Ohio State has been forced to deal with adversity all year long as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s certainly been the case going into this week’s game against Illinois.
Due to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases within the Ohio State football program, the Buckeyes’ travel roster will probably look a little different for this weekend’s trip to Champaign, as all players who tested positive this week will be sidelined for the Buckeyes’ final three games of the regular season due to Big Ten policy.
|ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI|
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
NOON – SATURDAY, NOV. 28
FOX SPORTS GO
Most importantly, though, the Buckeyes were still on track as of Thursday night to head west Friday and play the Illini at noon Saturday, giving Ohio State an opportunity to compete for its fifth win of the season and continue its quest to win a fourth straight Big Ten championship and earn a berth in the College Football Playoff.
While Ohio State is favored to win the game by four touchdowns, Illinois is entering the game on a two-game winning streak after starting the season 0-3, and there’s no shortage of storylines surrounding the Buckeyes entering this game as both the pass defense and Justin Fields look to bounce back from shaky performances against Indiana.
COVID-19 Hits the Buckeyes
Through their first four games of the 2020 season, Ohio State stayed remarkably healthy considering the realities of playing in a pandemic. Almost all of the Buckeyes’ key players on both offense and defense were available for Ohio State’s first four games of the season; the biggest COVID-related setback they suffered came when Maryland had to cancel its game against Ohio State two weeks ago due to an elevated number of positive cases within its program.
This week, however, sources have indicated to Eleven Warriors that there have been as many as 10 positive COVID-19 cases within the program. While Ohio State hasn’t yet confirmed which players will be unavailable for this week’s game – an Ohio State spokesperson said Friday morning that the status report for this week's game will not be released until 10 a.m. Saturday – it’s presumable that Ohio State’s depth chart will be impacted to some extent as a result of the newly unavailable players.
Losing players for three weeks at a time due to COVID-19 is a reality that Ohio State knew it would likely have to deal with at some point this season, though, so the Buckeyes have had to prepare for that possibility. We’ll see just how well-prepared they are on Saturday.
All Eyes on the Pass Defense
Regardless of who’s on the field for Ohio State’s defense on Saturday, the Buckeyes will be looking for much better play against the pass than they had against the Hoosiers, who threw for 491 yards in Ohio Stadium last Saturday. Until the COVID-19 news came to light on Wednesday, the pass defense was by far the biggest topic of the week surrounding the Buckeyes, and it’s an area where they know they must improve sooner than later, particularly in regards to eliminating big plays.
Illinois ranks dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards per game this season, so it won’t provide nearly as much of a test through the air as Indiana, though that’s partially because starting quarterback Brandon Peters missed three games after testing positive for COVID-19 himself. Regardless of the opponent, though, Ohio State needs to start looking sounder on the back end, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the Buckeyes roll out any personnel or scheme changes to try to start making that happen.
“I thought they had a good day of practice (Tuesday),” Ryan Day said on his radio show Wednesday. “Certainly a lot of things on film that they want to get fixed, and certainly the first thing is big plays. This defense is designed to avoid big plays, and so up 35-7 (against Indiana), really inexcusable to have that many big plays. They’re not proud of that, so they’re right back to work at it, owning up to the mistakes and they know they need to get better.”
A Bounceback Game for Fields?
After playing nearly perfect football for the first three weeks of the season, Fields was uncharacteristically mistake-prone against Indiana, throwing three interceptions – as many as he had thrown in the first 17 games of his Ohio State career combined – against the Hoosiers’ blitz-heavy defense. He still threw for 300 yards, ran for another 78 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns to help lead the Buckeyes to a 42-35 win, but said after the game that he “didn’t play well at all” due to the turnovers.
Even so, Fields still leads the nation in completion percentage (79.6) and ranks fourth in passer rating (202.1) and sixth in passing yards per attempt (10.7). His Heisman Trophy hopes undoubtedly took a hit with his interceptions against Indiana, but knowing Fields, he’ll be more motivated than ever this week to restate his case for being the best quarterback in college football.
“He has the highest standards for himself, so we're not worried at all about him,” wide receiver Chris Olave said Tuesday. “He's going to bounce back better than ever, and I hope you guys believe that too.”
Keep an Eye on These Guys
RBs Chase Brown and Mike Epstein
Illinois’ rushing offense is its strength, ranking second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (222.4) and third in yards per carry (5.15), and it’s led by a pair of productive running backs in Brown and Epstein.
Epstein (338 yards on 55 carries) and Brown (357 yards on 61 carries) both rank among the Big Ten’s top five in total rushing yards and have the most yards per carry among all conference running backs who have had more than 50 carries this season. Ohio State’s run defense has been stout, holding Indiana to a net total of -1 rushing yard last week, but Brown and Epstein might be the best running backs they’ve faced all season.
“They have two extremely good backs,” Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said Tuesday. “They both run very hard.”
|JUSTIN FIELDS||QB||BRANDON PETERS|
|MASTER TEAGUE||RB||CHASE BROWN|
|CHRIS OLAVE||WR||JOSH IMATORBHEBHE|
|GARRETT WILSON||WR||BRIAN HIGHTOWER|
|JEREMY RUCKERT||TE/WR||DONNY NAVARRO|
|LUKE FARRELL||TE||DANIEL BARKER|
|THAYER MUNFORD||LT||VEDERIAN LOWE|
|HARRY MILLER||LG||KENDRICK GREEN|
|JOSH MYERS||C||DOUG KRAMER|
|WYATT DAVIS||RG||VERDIS BROWN|
|NICHOLAS PETIT-FRERE||RT||JULIAN PEARL|
|JONATHON COOPER||DE||OWEN CARNEY JR.|
|ZACH HARRISON||DE||SETH COLEMAN|
|TOMMY TOGIAI||NT||RODERICK PERRY|
|HASKELL GARRETT||DT||JER'ZHAN NEWTON|
|PETE WERNER||WLB||KHALAN TOLSON|
|TUF BORLAND||MLB||JAKE HANSEN|
|BARON BROWNING||SLB||DELANO WARE|
|SHAUN WADE||CB||DEVON WITHERSPOON|
|SEVYN BANKS||CB||NATE HOBBS|
|MARCUS WILLIAMSON||CB/S||TONY ADAMS|
|MARCUS HOOKER||S||SYDNEY BROWN|
An experienced offensive line
The bedrock of any strong running game, of course, is the offensive line opening holes up front, and that’s also a huge factor in why the Illini have been effective moving the ball on the ground this season. Illinois has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, led by a pair of four-year starters in left tackle Vederian Lowe and center Doug Kramer and a third-year starter in left guard Kendrick Green.
Another fourth-year starter, right tackle Alex Palczewski, missed the Illini’s most recent game due to a leg injury, so it’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to play against Ohio State. But even the right side of their offensive line has performed well with first-year starter Verdis Brown at right guard and Julian Pearl filling in for Palczewski at right tackle.
“The offensive line might be the best one we’ve seen so far,” Day said Wednesday.
LB Jake Hansen
Hansen is the top playmaker to watch on Illinois’ defense, as he led the entire Football Bowl Subdivision with seven forced fumbles in 2019 and has continued with his turnover creating-ways in 2020, recording two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in addition to 44 total tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in Illinois’ first five games.
He ranks in the top six among Big Ten players in all five of those categories, and is one of just three players in the FBS who has recorded multiple interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries so far this season.
Because he has such a knack for making plays on the ball, Ohio State will need to be aware of where No. 35 is on Illinois’ defense at all times.
Game Week Talk
“I think they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous because they cause a lot of turnovers, they’ve caused 38 turnovers in the last year.”– Ryan Day on Illinois
This is the second straight week where an Ohio State opponent has been hyped up for its ability to create turnovers, but it proved to be a warranted concern against Indiana last week. Illinois has forced 13 turnovers this season, including five takeaways in its most recent game against Nebraska, so the Buckeyes need to be careful with the football to avoid game-changing turnovers that could increase the potential for an upset.
“We want to establish our run. We’re not gonna come out and throw the ball 70 times a game, anything like that, so as far as our game plan going in, we’re going to do what we feel like we do best.”– Illinois head coach Lovie Smith on running the ball
If Illinois sticks with a run-heavy offensive game plan this week, that could play into the strength of Ohio State’s defense. But Lovie Smith, as well as Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith, both indicated this week that they believe strongly in running the ball and won’t try to change their offense just because Ohio State is better against the run.
“We’re going to go in there and we’re going to steal this one. That’s how we’re looking at it.”– Illinois left guard Kendrick Green
Few people outside the Illinois football program are expecting the Illini to win this game – even with the news of COVID-19 cases at Ohio State, the betting line has stayed steady at 28 points in the Buckeyes’ favor – but with back-to-back wins under their belt, Green and his teammates feel like they have “a full head of steam” are going to enter Saturday’s game upset-minded, even though Green thinks Ohio State is “probably the best team in the country.”
- Saturday’s game is set to be the 104th all-time meeting between Ohio State and Illinois, but the first since 2017, and the first in Champaign since 2015.
- Ohio State has won its last nine games against Illinois dating back to 2008. Illinois’ last win over the Buckeyes came at Ohio Stadium in 2007, when Isiah “Juice” Williams led the Illini to a 28-21 upset win over Ohio State, who was ranked No. 1 nationally at the time.
- Ohio State has won its last 11 games at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium dating back to 1993. Illinois’ last home win against Ohio State came in 1991, when the Illini won 10-7.
- Illinois’ roster includes more than a dozen players who started their collegiate careers at other schools before transferring to Illinois, including Peters (Michigan), Brown (Western Michigan) and each of the Illini’s top three wide receivers: Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC), Brian Hightower (Miami) and Donny Navarro (Valparaiso). Other notable transfers include tight ends Daniel Imatorbhebhe (USC) and Luke Ford (Georgia), defensive tackle Roderick Perry (South Carolina State), linebacker Milo Eifler (Washington) and safety Derrick Smith (Miami).
- Borland is Ohio State’s only player from the state of Illinois. The Illini don’t have any players from the state of Ohio.
How It Plays Out
Line: Ohio State -28, O/U 71.5
On paper, Ohio State is a clearly better team than Illinois. The Buckeyes are equipped to slow down Illinois’ running game, and the Illini haven’t shown they can beat a team through the air. They also rank among the Big Ten’s worst teams in both passing and running defense, leaving them ripe to get picked apart by Fields and the rest of the Buckeyes’ weapons this week.
That said, our staff submitted their predictions without knowing which players have tested positive for COVID-19 this week, which could potentially make this matchup more even if Ohio State is without key players. And while Illinois is just 2-3 this season, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Illini had COVID-19 issues of their own, leaving them without numerous key players for their losses to Purdue and Illinois.
Since those players returned, Illinois has been better against Rutgers and Nebraska, giving the Illini some real momentum going into this game. And we haven’t seen Ohio State put together a dominant four-quarter performance yet this year.
All of that is to say, bet on this game at your own risk. If Fields returns to form, Ohio State’s defense can shore things up and the Buckeyes can avoid the second-half letdowns that have plagued them this season, they’re capable of controlling this game from start to finish and winning big. It would be a big surprise if Ohio State lost this game, even with a roster that won’t be at full strength. But there’s plenty of variables going into this game that give it the potential to be more competitive than it should be.
|Eleven Warriors Staff Prediction|