On this post-Thanksgiving weekend, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes are ready to work off their mashed potatoes and turkey on the road against Illinois on Saturday, while hoping to avoid a food coma after a narrow victory against Indiana last week.
On that note: wow, just wow — that was surprising. While the outcome of Ohio State’s matchup with Indiana never was truly in doubt, the one-score victory was much closer than the experts had thought.
But back to the game at hand, as the 4-0 Buckeyes travel to Champaign, Illinois, to take on the Illini.
While Michigan has been Ohio State’s top-of-mind rival for most of our living memories, the Wolverines haven’t always held that position. In fact, from 1919-1933, it was the Illini whom the Buckeyes would face to conclude the regular season. And, believe it or not, there was once a time when the Buckeyes did not control the series.
In all, Ohio State holds a 68-30-4 overall record against the Illini. While the Buckeyes have owned the series in recent years (Ohio State is currently on an eight-game win streak dating back to 2008, excluding the Buckeyes’ vacated 2010 victory), the Illini actually had the edge way back in the day. Illinois took nine of 12 games from 1919-1930, but “back in the day” is a relative term, because the Illini also took five-straight from 1988-1992 when John Cooper was at the helm in Columbus. That being said, the Buckeyes did win 15-straight against the Illini from 1968-1982 under Woody Hayes and Earl Bruce.
As if we need a reminder, the last time Ohio State fell to Illinois was in 2007, when head coach Ron Zook and quarterback Juice Williams led a 28-21 upset over Jim Tressel and then-No. 1 Ohio State.
Most recently, the Buckeyes defeated Illinois in Columbus by a score of 52-14 in 2017. However, keep in mind that Ohio State has played Illinois more than any other opponent except for Michigan. The series took brief pauses from 2003-04 and 2018-19, but otherwise has been long standing. Don’t let the lopsided wins of the past decade erode the facade of this historic rivalry.
An underappreciated rivalry
Unlike what feels like the rest of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes don’t participate in a ton of trophy games. In fact, the only trophy game Ohio State engages in is that with Illinois for the Illibuck: the famed and, frankly, adorable wooden turtle (the gold pants are not actually considered a trophy). The Illibuck, however, does happen to be the second-oldest trophy in the Big Ten behind the Little Brown Jug between Minnesota and Michigan.
The turtle was selected as the symbol for the trophy, given the long life expectancy of the reptile and its parallel with the length of the rivalry (which had been played continuously since 1914), and the Illibuck actually originated as a live turtle from 1925-1926 when said turtle did pass away. Now, the Illibuck is the aforementioned adorable wooden turtle with the series’ scores on its back. There are 10 wooden turtles in total which boast the entire series history on their shells.
On the road again
Ohio State has been safe at home in Columbus for most of the season, but that disparity is mainly due to the road game against Maryland getting cancelled. In fact, the Buckeyes have played just one road game this year (Penn State), and given COVID-19 and the lack of fans, even that road threat felt even further neutralized. In that game, Ohio State earned a 38-25 victory over the Nittany Lions (who still haven’t won a game this season).
In terms of this weekend’s matchup, Urbana-Champaign isn’t exactly a formidable road threat of the likes of Happy Valley even under the best of times. The Illini are 0-2 at home in 2020, with losses to Purdue and Minnesota earlier this season.
Ohio State also hasn’t lost to Illinois on the road since 1991.
A shoe in?
No, there’s still a long way to go, but Ohio State was well-positioned in the opening College Football Playoff rankings, released this week. While there are still a lot of games to go (read, three, plus the Big Ten Championship game), it helps that the 4-0 Buckeyes do not appear to be out of the running for a playoff spot for currently playing around half as many games as the other teams in the poll.
The Buckeyes are fourth in the rankings behind Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson. While the former two teams are undefeated (7-0 and 8-0, respectively), third-ranked Clemson has that one loss to Notre Dame (you remember, the one where thousands of people stormed the field in South Bend after?).
Though being ranked behind a one-loss Clemson certainly feels like a slight in the eyes of Ohio State observers, the rankings are not final, and the Buckeyes have an opportunity to present an undefeated body of work at the conclusion of the season still, which might push them to the No. 2 or 3 ranking in the Playoff.
Additionally, the fact the highest-ranked Big 12 team is Oklahoma (No. 11) and Pac-12 is Oregon (No. 15) shows the committee is feeling the love for the Big Ten. Note that the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats are coming in at No. 8, so a potential win over Pat Fitzgerald’s team in the Big Ten Title would certainly qualify as a signature win for Ohio State.
But here we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to the game at hand.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but quarterback Justin Fields did have his worst outing as a Buckeye last week against the Hoosiers. After throwing three picks all season in 2019, the Indiana defense intercepted three passes Saturday alone. He also faced more pressure than he has all season, being sacked five times. However, it wasn’t all bad news for the Buckeye quarterback. In the end, Fields went 18-of-30 for 300 yards and two touchdowns. He added 78 yards rushing on 15 carries on the ground, including one touchdown.
Illinois, however, might actually be a challenging opponent for Fields to bounce back against. The Illini secondary has recorded seven picks this season, led by cornerback Devon Witherspoon and linebacker Jake Hansen, who each have two picks in 2020. Collectively, the Illini secondary had three picks per game in their two most recent outings. That being said, the Illini are still allowing 253.4 yards per game through the air, good for 10th in the conference in the category.
More of that ground game
As Fields “struggled” (because it’s all relative, right?), the ground game experienced something of a resurgence for Ohio State, recalling maybe just a tiny bit of what we had with J.K. Dobbins last season. Master Teague went off for his best game in an Ohio State uniform, totaling 169 yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns. Trey Sermon was no slouch either, with nine rushes for 60 yards. And adding to the ground attack were Fields’ aforementioned 78 rushing yards and single touchdown on the ground.
Teague could have another field day this weekend. The Illini are 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game with 194.6. The defense has allowed a 100 yard rusher in all but one game this season (the exception, weirdly, being Wisconsin), and considering Ohio State has the top rushing attack in the conference, averaging greater than 233 yards per game, the balance would seem to lean in favor of the Buckeyes.
Fields may have struggled against Indiana (again, it’s all relative), but once again, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave each had more than 100 receiving yards, with Wilson leading the team with a career-high 169 yards and Olave with 101. Wilson also hauled in both of Fields’ touchdowns. Along with Teague, Wilson and Olave showed up when the offense needed them most to give the Buckeyes a tougher than expected win.
Silver Bullets...but more like BBs
Ohio State is 14th of 14 teams in the Big Ten in passing yards per game allowed. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Even with Shaun Wade in the rotation, the secondary has struggled against the Big Ten in general and the Hoosiers in particular. Saturday, the sole bright spot came when Wade had his first career pick-six, leavening the deadweight of the passing defense’s stat line from the day.
Obviously we can point to a “fluke” against Indiana, with a relatively powerful passing opponent gaining nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns through the air. Or, the sieve-like second half against Rutgers. There’s also the fact that the Big Ten doesn’t have that many actual bottom of the barrel, dumpster fire teams this fall (again, no one’s beating Rutgers 70-0 this season).
But, while the Buckeyes might be able to lean on a strong offense or a strong rush defense to carry them through a truncated conference season, it’s clear that danger lies in their pass defense, and Ohio State will have to shore it up sooner rather than later...because the College Football Playoff is just around the corner.
The good news is the Silver Bullets will have a chance to bounce back this weekend against a team which has struggled in the passing game this year. The Illini, in fact, are 14th in the Big Ten in passing yards per game with just 159.4 yards per game through the air — a perfect match for a unit who’s desperately trying to get back on track after one of its worst outings in recent memory.
Lovie is in the air
We all knew it would take a minute to turn Illinois around after being one of the aforementioned doormats of the Big Ten for so many years, but head coach Lovie Smith has managed to start off that reverse course.
Smith has been head coach in Champaign since 2016, having arrived after spending more than a decade at the helm with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Illinois, in fact, is Smith’s first collegiate head coaching role.
Smith holds a 17-37 overall record with the Illini. While his first two seasons (2016-2017) were without a doubt abysmal, the NFL veteran turned things on in 2018, going a comparatively better 4-8, and last season, earning a 6-7 record and the Illini’s first bowl appearance since 2014.
A relative win streak
After dropping their first three contests (to Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota), the Illini have been resurgent in the last couple weeks, with two-straight wins over Rutgers and Nebraska (as a reminder from previous paragraphs: Rutgers is NOT their previous level of terrible this year). And as we saw last week against Indiana, playing a hot team is a different sort of challenge.
One might say, “it’s just Illinois. Ohio State hasn’t lost to them in years.” As mentioned above, there really aren’t any doormats this year in the Big Ten this season. The fact that Penn State is winless should be an indication of thus, since teams still have to prepare and show up for a James Franklin team which has struggled with injuries, but can still play it close.
In that vein, Illinois is sitting at 2-3 in the Big Ten West, which is good enough for fifth place in the division ahead of Nebraska. In a flip of the usual script, the West appears to be the more competitive division top-to-bottom in the conference this season (17-14 overall record compared to 14-17 in the East), meaning Illinois looks to be a more competitive than usual opponent heading into Saturday.
As a note, thus far, the only team Ohio State has played from the West has been last place Nebraska (whom the Buckeyes did not have much trouble with despite opening the season against the Huskers).
Don’t call it a comeback…
We won’t, but Illinois senior quarterback Brandon Peters certainly showed up last week against Nebraska after missing three games after testing positive for COVID-19.
Brandon Peters...why does that name sound so familiar? No need to keep you in suspense. Peters is a grad transfer from Michigan, having started four games in Ann Arbor during his time under Jim Harbaugh. Peters transferred to Illinois after the 2018 season, and has been the de facto starter for the Illini since.
In 2019, Peters connected on greater than 55% of his passes for Illinois for 1,884 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight picks.
Running off that turkey
While Ohio State is the top team in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, Illinois is not far behind. In fact, the Illini are second in the conference in rushing with 222.4 yards per game on the ground.
The Illini are following a successful running back by committee approach in 2020, anchored by sophomore Chase Brown and junior Mike Epstein. Brown is sitting at 357 yards this season, while Epstein is just behind with 338.
A major part of Illinois’ success in the run game has been the offensive line. The experienced unit lost just one player from last year’s squad, which actually finished last season as one of the top offensive lines in the nation according to Pro Football Focus (Ohio State was fourth in 2019 according to the same measure).
All that being said, Ohio State is no slouch when it comes to rushing defense. The Buckeyes are allowing under 100 yards per game, in fact. Expect this to me a matchup to watch Saturday.
Illinois has been generally successful in kicking field goals this season, connecting on 6-of-8 attempts. James McCourt made five of those attempts, despite missing two games due to COVID-19. The Illini’s backup, Caleb Griffin, went 1-for-1, and made all five extra points while filling in.
Ohio State, meanwhile, has only attempted five field goals through four games, and has not been very successfully at that. The Buckeyes have struggled, having only made two of said attempts. Worse so, three kickers have attempted at least one field goal this season (Blake Haubeil, Dominic DiMaccio, Jake Seibert). None have made more than one attempt.
This Saturday’s matchup certainly feels different than Ohio State’s usual post-Thanksgiving game, since the Buckeyes still have a few weeks until they face Michigan. That being said, facing Illinois with a hot plate of leftover stuffing and mashed potatoes doesn’t sound like a half bad way to spend a Saturday.
Ohio State is favored by 28 over Illinois, which feels about right given how the Buckeyes have handled the Illini in recent years. Even with improvements on both sides of the ball, Illinois still has some space to grow as it works to become relevant in the Big Ten.
Given the skill at Ohio State’s disposal, all things look to be in the Buckeyes’ favor. From a well-rounded offensive attack — with multiple receiving and rushing threats, and a quarterback who is still a Heisman contender — and a defense which can effectively stop the run despite its struggles in the passing game, the advantages certainly seem to be on the side of Ryan Day’s squad.
All that’s left is to avoid a turkey-induced hangover and continue on the way toward a College Football Playoff berth.