As matchups with No. 13 Michigan State and No. 14 Michigan loom on the horizon, No. 3 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) still has to keep its sights set on an Illinois (5-4, 2-3) that sits in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
Before the Buckeyes look to set a national record with its 30th consecutive conference victory, here are five things to be on the lookout for in Champaign, Illinois. Kickoff is scheduled for noon at Memorial Stadium.
Does the offense return to form with Barrett?
After a brief one-game pause, redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett will be back in charge of the offense on Saturday.
The Wichita Falls, Texas, native was unavailable in OSU’s 28-14 win over Minnesota because of a one-game suspension for a citation for operating a vehicle intoxicated. In that game, it was redshirt junior Cardale Jones regaining his starting job that he held for OSU’s 10 games previous.
Jones didn’t play terribly, completing 12 of 22 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown, but OSU’s offense was far from its prime form. Now, with Barrett back in the fold, coach Urban Meyer can only hope his team doesn’t miss a beat as the meaty part of the schedule approaches.
“He gives you an added element of the double option in the offense and double option means, I’m reading someone either in a throw or in a run game,” Meyer said.
In Barrett’s lone start of the year two weeks ago at Rutgers, he was responsible for 327 yards of offense and five touchdowns. It has become clear at this point in the season that the OSU offense is at its best with Barrett at the helm, so keeping him in rhythm will be a necessity for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Illinois’ duo of running backs
It is hard to call Illinois a dangerous offensive team while looking at the numbers.
Its total offense ranks 78th in the nation, which includes just the 98th-ranked rushing attack. However, the Illini’s run game goes beyond the numbers.
In three of their four games before last week’s blowout win against Purdue, the Illini were without the services of redshirt senior running back Josh Ferguson. In that span, true freshman running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn struggled as the one getting the heavy majority of the carries.
However, Ferguson’s return last Saturday directly coincided with a dynamic rushing attack against the Boilermakers.
Vaughn still got more carries with 16 for 180 yards, but Ferguson stood behind him with 12 carries for 133 yards.
Typically two-running back systems feature one speed and one power back, but, interestingly enough, OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell pointed out that both running backs are strong, powerful rushers.
The Buckeyes have shown at times this year to be susceptible to allowing a strong rushing game for the opponent, and with Illinois’ two talented runners, that could very well be what the Illini have to rely on to generate offense.
Will Nuernberger solidify the kicking game?
Like with last week’s game against Minnesota, the kicking game is again something to keep an eye on. The reason is now the Buckeyes will have a new place kicker in the lineup against the Illini in Sean Nuernberger.
The sophomore will return to the role of field goal kicker, which he held all of last season. Nuernberger had forfeited that duty to redshirt senior Jack Willoughby for the first nine games of this season, but the transfer from Duke had been struggling, only converting on seven of his 11 attempts.
A missed 35-yard attempt by Willoughby against the Golden Gophers last Saturday proved to be the final domino to fall for Meyer to make a change. Willoughby will continue to be the main guy on kickoffs, however.
Part of the reason the move might not have come sooner, though, has to do with the fact that in 2014, Nuernberger was substantially below average. The Buckner, Kentucky, native missed seven of his 20 attempts, which left the door open for Willoughby to transfer to OSU and compete for the starting placekicking role.
Meyer announced on Wednesday that Nuernberger would be the place kicker.
The Buckeyes will need to find out which of the two players will be reliable enough that in a close game down the stretch, Meyer can send out a kicker with confidence for a potential game-winner, rather than with a head full of doubt.
For Nuernberger, his audition to be that guy starts on Saturday.
Across the depth chart, OSU has more talent than Illinois. That’s hard to dispute. However, OSU is not invincible in this game.
With their two biggest rivals, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 14 Michigan, awaiting them after Saturday’s game, the Buckeyes might very well be entering a so-called “trap game” against the Fighting Illini.
The players reiterated that their sole focus is on Illinois, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t, at least, briefly peaking at what’s on the horizon. It would be hard not to.
With the Illini coming off their best win of the year, a 49-14 smashing of Purdue, combined with the history of Illinois giving OSU a test — namely in 2007 when it upset then top-ranked Buckeyes — there is reason to think this game could potentially be closer than expected.
OSU is the better team, but Illinois will be motivated with the opportunity to trip up the defending national champions and repeat 2007, which means things might be a little interesting than what meets the eye.
Can Jalin Marshall certify himself in the offense?
In OSU’s receiving game, redshirt junior Michael Thomas has been a consistent playmaker all season long, logging totals of 575 yards and seven touchdowns in 39 catches as the clear No. 1 target in Meyer’s offense.
Beyond him, however, the options have been shaky at best.
Redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller, redshirt senior tight end Nick Vannett and junior H-back Dontre Wilson have had a difficult time contributing on a consistent basis this season. Sophomore H-back Curtis Samuel was an early fixture, but has disappeared in the second half of the season for the most part.
Meyer has had his sights set on one player to step up in the passing game all season long, and it appears he might have arrived: redshirt sophomore Jalin Marshall.
The H-back appeared as the deep-ball threat OSU has been lacking all season long against Minnesota, pulling in two catches for 56 yards, including a 44-yarder.
For the year, the Middletown, Ohio, product has 23 catches for 357 yards and three scores.
In addition to the passing game, Marshall also made an impact on Saturday returning punts.
He took five punts back for 64 yards against the Golden Gophers, including a pair of lengthy returns, to extend his season mark to 292 yards in 22 tries.
Junior running back Ezekiel Elliott and Thomas have been fixtures with the ball in their hands all season long, but the OSU offense has been begging for another reliable option all season long. Marshall has been a top candidate all season long to fill that void, and Illinois will be a great opportunity for him to solidify that role.