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Illinois's better than you think they are. Here's how Ohio State will slow them down

Ohio State will likely break a few big plays on offense, but can they stop Josh Ferguson and Wes Lunt as well?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Let me begin by reminding you that at one point this season (right around the Northern Illinois game or so) the advanced stats predicted an Illinois win over the Buckeyes. The numbers, which now rank Ohio State fourth overall in the S&P+, now predict a ten-point win over the Illini.

Regardless of the switch in the advanced stats, the Illini are surprisingly decent (that should be a theme for the Big Ten overall this year), led by an efficient defense that can allow big plays. The offense is far from a powerhouse, but there are a few names to know as explosive threats.

The Illini are pass-happy but inefficient

Ill Offense OSU Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 84 1.26 74 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 39.5% 97 31.4% 7 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 30.3 57 24.8 1 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.30 99 4.09 31 4.66
Ill Offense OSU Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 103.1 70 115.4 29 100.0
Passing S&P+ 106.4 55 145.4 2 100.0

  • The Illinois offense is neither particularly efficient nor explosive on the ground or through the air, but that's somewhat deceptive. They have several solid playmakers in receiver Geronimo Allison, quarterback Wes Lunt, and running back Josh Ferguson, but the Illini rarely if ever turn promising drives in to points, averaging just 4.3 points per scoring opportunity (99th).
  • Wes Lunt has pretty decent total numbers -- he's right at 2,000 total passing yards and just four interceptions -- but he averages only 5.3 yards per pass. The Illini surprisingly pass more than just about any team in the country, including 56 percent of standard downs (fourth-most in the country)! But though Lunt's completion percentage and yards per play are fairly low, the passing offense rarely moves backwards due to sacks, as the Illini are ninth overall in adjusted sack rate.
  • The primary concern for Ohio State should be receiver Geronimo Allison, who has nearly a third of the team's targets even though he catches barely over 50 percent of his passes. The Illini may throw the ball early and often on Ohio State, but they're unlikely to take the top off the Buckeyes' pass defense due to explosive plays. The Buckeye defense has done an excellent job forcing a string of sub-50 percent completion rates from opposing quarterbacks, and this is another opportunity for a similar performance.
  • The Illini rushing offense is rarely stopped for a loss (36th in stuff rate), but is frequently stopped for less than five yards per carry (114th opportunity rate and adjusted line yards). One concern for the Buckeyes might be that they sometimes hit big plays on the ground (37th in rushing IsoPPP) with their two headed-ground game between freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn and senior Josh Ferguson. Ferguson missed three games with a shoulder injury, but came back with a hundred-yard performance against Purdue last week.
  • Overall, expect the Buckeyes to force the Illini to be fairly inefficient, but with the occasional big run from Ferguson or deep pass to Allison. That's been the standard expectation for the Buckeye defense this season, and it plays directly in to Illini offensive tendencies. One thing that certainly benefits Ohio State is their poor red zone success rate, however -- the Illini aren't explosive enough to not need an efficient red zone offense, and if they can't drive the ball on the Ohio State side of the field then that could play heavily in to the Buckeyes' favor.

The Illini are surprisingly efficient on defense

OSU Offense Ill Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.37 21 1.26 73 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 46.0% 26 35.4% 21 40.3%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.5 5 30.1 76 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.17 40 3.98 25 4.66
OSU Offense Ill Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 123.0 11 111.4 38 100.0
Passing S&P+ 118.5 25 127.1 10 100.0

  • The Illini defense really excels in passing efficiency, shutting down most passing plays with their tenth-ranked overall passing S&P+ defense and seventeenth ranking in passing success rate. But they're much worse preventing explosive plays, ranking 67th in rushing IsoPPP and 77th in passing IsoPPP. Ezekiel Elliott hasn't gotten loose for huge gains in recent weeks -- could this be where he breaks free for another huge touchdown run? If not Elliott, then expect Braxton, Jalin Marshall, or Michael Thomas to have a big play of their own.
  • What's funny is that the Illini are much better on defense in the first half than in the second half, ranking ninth and 22nd, then 46th and 42nd in the third and fourth quarters. Ohio State is typically much more efficient in the second and fourth quarters after they've had time to wear down opposing defenses. It's possible that these two trends could combine for a closer-than-expected game through the first half and then a much more explosive fourth quarter. Though with J.T. Barrett running the show, the pace of offensive production could shift.
  • The Illinois defense has a decent havoc rate (33rd) which means that it's good J.T. Barrett is expected to get the start again due to his lower sack rate than Cardale. Dawaune Smoot, a defensive end, is the primary pass rusher here, with 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks this season. Surprisingly, Ohio State doesn't have a single defender with six sacks.