Preview: No. 16 Ohio State vs. Illinois

By Patrick Maks on October 31, 2014 at 8:35 am
Ohio State and Illinois will duel for the legendary and mighty Illibuck Saturday night.

In the past, Urban Meyer says he’s had to find unusual ways to keep his teams interested in the disinteresting.

“It depends on who you're playing, that's a great question. If they're a really bad team or — you know — on videotape they're awful you've got to be creative,” he said Wednesday.

“And I've done that where we didn't even show film; you just kind of chew them out or something like that and coach them a little harder.”

With a game against a lowly Illinois Saturday night, Meyer said he hasn’t had to use those tactics with Ohio State, but it’s hard to imagine the 16th-ranked Buckeyes aren’t peeking ahead at a monster contest with Michigan State in East Lansing next weekend.

Illinois Fighting Illini
4–4, 1–3 BIG TEN



After all, it will have major implications on the Big Ten title race and whether either team can keep pace for a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff. It’s only natural to look ahead toward the Spartans — which, you know, toppled the Buckeyes, their 24-game winning streak and national title hopes in Indianapolis last season.

This weekend's game against Fighting Illini, on the other hand, will most likely be another forgettable contest in which the Buckeyes rout an overmatched opponent. 

But Meyer maintains Ohio State — fresh off a double-overtime thriller against Penn State in State College last weekend — won’t take Illinois lightly (even though it has every reason to). 

“If (Illinois was) lousy, then you'd have a problem. And the good thing is — for our conference and them — Illinois won. Illinois is much better. I know they lost their quarterback, but they're playing much better.

Yet the Fighting Illini are lately amongst the most miserable Big Ten teams. Under head coach Tim Beckman — who took over after the program in 2012 — holds a 10-22 record and 2-18 mark in conference play. In fact, Illinois finally notched its first league win at home under Beckman when it upset Minnesota last weekend in Champaign.

Meyer’s turned that into something Ohio State — who’s favored to win by almost 30 points — as motivation it can latch onto.

“Illinois just won a big game. Illinois is much improved from a year ago,” he said. “There will be no overlooking anyone.”

More organic (and frankly, more worthy) motivation for the Buckeyes is how it must and how it should curb-stomp a floundering 4-4 Fighting Illini team if it wants to keep pace in the national picture.

Opponent Breakdown

When attempting to illustrate Illinois’ improvement from last year to now, Meyer pointed to its defense Monday. 

“I just spent all morning watching their defense,” he said. “And they're much better than a year ago on defense.” 

In 2013, the Fighting Illini touted one of the worst units in college football. This season — at least statistically — things aren’t much better.

They’re giving up 35 points (106th nationally) and 475 total yards (114th nationally) a game. And for Beckman — whose expertise is supposedly in defense — it's one of several reasons for why the program's recent futility. 

At least last season, Illinois could rely on star quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who found ways to gash Ohio State's defense for more than 300 total yards in a 60-35 loss in Champaign.

Without him, the Fighting Illini's offense is pedestrian, averaging 29 points for (77th nationally) and 391 yards (79th nationally) a contest. 

Part of that is thanks to instability in finding Scheelhaase's replacement. It was intended to be sophomore quarterback and Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, who suffered a broken leg in a loss to Purdue Oct. 4. He's not expected to return for at least another week. Instead, senior quarterback Reily O'Toole is completing 58 percent of his passes for 642 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.

On the ground, Illinois averages 3.9 yards a carry, though starting running back Josh Ferguson has 518 yards and six touchdowns on 102 carries. 

In short: Illinois offense is below average and its defense might be, in fact, worse than it was last season, despite Meyer's claim that it had improved. 

Buckeye Breakdown

After escaping Penn State with a gutsy win, Ohio State finds itself in somewhat of an awkward position of being at a crossroads. Beating the Nittany Lions, as the Buckeyes coaching staff said, was a "character win" for a young team that had to survive a storm in Happy Valley.

At the same time, it was undoubtedly a reality check for a team that had previously been rolling since a loss to Virginia Tech earlier in the season. And Ohio State's place in the first set of the College Football Playoff Rankings seems to reflect that. 

It's also why the Buckeyes probably won't be overlooking Illinois — not because the Fighting Illini pose a real threat, but because Ohio State needs to start blowing out the remaining bad teams on its schedule. 

For as gritty as Penn State played last weekend, the Nittany Lions came into the contest with a decimated roster and one of the nation's worst offenses. There's a reason the Buckeyes were hailed as nearly 14-point favorites before the contest. 

“I think style points are real. Does that affect the way we go about our business? Not at all,” Meyer said. But they still matter.

Notes: Redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett is expected to play after suffering an MCL sprain against Penn State last weekend. He's practiced all week. At running back, expect to see more of freshman Curtis Samuel following the ousting of senior Rod Smith.

How It'll Play Out

All things considered, Ohio State's heavy favorites against Illinois for a reason: The Fighting Illini defense is miserable and the offense isn't much better.

If the Buckeyes are thinking about Michigan State, it won't matter much; That stuff is more bark than bite here.

I repeat: Illinois is not a very good football team. And Ohio State, aside from that increasingly bad loss to the Hokies, has largely been dominant against below average to bad squads. Expect it to be a blowout on a cold Saturday night; expect the stands at Ohio Stadium to be pretty scarce in the fourth quarter. 


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