COLUMBUS, Ohio—Okay, to be fair, this was never expected to be close.
Before kickoff, the line for the Ohio State-Illinois game had crept north of 40 points, a staggering number for any regular season contest, let alone an actual Big Ten game. S&P+ gave Illinois just a 3 percent chance of winning.
And just a few minutes after the opening kickoff, it wasn’t hard to see why.
The Buckeyes clobbered Illinois on Saturday. If it wasn’t for horrible weather, the margin probably would have been much worse. All of that isn’t particularly noteworthy.
But how Ohio State did it, and exactly where Illinois is right now, is interesting.
The Big Ten has some lousy teams in it this year, but if you squint, you can talk yourself into a potential pathway for improvement. Maryland has been recruiting better than nearly anybody in the Big Ten West, and if they can keep a quarterback upright for an entire season, it’s not hard to imagine them being solid. Rutgers and Indiana both have boasted above average defensive play at times this season. Purdue has a new coach, an exciting offense, and quickly rose to respectability.
But it’s really hard to talk yourself into anything with Illinois right now.
There’s no sugarcoating it. This Illinois team is really, really bad. Heading into yesterday’s game, Illinois’ S&P+ ranking (112) was worse than any other team on Ohio State’s schedule, and that includes UNLV, a historically hapless program that lost to Howard (!) earlier in the year.
They weren’t really even above average in any meaningful statistical category, and that lack of identity showed against Ohio State. Chance Crouch, a central Ohio kid himself, was 4-of-14 for a paltry 16 yards, never looking close to comfortable, as the Illini offensive line was overwhelmed almost from go. Almost every meaningful offensive play, and there weren’t many, came from underclassmen. Illinois couldn’t muster a single first down until late in the second quarter, after six consecutive three and outs.
The defense, which had managed to hold four teams in a row under 30 points, was overwhelmed at the point of attack as well, allowing the Buckeyes to gobble up 7 yards a carry basically whenever they wanted, and where one mistimed tackle would lead to a 30 yard gain. With an offense that wasn’t able to provide any support, any defensive gains quickly wilted. It was 28-0 after the first quarter, and honestly, it really could have been worse.
Look, when you’re on the road against a team with powerhouse talent, and you’re young and inconsistent, hey, sometimes you take your licks. And that’s basically how this series has gone recently, trophy game and all. Illinois hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2007, and they’ve only kept the margin to 10 points or less just once over the last decade. It’s arguably been the least competitive series in recent memory among original Big Ten members.
At first glance, it seems like that shouldn’t be the case, no? But since that Rose Bowl bid in 2007, Illinois hasn’t won more than seven games in a season. They’ve made only three bowl games, none of any real import, and have struggled with development, leadership, and a real offensive identity.
It seemed like the entire department may have turned a corner with the hire of new athletic director Josh Whitman last year, but his major bet, the hire of Lovie Smith, hasn’t come close to paying dividends, and because of the financial risk, it’s not like they can cut bait this year, even though recruiting reinforcements aren’t exactly coming, at least in this class.
Maybe the Smith hire will somehow work out in the end. I still think, in retrospect, it was a very defensible move, and coming in and immediately dismissing Bill Cubit was, in my humble opinion, a good and bold decision, showing that Illinois had higher ambitions than the Heart of Dallas Bowl...maybe, if they got the right divisional crossover games.
But for programs that haven’t enjoyed any real football consistency since I was born, that margin of error is very small.
Illinois isn’t on Ohio State’s schedule again until 2020, much to the chagrin of anybody who is emotionally invested in the Illibuck, so maybe they can get things turned around before the next meeting. Even with their administrative and recruiting challenges, there’s not really a good reason why Minnesota or Northwestern should just expect to wake up and automatically have better talent than the Illini. The team should not be *this* bad.
One of the really positive developments in the conference over the last few seasons has been the growth in coaching staffs, and with the significant improvement at the bottom end of the league. The worst teams in the Big Ten aren’t nearly as bad as they were earlier. That helps Ohio State, and anybody else that has playoff or New Year’s Six aspirations. Having a team like a Northwestern hang around the periphery of the Top 25 actually matters for the purposes of the selection committee, after all.
But man, Illinois is...not close to that level right now. I’m not sure if what I saw last night would have been a bowl team in Conference USA. And if the Big Ten wants to continue to take another step. it’ll need all schools to achieve a base level of competence and quality that Illinois isn’t reaching right now.
Hopefully they get things turned around, especially in time for the next meeting. That goofy turtle trophy would be more interesting if these games were more compelling.
We’ve seen Illinois occasionally be great. We know it’s possible. Can they become consistently okay? It’s been a while since we’ve seen that.