The second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes kick off their 98th season of Big Ten Conference play on Saturday afternoon when they pay a visit to the Illinois Fighting Illini.
This game is being played for the Illibuck Trophy, which is the second oldest trophy exchange in the Big Ten, behind the Little Brown Jug which goes to the winner of the Minnesota/Michigan matchup.
Ohio State comes into conference action a perfect 4-0, following home victories over Marshall (45-7), Miami-Florida (36-24), Ohio University (43-7) and Eastern Michigan (73-20). Last week’s offensive explosion against the Eagles marked the most points scored by the Buckeyes in 60 years. OSU has won 10 straight games, dating back to last season.
The Buckeyes, who are coached by Jim Tressel, have won their last six league lidlifters and are 8-1 under Tressel in such outings overall. OSU has won five straight Big Ten titles.
As for the Illini, they were idle last weekend, giving them ample time to prepare for this clash. Illinois is 2-1 on the season, having bounced back from a 23-13 loss to Missouri in week one to knock off Southern Illinois (35-3) and Northern Illinois (28-22), both at home.
Illinois is led by sixth-year head coach Ron Zook, who is only 1-4 in five previous games against Ohio State. Tressel is 5-2 against the Illini.
This bout marks the 97th meeting between these two teams, with OSU leading the series by a 62-30-4 margin. The Buckeyes have won five of the last six meetings and are 33-12 all-time in games played in Champaign.
Led by Heisman-hopeful QB Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State had no trouble disposing of Eastern Michigan last weekend, scoring at will. Pryor (224 yards passing, 104 rushing) was responsible for six TDs (four passing, one rushing, one receiving) in the easy win. OSU piled up 645 total yards compared to just 248 for EMU, of which only 40 came on the ground. WR Dane Sanzenbacher led the Buckeyes with nine catches for 108 yards and four TDs.
Pryor upped his season stats to include 939 yards passing with 10 TDs against only two INTs, and a team-high 269 rushing yards with three scores. Dan Herron has a club-best four TDs on the ground, while Sanzenbacher heads the receiving corps with 20 catches for 316 yards and five scores.
Overall, the Buckeyes are averaging 49.2 points, 240.2 rushing yards and 266.5 passing yards per game. They’ve committed just three turnovers and own a near 10-minute advantage in time of possession on average.
Tressel was obviously happy his team performed well last week, but realizes the road gets considerably tougher from here on out. “It’s a whole different world when you go into conference play. It’s more heavyweight bout than it is a style show.”
Pryor is excited about the start of league action, “The fun starts (this week) with the Big Ten.”
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes are giving up just 14.5 ppg as foes are generating a mere 71 ypg on the ground and only 169.2 ypg through the air. Ohio State has come up with 13 takeaways in four games and ranks second in the nation in turnover margin (+2.50).
Ross Homan continues to pace the Buckeyes with his 26 tackles, of which 18 have been solo efforts, while Tyler Moeller checks in with 20, including a team-high 4.5 TFLs. The one area that Tressel would like to see improve is in getting to the QB as OSU has just five sacks to this point.
The strength of the Illinois offense is its ability to run the ball, doing so for 229 ypg. Six of the team’s nine offensive TDs have come on the ground, as RB Mikel Leshoure has scored three times and is averaging 132.7 ypg. Leshoure, who tallied 180 yards and a TD in the win over Northern Illinois last time out, has topped the 100-yards mark in all three games this season and in four straight dating back to last year. Producing a fifth straight won’t be easy, however, as Ohio State hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 games.
Leshoure knows he is only one part of the puzzle for the Illini, and is quick to give credit for his success to those around him, “Things feel good. I love the play calling and how coach counts on me to get the job done and be the workhorse. I feel like as long as we can keep executing I can keep getting these hundred yard games.”
Nathan Scheelhaase is UI’s quarterback, and the redshirt freshman has completed 54.4 percent of his throws for 380 yards (126.7 ypg) with three TDs and three INTs. He is also a threat to run the ball as evidenced by the 115 yards he generated against NIU. A.J. Jenkins is the club’s leading pass catcher with 12 grabs for 190 yards and two TDs.
Defensively, the Illini are yielding just 16.0 ppg behind 333 total ypg, of which only 102.3 ypg come via the run. Three different players have at least 24 tackles on the year, with Martez Wilson leading the way with 26. Illinois has yet to pick off a pass, but averages just over seven TFLs per contest.
The Illini believe they let one slip away in the season opener (Missouri), and coach Zook is confident his team will continue to progress if its sticks to the game plan, “We’re 2-1. We could be 3-0; that would be a little better. But we’ll go from there. The guys are improving. Next time we can’t get so many penalties and the defense can’t give up big plays.”
If Illinois had some semblance of a passing game it might be able to hang with the Buckeyes, but as it is the one-dimensional attack, even with Leshoure doing his thing, won’t be enough. Expect Ohio State to win by a relatively comfortable margin and keep its perfect record in tact.