With arguably the biggest game of the year on the horizon, the Ohio State football team has a rivalry game to play Saturday.
While the Buckeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini play for the Illibuck trophy, no one in the OSU program seems to care about the 89-year-old tradition as OSU coach Urban Meyer didn’t once mention the wooden turtle during the week.
Instead, Meyer is much more worried about the product the Fighting Illini will put on the field Saturday night.
“Illinois is much better (than last season),” Meyer said. “I know they lost their quarterback, but they’re playing much better. I just spent all morning watching their defense, and they’re much better than a year ago on defense.”
The Fighting Illini have started senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole the last two games in place of injured starter, Oklahoma State transfer redshirt-sophomore Wes Lunt who is out because of an injury.
O’Toole poses more of a running threat for the Fighting Illini, as he has rushed for 88 yards in his last two games, compared to Lunt’s -61 yards on the ground in five games.
When Lunt was at the helm for Illinois, however, Illinois was a pass-dominant team as Lunt was averaging 313.8 passing yards per game before his injury.
OSU cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said Monday that the Buckeye defense must now be alert for a more balanced attack.
“They’re running the ball more, obviously,” Coombs said. “This kid (O’Toole) is a dynamic runner, but you can’t not cover guys, and they still have the passing game and the same attack that they’ve had in the past, so they’re going to get guys down the field.”
Junior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington said Wednesday that the defensive line will have to first slow down O’Toole in order to shut down the Fighting Illini offense.
“That quarterback (O’Toole) is a lot more of a runner than the starter was from what I have heard,” Washington said. “We just got to contain him. I heard that he can run and throw the ball a little bit so just got to try and contain him and keep him in the pocket.”
Staying in the pocket might also be the key for the quarterback on the opposite sideline.
OSU redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett enters Saturday’s game with a sprained left MCL, Meyer confirmed this week.
The injury is similar to the one sustained by then-junior quarterback Braxton Miller last season that caused Miller to miss two full games and the majority of a game against San Diego State.
Despite the injury, Meyer said he expects Barrett to play and improve on the things Meyer told his young quarterback to work on during the week.
“Proper reads and throwing with authority. He didn’t play great (against Penn State). He played with a lot of heart, but didn’t play with a lot of…smarts,” Meyer said Wednesday.
Junior offensive lineman Taylor Decker added Wednesday that he believes Barrett will be ready to go come game time.
“I think he has been fine. Obviously he is trying to be careful with his knee, you don’t want to tweak it anymore,” Decker said. “Hope to have him as healthy as possible coming back for the game, but he has looked fine to me.”
Barrett, who tore his right ACL as a senior in high school, said he played through the pain against Penn State, but is confident the team could continue to operate without him at the helm.
“I’ve actually really never played with an injury to this degree,” he said Wednesday. “But I knew that I could take a drop, I could run, so it was just one of those things like, ‘Hey man, if you play, you play.’ It’s not like going in there half stepping, because if so, the team could use a (redshirt-sophomore quarterback) Cardale Jones that could go full-go.”
Protecting Barrett will likely be a main focus for the OSU offensive line, something Decker said won’t necessarily be an easy task.
“Watching their film, I was very impressed with the athletes they have,” Decker said. “They got good players all over the place. It’s definitely going to be a good challenge for us.”
Two of those athletes include junior linebacker Mason Monheim and senior defensive back Zane Petty who both rank in the top-eight in the Big Ten in tackles.
Petty recorded a career-high 15 tackles last season against the Buckeyes in a 60-35 loss.
Another Illinois defensive back earned attention from Meyer this week as the Buckeye coach singled out junior V’Angelo Bentley during his meeting with the media Wednesday.
“This returner (Bentley) put it to us last year,” Meyer said. “The issue is not talent at Illinois. They have guys who can play and you can see that on videotape.”
Bentley, a Cleveland, Ohio, native and Glenville High School graduate, took an OSU punt back 67 yards for a score against the Buckeyes in last season’s matchup.
Illinois is scheduled to come into Ohio Stadium for the third night game of the year for the Buckeyes, led by a former Buckeye assistant.
Tim Beckman, a Berea, Ohio, native, coached under former OSU coach Jim Tressel starting in 2005 as the cornerbacks coach before leaving for the defensive coordinator job at Oklahoma State.
Prior to his stint in Columbus, Beckman spent two years as Meyer’s defensive coordinator when Meyer was the coach at Bowling Green.
Saturday will mark the third time Beckman has led a team into Ohio Stadium as a head coach, the second as the head man of Illinois. Beckman nearly pulled off the upset in 2011 as the head coach of Toledo before falling just short, 27-22, to the Buckeyes.
Despite having been on different sidelines for more than a decade, Meyer said he still has a good relationship with the Illinois head coach.
“He’s a colleague and a good friend, so it’s more conversations about our families,” Meyer said. “Certainly we don’t talk football because we’re in the same league, but (I have) a lot of respect for Tim. You watch his team, they’re getting better. Now it’s just a matter of how much better can they get, because I think their players are well-coached.”
Meyer and the Buckeyes are scheduled to take on Beckman and the Fighting Illini Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.