Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
On paper, a 9-0 Ohio State football team hosting a 2-6 Illinois team doesn’t look like a savory matchup. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that both programs have everything to play for despite the appearance of a potential blow-out Buckeye win.
OSU and Illinois, which will compete for the Illibuck trophy for the 86th time Saturday, are headed in opposite directions. In what was likely their most complete, 60-minute effort of the season last weekend in a 35-23 victory at Penn State, the Buckeyes moved to within three wins of a perfect season. Illinois, led by first-year coach, and former OSU cornerbacks coach, Tim Beckman, have two out-of-conference wins and are winless in Big Ten Conference play. On Saturday, Illinois was trounced, 31-17, by Indiana on the day of the university’s homecoming celebration.
Many in Columbus are singing OSU first-year coach Urban Meyer’s praises as the prospect of an undefeated 2012 campaign looms large and some in Champaign, Ill., are questioning whether Beckman will survive to see a second season with the Illini.
Both teams have plenty on the line Saturday at Ohio Stadium, not the least of which is this rivalry game’s recognizable wooden, tortoise-shaped Illibuck trophy.
OSU sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is in the midst of a record-setting 2012 campaign, and he’s brought the entire Buckeye offense along for the ride. Miller’s 121 rushing yards per game makes him the nation’s 11th-best rusher. Last Saturday against Penn State, Miller passed the 1,000 yard mark on the season – he’s the first OSU quarterback to accomplish the feat. His impact on games is felt throughout the offense, too – OSU ranks 21st in the nation in scoring offense with nearly 39 points per game. The Buckeyes have also tallied 48 touchdowns on the season.
Illinois’ offense is at the opposite end of the Big Ten spectrum, and is last in the conference with 144 points and 18 touchdowns scored.
OSU’s defense is rolling into Saturday’s tilt against the Illini. The Buckeyes are in the bottom half of the Big Ten in total defense and rank ninth in the conference. OSU has strung together two consecutive strong outings, though, allowing just 13 points to Purdue on Oct. 20 (the Boilermakers also scored on a safety and a kickoff return) and 16 to the Nittany Lions (PSU scored on a recovery after a blocked punt). OSU sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier also received co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honor from the conference on Monday. The Fighting Illini have allowed 32 touchdowns on the year to OSU’s 23 and, while ranked one spot ahead of the Buckeyes in total defense, has allowed more than 31 points six times this season.
The biggest concern for the entire OSU team might be in the punting game. Redshirt senior Ben Buchanan has had three punts blocked this season, and each one directly led to points for the opposition. His most recent blocked punt came against the Nittany Lions, and the ball was swallowed up in the end zone to give PSU a 7-0 lead. Fans at Beaver Stadium were at full roar, and it took a determined OSU effort to settle the game down. The Buckeyes would do well to prevent another punt block this season, and you can bet they’ve probably paid attention to that area of the game in practice this week.