... but mostly, just disappointed.
Champaign has been historically unkind to Buckeye teams, seemingly regardless of their quality. In 2002, Ohio State needed overtime to top a 5-7 Illini outfit. In 2006, the powerful Ohio State offense experienced its first significant struggle on the road in a sloppy 17-10 game against a miserable 2-10 squad. 2008 was more lopsided than either of the other two, but the Illini still had success moving the ball throughout and closed the gap to 10 points with a late score to make it 30-20.
So today was not particularly surprising, I suppose. But that didn't make it fun to watch. After toying with overwhelmed patsies the last two weeks, the Buckeyes were on the road to open conference play for the first time since 2004 (which, as you'll likely recall, ended poorly in a 33-27 OT loss to Northwestern). The Buckeyes took the ball to start the game, and in a drive that really would go on to sum up the offense's problems adequately, went three and out and surrendered a sack on 3rd down. The offensive line, which had looked much better, relative to the early days of '09, already looked to be in trouble. The Illini defense looked to be amped up from the start.
The Fighting Illini offense also came out with a chip on their shoulder. Mikel LaShoure got stuffed on two consecutive downs, one of which featured an illegal motion penalty declined by Ohio State. Facing a 3rd down, Nathan Scheelhaase connected with Florida transfer Jerred Fayson over the middle for a first down. On the next play, the Illini QB hit Fayson again a designed rollout for 14-yard gain and another first down. Then, the Illini decided to get really crafty: Scheelhaase tossed a backwards pass to Fayson, who then launched one all the way across the field back to his quarterback. The Ohio State defense - not only caught off guard but failing to make good tackles in space - couldn't stop the redshirt freshman from getting the ball all the way to 1st and goal. Three plays later, Scheelhaase kept the ball on a read-option and plowed ahead to give the Illini a 7-0 lead.
After a disastrous start, the Ohio State offense badly needed to respond, and it did so quickly: Terrelle Pryor reminded everyone that he is, in fact, a ridiculous specimen, outrunning nearly the entire Illini defense on a 67-yard zone-read to set up the Buckeyes with a first and goal. With the rest of the running game still not working on 1st and goal, and the pass protection nearly ceding a 2nd-and-goal sack only to have Pryor hit Posey for no gain. The Buckeyes needed a touchdown to keep momentum on their side. Fortunately, they got it: Brandon Saine, operating out of the slot, was on the receiving end of a short touchdown pass to make the score 7-6. A mysterious penalty allowed the Illini to block the PAT, but Barclay was true on the re-kick and knotted it up a 7-7.
It was here that both defenses finally seemed to settle into the game. The teams exchanged possessions eight times before anyone registered more than one first down on a drive. Sensing the overall down nature of his offense's emotions, Pryor attempted to rally his troops on the sideline, but shot himself in the foot with a late 2nd-quarter pick that gave the Illini the ball on Ohio State's side of the field.
Illinois moved the ball well on the ensuing possession, even running a Navy-style quarterback follow for a first down, but facing a 3rd and goal, opted to keep things conservative with a read-option by Scheelhaase that was crushed by the Buckeye D. A short field goal gave the Illini a 10-7 lead with 1:55 left in the first half.
Terrelle Pryor, however, wasn't done. A good kick return by Jaamal Berry, supplemented by an Illini penalty, gave the Ohio State offense great field position for their two-minute offense. Pryor, a man possessed after his last pick, freight trained his way to the Illini 22, then hit Sanzenbacher for a 1st-and-goal a couple plays later. Moments later, he threw arguably his prettiest pass of the day, hitting Sanzo again for a touchdown on a deep out. 14-10, Buckeyes. In an encouraging sign for the second half, the Buckeyes had faced a world of adversity and responded with a strong drive to close out the half. Another encouraging sign: after the 55-yard opening scoring drive, the Illini offense had netted just 87 combined yards on their next five possessions.
But there was still a half to play, and it managed to be even more nerve-wracking than the first half. The defense, clearly feeling it by now, forced a an Illini three and out on their first possession of the second half. On Ohio State's first offensive possession, Pryor called his own number and ran for a first down, his foot catching awkwardly in the turf and the ball bouncing out of his hands, out of bounds. Pryor was down for far too long before standing up and getting helped off the field by trainers. In many ways, it felt like Ohio State's entire season was being helped off the field. That feeling was only reinforced when the Buckeyes responded by showing the utmost confidence in their back-up quarterback Joe Bauserman: two stuffed runs up the middle, followed by a fullback screen on 3rd and long. Good times.
After scrambling for a first down, Scheelhaase launched an ugly duck that was picked off by Jermale Hines. The moment Hines was tackled, I thought "Damn, I wished he'd scored". Bauserman hit the field and did what Bauserman does, tossing a pick of his own with ample pass protection and his feet doing the Todd Boeckman shuffle. At this point, the sense of doom that had been tugging at the back of everyone's mind had ceased all pretense, and planted its foot firmly up the butt of many a Buckeye fan. It did not look good. The forlorn cry of the Kenny G(uiton)'s sax had never sounded so bittersweet.
Fortunately, the Ohio State defense was still dominant, and after forcing another three-and-out, the title hopes of Buckeye fans were re-kindled when Pryor returned to the field. It may have been my happiest moment so far this season. So, how does the offense celebrate his return? By handing the ball of three times, including a draw on 3rd and 11. In the game thread, I called this the single worst playcall since the Todd Boeckman option play on 3rd and 22 against USC in 2008. I stand by that assessment: when Tressel sorely needed to show confidence in the health of his Heisman-candidate quarterback, he didn't do it. Even Pryor didn't like the call, and was visibly angry upon receiving it.
But Scheelhaase and the Illini offense were still getting smothered, so perhaps the call did have its own wisdom. It remained a one-possession game when the Ohio State offense embarked on its clock-killing journey, which bridged the late third and early fourth quarters. About three quarters to late, Boom Herron finally got going. Over the course of 18 plays, Ohio State ran the ball 15 times, electing only to let its star quarterback pass on a critical third down conversion to DeVier Posey. Tressel, sensing a chance to put the Illini away, elected to go for it on 4th down rather than kick the short field goal. Now, I never like this call, but it worked: a 5-yard deep hand-off to Herron barely - and I mean barely - made it past the marker. A challenge upheld the call, though if there hadn't been a pile of bodies in the way, I think the call would have been overturned. At the very least, it was a generous spot. A boneheaded delay of game penalty gave Ohio State a 3rd and long, and the inevitable field goal made the game 17-10 after the Buckeyes melted more time off the clock.
That 17-10 lead seemed awfully tenuous on the next possession though, when the Illini offense finally awoke from its slumber on the strength of a solid 25-yard run by Mikel LeShoure, followed up by another first down pass to Fayson, giving Ron Zook's team 1st and 10 at the 16. The Buckeye defense stiffened in the red zone, and Zook opted to kick a field goal on 4th and 7 to make it 17-13.
Fortunately, Illinois is a stupid football team, and committed another penalty on the ensuing kickoff, giving the Buckeyes great field position yet again. Yet another penalty, this time on former Buckeye recruit Justin Green for offsides, extended the Ohio State drive and allowed the Buckeyes to melt even more time off the clock. With less than a minute left, Tressel opted to forgo the annoying "kneel in the red zone out of respect for the opponent" garbage, and let Herron finish off the Illini with a short touchdown run to make it 24-13. Ball game. Sigh of relief. It's over, and we don't have to talk about it much longer.
The overall closeness and competitiveness of the game makes it easy to focus on the negative aspects, but there were positives. Here's a short list:
- Special teams were solid. In fact, this might be their best game of the year. Illinois has solid, quick kick returners who never got loose against the Buckeye coverage units, and Jaamal Berry showed flashes as a kick returner. Hall was good at making guys miss, but was on the receiving end of a few excellent punts by Anthony Santella, and didn't get a lot of opportunities.
- Jerred Fayson was annoying, to be sure, but that can't be put entirely on the secondary. Intermediate routes over the middle are usually - not always, but usually - the domain of the linebackers on Ohio State's defense, and Rolle and Homan struggled against Fayson in space.
- The defensive line was more or less excellent despite the Illini's attempts to prevent them from becoming a factor with lots of quick passes. Jon Hankins got some PT, and was solid when he saw the field, while Heyward and Williams routinely terrorized the Illini tacklers.
- The pick was ugly, and because of the archconservative nature of the second half, he didn't get a lot passing opportunities, but Pryor was the victim of a couple bad drops that marred an otherwise good, not great, passing effort.
- Maybe Saine's struggles in the backfield/success in the slot will motivate Tressel to move him around more, giving Hall and Berry some opportunities that otherwise would have gone to Saine? Am I grasping at straws?
- Let's face it: this team needed a test. After smacking around kittens for the last two weeks, they needed a team that wasn't so easily intimidated, and Illinois provided that. It wasn't pretty and they didn't pass with flying colors, but close calls like this will help them down the road.
That's not all of the good things I took away from this game, but it's a start. Hopefully some of you can provide a few more in the comments. In the end, we're 5-0, and the defense is still a killer.