It wasn't always pretty, but thanks to a dominating performance by Ohio State's defensive line, and some great running, Ohio State overcame mistakes to beat Illinois.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett returned from his one-game suspension on Saturday when the Buckeyes took on Illinois. It took a bit longer than expected for the Buckeyes to enter the endzone, but eventually Barrett found Michael Thomas in the corner to start the scoring. It wasn't an explosive opening to the game, though Ohio State shut down the Illini offense for most of the game thanks to a great defensive effort from Joey Bosa and the rest of the Buckeyes' defense.
The rest of the first half wasn't much better. Other than a few 20-yard plays by Illinois' Josh Ferguson, neither team could really get their offense rolling much in the second quarter. After a converted fourth and long from a J.T. Barrett scramble, the Buckeyes would add to their lead thanks to a huge block from Ezekiel Elliott and a goal-line run by Barrett to put Ohio State up 14-3 before the half.
Ohio State continued to dominate Illinois defensively in the second half, as Illinois had few chances to score. Late in the third quarter the Fighting Illini faced a fourth and one, but a broken play and some excellent pursuit from the Buckeyes led to a turnover on downs. The two teams continued to trade possessions, until midway through the fourth quarter when Bri'onte Dunn recovered a dropped punt in Illinois' territory. Ezekiel Elliott would take the handoff on the next play and score for his second touchdown of the game.
Here are three things we learned from Ohio State's 28-3 win.
3 things we learned:
1. J.T. Barrett has a knack for keeping drives alive and making plays. In his first game back from his one-game suspension, Barrett was back to his playmaking ways. He started strong in the first half, throwing 9-of-13 for 106 yards and a touchdown pass to Michael Thomas. Barrett also rushed 11 times for 56 yards and (thanks to a crushing block from Ezekiel Elliott) found the endzone at the end of the first half. The sophomore quarterback also showed off what he's known for doing - keeping drives alive - as Ohio State faced a fourth and 11 in Illinois territory. Barrett initially looked to throw but took off on the left side and scampered for the first down which would eventually set up the touchdown.
Michael Thomas continued to have a huge impact on the passing game, finishing with five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. Barrett would finish 15-of-23 passing for 150 yards with one touchdown along with 16 carries for 74 yards in a solid performance, as Ezekiel Elliott took over in the second half. Elliott would continue his Heisman campaign with 27 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns to finish the day.
2. The offensive line play is deeply concerning. I think it's time to start worrying about the offensive line play. All season long the offensive line has struggled for the majority of its games, but there was a general consensus that they would be able to tweak some things with Ed Warinner handing off some of the offensive coordinator duties to help focus on improving the line play. Now, if this were earlier in the season, there would be less cause for concern. But in week 10 of the season, you have to wonder what exactly is going on with Ohio State's offensive line.
The run-blocking has been solid for the most part all season, but the pass protection has been downright putrid. With a line that brought back four of five offensive starters from Ohio State's national championship team, it doesn't seem like one starter should make that much of a difference in the performance of the unit as a whole. But the struggles haven't helped the offense, especially in regards to the quarterback play from Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. It's clear as day that they haven't had a lot of time to throw the ball in many situations, often forcing bad passes or taking sacks. Whatever the issue is, with two season-defining games coming up against Michigan State and Michigan, the Buckeyes will need to focus on getting things back into order up front.
3. Ohio State kickers have continued to struggle. For the first time this season, Sean Nuernberger attempted a field goal and it didn't go well. The starter from last season badly missed a short a very short field goal early in the first quarter, ending a solid offensive drive. Jack Willoughby has been the starter all season hitting on 7-of-11 field goals, but did not attempt an extra point or field goal against Illinois. But still, it's not what Ohio State fans are used to, with the Buckeyes normally having really solid special teams in general. Cameron Johnston is the saving grace on special teams at punter, but it's been a long time since I've seen a kicking unit as poor as this one. Urban Meyer made a decision late in the first half to go for it on 4th and 11, which ended up working out. But there's obviously not very much confidence in the kicking game right now, understandably.
Even last season, Nuernberger only connected on 13-of-20 of his field goals, so it wasn't too much of a surprise that the coaching staff chose to start Willoughby, who made the transfer from Duke. The results have been somewhat disappointing, but it doesn't appear that Ohio State has much of an option, at least for this season. And with no kickers coming in the next recruiting class, it's up to the ones on the roster to improve their play.