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Ohio State vs. Illinois: Game preview, prediction and 6 things to know

After a blowout against Michigan State and ahead of a showdown with Michigan, the Buckeyes face the Illini in Columbus.

Indiana v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Ohio State Buckeyes played what was, perhaps, their most complete game of the season as they routed Michigan State 48-3. It was the largest margin of victory ever in 46 iterations of the rivalry, and was Mark Dantonio’s worst loss at the helm of Michigan State. It was, quite possibly, the worst time that any team could have faced Ohio State, after Urban Meyer himself experienced the worst loss of his career at the hands of Iowa the week prior. Nothing was going to stand in the way of a Buckeye victory last week, and the squad is looking to carry that momentum forward all the way to their regular season finale next week against Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A string of upsets over the weekend--and the release of the most recent College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday--breathed new life into an Ohio State team that had all but lost hope of making the playoff for a second-straight season. Entering last weekend at No. 13 in the rankings, the dominating win over Michigan State allowed the Buckeyes to leap four spots to No. 9. While it certainly cannot be said that the Buckeyes control their own destiny, finishing the regular season strong and earning a convincing win in the Big Ten Championship game over Wisconsin would definitely get them close to another playoff berth.

As a first step toward that goal, the Buckeyes face Illinois in the 102nd edition of the historic rivalry, playing for the second-oldest trophy in the Big Ten--the famed Illibuck. Though Ohio State is currently riding a seven-game winning streak, the Illini have earned a victory as recently as 2007 under Ron Zook. Ohio State has not faced off against Illinois since 2015, when the Buckeyes took home a 28-3 win in Champaign. Such an upset does not seem likely this season, as Ohio State opened as 41-point favorites over Illinois this week.

Illinois, meanwhile, is sitting on an eight-game losing streak that, unfortunately for the Illini, probably won’t end before the conclusion of the season, as they will face No. 23 Northwestern next weekend. In the second year of his tenure, head coach Lovie Smith has led Illinois to a 5-17 overall record, with just two wins this season over Ball State and Western Kentucky.

Ohio State’s biggest advantages

Senior moments. Saturday, Ohio State will honor 19 seniors on the football team. Let’s not get emotional here, but this weekend will be the last time that J.T. Barrett plays a game in Ohio Stadium (sniff). Some may critique a handful of performances including, but not limited to, last year’s playoff loss to Clemson, Oklahoma game two of this season and Iowa only two weeks ago, but the fact remains that Barrett has been one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play at Ohio State, and he will be missed when he is gone. He holds all-time records in pretty much every major passing category, and has led some of the most prolific, high-scoring offenses in program history on his way to two berths in the College Football Playoff. Even this season, despite so much early criticism surrounding the passing attack, the Buckeyes are still averaging 44.2 points per game--good for fifth in the nation. A lot of that credit goes to Barrett.

Beyond Barrett, center Billy Price started for a program-record 51st-straight game Saturday against Michigan State. Price, along with fellow offensive lineman Jamarco Jones, will also be playing his final home game for the scarlet and grey. Tight end Marcus Baugh, a fifth-year senior, will likewise be playing his final game in Columbus. On defense, defensive end Tyquan Lewis, linebacker Chris Worley, linebacker Dante Booker, defensive end Jalyn Holmes, defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle and safety Damon Webb will be playing for the last time in the Horseshoe. It is rare to see so many seniors stick with the program for so long

You better believe this group won’t disappoint its home crowd in this final outing. Michigan may be just around the corner, but there is something special about playing for the last time in the Horseshoe.

Gaps you could drive a truck through. The Ohio State offensive line has been great all year. Credit a number of veterans on the line, like aforementioned center Billy Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones, who have, for the most part, played the last two seasons together with right tackle Isaiah Prince and left guard Michael Jordan. Only right guard Branden Bowen was a newcomer to the starting line entering the season, but he stepped up to his role in exemplary fashion until breaking his leg in the Buckeyes’ win over Maryland. However, Demetrius Knox, consistent with the “next man up” mentality, has provided a seamless transition for the past four games.

The line has allowed just 15 sacks all season, or 1.5 per game. That mark is tied for 32nd in the NCAA (Army, incidentally, is the best in the category, allowing just one sack all season), and is a far cry from last season when the Buckeyes allowed 28 sacks through 13 games. Ohio State is also sixth nationally in tackles for loss allowed, giving up just 38 tackles for loss--and 134 yards on those losses--all season.

But what stood out beyond the extraordinary protection Saturday was the offensive line’s sheer ability to dominate up-front a defensive line that, previously, had given up just 87 yards rushing per game. The line paved the way for 335 yards rushing by the Buckeyes, headlined by J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Both backs went over 100 yards rushing on a team that had not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. And the line did not just open up gaps for the running backs--it opened up gaping holes that led straight to the end zone.

Don’t bend, don’t break defense. The Ohio State defense is allowing just 310 yards per game this season, and that is including utter disasters against Oklahoma and Iowa. The defense is relentless against mediocre offenses like Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska, with the first team giving up minimal points. The unit in particular is among the best in the country in producing negative plays, recording 27 sacks (T-23rd in the nation) and 83 tackles for loss (ninth in the country) on the season.

Michigan State’s defense has been its calling card this season, as in previous years, but Brian Lewerke and the offense have still managed to find the end zone throughout the season. The Buckeyes, however, allowed Lewerke just 131 yards passing and two interceptions. L.J. Scott, the leading rusher for the Spartans, had just 30 yards on the ground. And all that came without having linebackers Dante Booker or Jerome Baker in the lineup.

Illinois has found the end zone just 17 times this season. Nine touchdowns have come on the ground via a running back-by-committee combination of Mike Epstein, Kendrick Foster and Ra’Vonn Bonner. The Illini rank 121st in rushing offense, averaging just 108 yards per game. Their passing attack, also by committee, is not much better. The Ohio State defense should not have a problem shutting the offensive attack down.

Illinois’ biggest advantages

30-67-4. This stat may come as a shock, but, behind Michigan, Illinois has the most wins in program history against Ohio State, racking up 30 victories between 1902 and now. While historical significance does not directly translate to on-field success in the modern game, Illinois has managed some unlikely upsets of the Buckeyes. In 2007, the unranked Illini, led by quarterback Juice Williams, came to Columbus and spoiled the top-ranked Ohio State’s perfect season on senior day by a score of 28-21. The loss came just a week ahead of the Buckeyes’ matchup with a ranked Michigan squad, and ended a 28-game regular season win streak. While Ohio State did go on to play in the national championship game against LSU later that season, it took a lot of upsets ahead of them to make it happen.

Perhaps there is something about a trophy game that makes even a lopsided game competitive, but Illinois has managed to play the Buckeyes close for the Illibuck. Only the Little Brown Jug, the prize played for by Michigan and Minnesota, is older than the famed wooden turtle. For many of the early years of the Ohio State football program, prior to the establishment of Michigan as chief rival, the Buckeyes ended their season with a matchup against Illinois. While the Illibuck used to be an actual live turtle which was passed between the two schools starting in 1925, it eventually evolved into the carved wooden version fans are familiar with today.

An air of mystery. When the Ohio State defense takes the field Saturday, they could face any number of quarterbacks at the helm of the Illini offense. Illinois, 10 games into the season, has not yet settled on a starting quarterback. Junior Chayse Crouch began the season as the starter, but was phased out in favor of sophomore Jeff George, Jr. Then, as the season wore on, freshman Cam Thomas began to see more playing time. The Illini are ranked 91st nationally in passing offense, averaging just 194 yards per game through the air. In Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference, Lovie Smith relayed that he was not sure who if his three quarterbacks would see the field Saturday against the Buckeyes.

Crouch, for the most part, has transitioned to more of an H-back role. Early in the season, the junior threw for 427 yards on 41 completions for a touchdown and four picks. His 53 percent completion rate is the highest on the team. The junior has also rushed 46 times for 93 yards and one touchdown, and has caught one pass for seven yards.

George has been the go-to quarterback for the bulk of the season, completing 94 passes for 1273 yards. Unfortunately, his seven passing touchdowns came at the expense of 10 interceptions. Thomas, who has been more of a running threat, racking up 187 yards on the ground this season, has thrown for just 236 yards and three picks without scoring a touchdown.

Beyond who is doing the actual passing of the ball, they will likely be sending it the way of freshman receiver Ricky Smalling, who has racked up nearly 500 yards receiving on the season.

The hangover and the look ahead. This idea is still too fresh in the minds of Ohio State players, so it may not even be relevant to the discussion given that it has already occurred during conference play this season. After an epic comeback win over Penn State, the Buckeyes fell flat against Iowa in Kinnick Stadium in typical hangover fashion. It was disgusting to watch, frankly, as every unit that had seemed so finely tuned against the Nittany Lions fell apart in succession against the Hawkeyes.

Now, flush with a massive win over a ranked Michigan State team and looking ahead to a showdown with Michigan, Ohio State will need to remain laser-focused on the opponent at hand Saturday.

While Meyer has his locker room focused on Illinois and only Illinois, the Illini seem like the tiniest of hurdles compared to what this Ohio State team will most likely face in coming weeks: a ranked Wolverines squad, a top-10 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, a potential top-four playoff opponent (maybe). Illinois can take advantage as a young team with nothing to lose and everything to prove behind a coach that has years of NFL head coaching experience. No, it is not likely--ESPN is giving Illinois just 0.8 percent odds in the matchup--but the Illini’s 2007 victory didn’t seem likely either.


F/+ Projection: Ohio State 43, Illinois 11

Win Probability: Ohio State 99.2%

Ohio State showed that they are in fact a complete team against a very good Michigan State squad last week, dominating on both sides of the ball and even showing improvement on special teams.

The Illini, meanwhile, are overmatched in almost every category against the Buckeyes. With no identity at quarterback, combined with an inconsistent running game, the Ohio State defense should not struggle to get off the field.

There is a long way to go if the Buckeyes have any hope of getting back into the serious College Football Playoff talk, but this week, it has to begin with a dominant win over Illinois.

How to watch, stream, listen to Ohio State vs. Illinois:

Game time: Saturday November 18th, 3:30 PM ET


Streaming: WatchESPN

Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM