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Ohio State should overwhelm Illinois, but the Illini have a few key weapons

The Fighting Illini are actually the worst team on Ohio State’s schedule this season, going by the S&P+.

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

If you liked watching last week’s game against Michigan State, you’re going to love watching Ohio State vs. Illinois.

Illinois is ranked 112th out of 130 FBS teams in the S&P+, making them the worst team that Ohio State will face this year. UNLV is at 98th, and even Rutgers is just 96th.

Ohio State vs. Illinois

Statistic OSU Illinois
Statistic OSU Illinois
S&P+ 1 112
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 97th (50%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 106th (53%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 3%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 64th (avg. 82.65)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 15th (62) 103rd (38)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 49th (43) 21st (36)
Turnover margin/game 49th (.2) 103rd (-.5)
Kickoff success rate 116th (59%) 21st (86.5%)
Kickoff return success rate 33rd (53%) 93rd (37.5%)

But even the specific matchups here greatly favor Ohio State. Just as Ohio State beat Michigan State last week by running the ball and continually making plays with its defensive line, the Illini struggle against the run and rank 89th and 123rd in offensive stuff rate and adjusted sack rate, meaning that the defensive line should rack up havoc plays this week.

That said, the Illini have a few weapons, so any sleepwalking or looking ahead to The Game could mean a closer-than-expected matchup.

When Ohio State has the ball

Ohio State offense vs. Illinois defense

Teams OSU Illinois
Teams OSU Illinois
S&P+ 4 69
Overall SR+ 2 109
Overall IsoPPP+ 4 91
Rushing S&P+ 2 113
Rush SR 1 (58.8%) 114 (48.1%)
Rush IsoPPP 55 15
Opp Rate 1 (49.9%) 114 (42.8%)
Stuff Rate 2 (10.3%) 96 (16.7%)
Adj. Line Yards 9 117
Passing S&P+ 5 90
Passing SR 5 (50%) 88 (42.5%)
Pass IsoPPP 36 37
Adj. Sack Rate 34 113
Avg FP 27 (31.3) 118 (32.2)
Drives 6 (5.3) 74 (4.26)

The Illini defense is more average than downright bad going by overall S&P+. But looking into each component, what’s really saving their defensive ranking is that they do a solid job preventing explosive plays, ranking 6th in unadjusted IsoPPP and 21st in plays allowed of 20+ yards.

The problem is that, after adjusting for the quality of opposing offenses, the Illini’s defensive IsoPPP+ ranking falls all the way to 91st. And all of their other opponent-adjusted rankings (overall success rate, rushing, and passing S&P+) are 90th or worse.

Given their rushing success rate (48.1%, 114th) and opportunity rate (42.8%, also 114th), the Buckeyes should find plenty of success on the ground behind Dobbins, Weber, and Barrett. I’d expect a pretty vanilla approach and limited carries for the first stringers, given that the next two weeks will be against much tougher defenses (assuming Ohio State plays in the Big Ten title game, which is highly likely), but the most interesting thing to watch here will be whether the Buckeyes continue last week’s trend of new formations (wide splits for receivers, unbalanced formations) and how the backups perform, if/when they get extended playtime.

Saturday might see rain and wind for the game, increasing the likelihood of a run-heavy day for Ohio State. I’d imagine that the Buckeyes go aggressive early to pile up a big lead they can then sit on and eat clock. Expect most of the passing to continue last week’s horizontal-stretch RPO concepts to running backs, slot receivers, and tight ends, with the occasional first-half deep shot to Dixon, Victor, or Mack. Either way, given the Illini’s passing success rate (42.5%, 88th) and lack of defensive havoc (107th), Ohio State should find plenty of success throwing in J.T.’s last game in The ‘Shoe.

When Illinois has the ball

Illinois offense vs. Ohio State defense

Teams OSU Illinois
Teams OSU Illinois
S&P+ 14 122
Overall SR+ 8 87
Overall IsoPPP+ 7 94
Rushing S&P+ 4 66
Rush SR 5 (32.2%) 84 (40.6%)
Rush IsoPPP 27 85
Opp Rate 2 (27.3%) 50 (40%)
Stuff Rate 12 (25.1%) 89 (20.8%)
Adj. Line Yards 3 67
Passing S&P+ 23 103
Passing SR 49 (38.7%) 117 (32.6%)
Pass IsoPPP 18 92
Adj. Sack Rate 24 123
Avg FP 11 (26.4) 103 (28)
Drives 18 (3.67) 126 (3.37)

A decade ago, Juice Williams and the Illini offense upset Ohio State because of OSU interceptions, holding Beanie to 3.4 yards per carry, and Juice Williams’ running. This year’s Illini are a far cry from that group, but they do have a run-first quarterback in freshman Cam Thomas. It’s unclear whether Thomas or sophomore Jeff George Jr. will get the start, but neither one has found much success throwing the ball, ranking 103rd in passing S&P+. Thomas has only completed 40% of his passes with three interceptions, while George Jr. is up to 51.9% as the better pocket passer. Both have negative touchdown-to-interception ratios, for what it’s worth. That’s largely due to an offensive line that is 123rd in adjusted sack rate (going up against Ohio State’s 24th-ranked adj. sack rate defense, with a defensive line that’s 4th in havoc rate).

But there are some silver linings for the passing offense. Freshman wide receiver Ricky Smalling is just the second-most targeted receiver, but leads the team in receiving yards while averaging a healthy 16.7 yards per catch. And tight end Louis Dorsey is actually second on the team behind Smalling in total receiving yards, averaging 18.4 yards per catch. Depending on Damon Arnette’s status, as well as the health of the linebackers, they could give the pass defense some trouble (assuming the quarterbacks have time to throw). I’ll especially be interested in the linebackers’ play after last week when Malik Harrison and Tuf Borland shined, while Worley looked much better playing on the outside.

The Illini run game also has some bright spots. Ranking 66th in overall S&P+, it might be the best part of this year’s team. The young offensive line still allows run stuffs on nearly 21% of runs, but freshman running back Mike Epstein has shown some upside averaging 6.1 yards per carry and a very strong 49.1% opportunity rate. Combine Epstein with quarterback Cam Thomas (7.4 yards per carry, 56.7% opportunity rate), and you’ve got a pretty solid combination of runners. They even managed the third-highest yards per carry average against the Badgers, at 4.06. This will definitely be the most interesting matchup to watch on defense, as any consistency here could keep the game competitive.

Takeaways

  1. The Illini are overmatched in almost every statistical category, but have bright spots in their running offense with Cam Thomas at QB, tight end Louis Dorsey, and freshman receiver Ricky Smalling.
  2. The young Illini offensive line has a very bad matchup with Ohio State’s elite defensive line, ranking 89th and 123rd in offensive stuff rate and adjusted sack rate.
  3. The Illini defense is pretty solid, ranking 69th overall, and doing a great job preventing explosive plays. The interior of their defensive line is pretty strong, which should give a decent test to the offensive line to make holes. The weather might have an effect on the passing game, so expect a lot of horizontal RPOs, and plenty of bash. Look for whether Wilson continues to use last week’s unbalanced formations.

Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 43, Illinois 11
  • My pick: Ohio State 49, Illinois 10