out the second half.
But it wasn't all good, as short yardage situations still give the Buckeyes some trouble. The Buckeye offense does a decent job of keeping the offense varied on standard downs, passing on just over 35% early downs and in short-yardage situations.
However, the Buckeye offensive line struggles in both obvious passing situations and in must-get, short-yardage situations. Entering the game, the Buckeye offensive line ranked 102nd in Adjusted Sack Rate, the opponent-adjusted measure of the rate a quarterback is sacked divided by the the number of passes he throws. The line also ranked 71st in Power Success Rate, which is the percentage of time that a team gains a first down on third our fourth down and two yards or less to go. The Buckeyes faced five of those situations against Illinois, and here were the results: incomplete pass, sack, incomplete pass, pass complete for a loss of one yard, three yard run by Jalin Marshall. That's... not good.
Without a power back like Hyde or Tebow, Meyer's speedy guys like Marshall or Wilson (and Demps and Rainey before them), or even the medium-sized guys like Samuel and Elliott, don't have the power to break a tackle around the line of scrimmage and fall forward for the first down. Part of the issue is the offensive line, of course. With four new starters this season, of course you'd see some regression in these pressure-packed situations.
Lockdown on defense
The Buckeyes have now allowed just 16 plays of 20 yards or longer, which is tied with Stanford for the best in the FBS. The efficiency metrics support that, with the Buckeye defense being 19th in IsoPPP, a measure of a defense's ability to prevent explosive plays.
The Buckeyes allowed just two explosive plays out of the Illini. One was a 15 yard run by Aaron Bailey (the lower limit for a rush to be classified as explosive), and the other was the 56-yard pass out of the trick play formation.
The Buckeye defense also forced four turnovers and four three-and-outs, and created negative-yardage plays on 19% of Illini plays. So roughly one in five Illini plays went for a loss.
Illinois was a mess on offense. Without any passing threat outside of a trick play, the Illini had a cobbled-together system with two very different quarterbacks -- a big difference from what we'll see next week. The Illini were forced to abandon running Ferguson early on because they got in a hole so quickly, but he ran with 50% efficiency in his eight carries (compared to Bailey, who ran with just 27% efficiency).
So yes, the Illini were terrible on offense. But several individual Buckeye efforts stood out, including Bosa's three tackle for loss and two sack performance, Steve Miller's three tackle for loss, one sack, and one forced fumble night, and Darron Lee's one tackle for loss and interception. What's excellent is that those three are all in the front seven, two are underclassmen, and Miller was a career backup until Noah Spence's suspension.
I was particularly impressed with the defense's ability to completely take out those annoying short passes and screens that Connor Cook used to carve the defense up last season. Eli Apple triggered on two of those, both of which resulted in tackles for loss. I'd imagine Cook will have to connect on deep play action passes or difficult intermediate routes to have too much success against the defense next week.