Ohio State – Illinois: Notes and Thoughts

It was unbelievable. For the whole game, the Ohio State offense had one play that was working: halfback lead draw. For the whole game, Illinois struggled to stop it.

Earlier this season, when Ohio State completed a laughable four passes in a loss at Miami, I remember thinking, “Wow… Those are passing stats from the 1930s, not 2011… I’m sure I’ll never see that happen again in a Buckeye game.”

Little did I know how ironic that thought would be a few short weeks later.

Following a timeout on a third down inside Illinois territory, OSU quarterback Braxton Miller ran a play action pass where he hit tight end Jake Stoneburner for a wide open 17 yard score to go up 16-0. It was the first Buckeye completion of the game. There was 13:06 left in the fourth quarter. It was also OSU’s last completion of the game.

Considering OSU was running down the throat of Illinois, and that they only threw four passes for the entire game, the Stoneburner touchdown may have been the best setup for play action in the history of football.

The reasons why OSU won this game are simple. They played defense, didn’t make mistakes on offense, forced turnovers, and then translated those turnovers into points.

Arguably the offense’s only good drive was on the opening drive of the game where they got close enough for kicker Drew Basil to kick a 45 yard field goal to give the Bucks an early 3-0 lead. The rest of the first half was a field position battle between the two teams, and OSU maintained leading their 3-0 lead going into halftime.

On the opening Illinois drive of the third quarter, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw a costly interception to Buckeye defensive back Bradley Robey which Robey ran to the Illinois 12. On the following play, senior running back Daniel Herron would get free on a sweep and score.

After the debacle last week, where OSU allowed Nebraska to come back from a 21 point second half deficit, I was still uneasy.

The Illinois offense continued to struggle. A concern going in was how Illinois star receiver A.J. Jenkins would perform against the young Ohio State secondary. While he statistically had a decent game, catching 8 passes for 80 yards, he also had an extremely costly fumble in the fourth quarter that Ohio State recovered. The end result was the Stoneburner touchdown. One of the ironies of this game was that Illinois did a good job of giving the Bucks poor field position, aside from the two turnovers where Ohio State scored points, and had the benefit of a short field.

To their credit, Illinois continued to battle but would have another major turnover later in the fourth quarter where Travis Howard intercepted Scheelhaase, ending a promising Illinois drive.

Down 17-7, late in the fourth quarter, on a fourth and 2, Illinois coach Ron Zook gambled and decided to go for a first down, rather than kicking a relatively short field goal. Ultimately, it probably wouldn’t have mattered as a comeback was unlikely, but the decision was perplexing. Illinois was down by 10, and they needed two scores and were also going to need an onside kick.

If they would have picked up the first down, that still needed to score, get an onside kick, and another score.

If they would have kicked the field goal, they still would have needed an onside kick and another score. I understand that it’s easy to second guess, but even before that play began, the decision not to go for a field goal and get points made little sense. Illinois lost the ball after Scheelhaase under threw a receiver.

Ohio State held on for the 17-7 victory. It was a fun game to watch and a desperately needed Buckeye victory. Herron had his first game back after a six game suspension. The fresh legs were a benefit to the offense and he would rush for 114 yards.

Now the Bucks have a week off before a home battle against the Big Ten’s best team Wisconsin on October 29.

For Illinois, it was their first loss of the season. The struggles to stop predictable play calling from OSU was undoubtedly a source of frustration, although turnovers were their real downfall.