With a matchup against a top-10 opponent on the horizon, the No. 13 Ohio State football team surged past Illinois for a 55-14 win Saturday night.
Despite OSU’s scheduled game against No. 8 Michigan State being just a week away, coach Urban Meyer said his team didn’t have any issues focusing on the task at hand, and praised the performance of his defense in particular.
“I think we have a good bunch of players that care about each other and get ready for a big week,” Meyer said after the game. “So I thought our defense came out and played really well.”
But despite the strong performance on defense, Meyer added the OSU offense had room to improve after posting 55 points but finishing four-of-six in the red zone and zero-for-two on fourth down attempts.
“A little disappointed in the red zone offense, couple of field goals we could have probably kicked or we could have went for,” he said. “But I still want to put a lot of pressure on our offensive line and quarterback in those kinds of situations because we know they’re coming down the road.”
Room for improvement aside, the Buckeyes’ win at Ohio Stadium marked their 20th straight regular-season Big Ten victory, tying the conference record set by OSU between 2005 and 2007.
Sophomore safety Vonn Bell said OSU took Illinois seriously, but wanted to show its ability in the game.
“That wasn’t a sleeper team, they had good athletes,” Bell said after the game. “We just had to do what we had to do, we had to execute, so it showed.”
After totaling 31 points through regulation and two overtimes against Penn State last week, the Buckeyes (7-1, 4-0) jumped out to a 31-0 advantage in the first half against the Fighting Illini (4-5, 1-4).
With redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett nursing a sprained MCL, Meyer elected to field redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones to start the second half.
Meyer said the plan was to let Barrett start off the third quarter, but he had a change of heart just before the team hit the field.
“I just got a feeling, I said, ‘get him out of the game,’” he said. “A little bit of the knee because obviously time away from that injury heals it. He’s fine and ready to go, but just the smart thing to do, I think.”
With Barrett nursing the injury, co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said he called the game somewhat differently than normal, but added Barrett played well outside of a few errant throws toward the beginning of the game.
“I though physically he played well,” Herman said after the game. “Just missed some open throws.”
Jones hit sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson for a 27-yard touchdown on his opening drive, pushing the lead to 38-0. The play marked the first touchdown toss of Jones’ OSU career.
After an OSU field goal, sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa sacked Illinois senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole on third down to force a punt. On the third play of the ensuing drive, redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall scored a 30-yard touchdown after taking the shotgun snap, pushing the lead to 48-0.
With the Buckeyes’ backups on the field on defense, the Fighting Illini broke the shutout on their next drive with a five-yard touchdown run from senior running back Donovonn Young.
But the third-quarter score wasn’t enough to spark an unlikely comeback as Jones hit redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Michael Thomas for another touchdown to open the fourth quarter, making it 55-7. The Fighting Illini added one more touchdown in the fourth quarter, but OSU ran out the clock to seal the win.
The second-half barrage by the Buckeyes nearly equaled their first-half output of 31.
Freshman running back Curtis Samuel — who got the starting nod for the first time in his OSU career — scored untouched from 23 yards out on the Buckeye’s first drive of the game.
While Samuel’s start might have come as a surprise to some onlookers, he said that plan came to light two days before the game.
“(Running backs coach Stan) Drayton told me on Thursday I would start,” Samuel said after the game. “He told me I had a great week in practice.”
Freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger made it 10-0 with a 44-yard field goal later in the first quarter before senior wide receiver Devin Smith added a 32-yard touchdown from Barrett to make it 17-0.
Samuel and Smith each scored touchdowns in the second quarter as well to give OSU a comfortable cushion as it headed to the locker room.
After the game, Smith said the success he and Barrett have had as a wide receiver-quarterback combination comes from the faith they have in each other on the field.
“I have confidence in him and he has confidence in me,” Smith said. “When you got that connection with QB and receiver, it’s night and day.”
Samuel finished the half with seven carries for 45 yards while the Buckeyes’ regular starter — sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott — had four carries for 27 yards.
The Buckeyes forced three first-half turnovers from Illinois, including a pair of interceptions thrown by O’Toole.
“It feels great to get the turnovers and the energy it brings our team,” redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee, who had one of the interceptions, said after the game. “We’ve been working so hard and it’s a lot of fun.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said his team “didn’t start well,” leading to the Buckeyes’ early advantage.
“They’re probably one of the best teams in this conference and you better be playing up to par when you play against them, and we definitely didn’t start this football game playing that way,” he said.
Barrett and Jones combined to throw for 249 yards and four touchdowns as the Buckeyes outgained Illinois, 545 to 243 overall. Smith led the team with 72 receiving yards and a pair of scores, while Elliott rushed for a game-high 69 yards.
Junior linebacker Joshua Perry tallied a team-high seven total tackles and Bosa recorded two sacks.
OSU was forced to punt just one time in the game.
O’Toole finished the game with just 58 yards through the air as the Fighting Illini averaged just 3.5 yards per play on offense.
The Buckeyes are scheduled to travel to East Lansing, Mich., next Saturday to take on the Spartans. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.
Less than an hour after the game ended, Lee said his sights were already set on the matchup against Michigan State, to the point that he didn’t want to focus on the plays he made against the Fighting Illini.
“I don’t even want to talk too much about it because I’m focused on Nov. 8 right now,” he said.
“It’s time to work.”