For the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes, the important part of the season sits on the horizon.
Looming are matchups with No. 13 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan and, if things go right for the Buckeyes, a meeting with No. 5 Iowa is likely in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Before any of those games come, however, OSU (9-0, 5-0) has a meeting with a team that has played spoiler in the past.
A trip to Champaign, Illinois, to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (5-4, 2-3) is on the docket for the Buckeyes on Saturday at noon.
While the team understands the season-defining importance of the games following Saturday’s, sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan said the team’s coaches have made sure the team is only thinking about the task immediately ahead.
“With (coach Urban) Meyer’s mentality, and our whole coaching staff’s mentality, it’s one game at a time,” McMillan said. “We really don’t worry about what’s down the road or what’s two weeks from now, we have to worry what’s right now and what’s coming at this time.”
The Illini have given the Buckeyes trouble in the past in “trap games.”
In 2007, Illinois came into Ohio Stadium and stunned the No. 1 Buckeyes. In three of the next four years following that game, the Illini put up a fight against OSU, losing by 10 points in 2008 and 2011 and 11 points in 2010, though the 2011 meeting saw OSU as the underdog pulling off an upset victory.
However, Meyer’s arrival in 2012 has been accompanied with a turnaround in that trend.
In Meyer’s three games against Illinois, the Buckeyes have won by a total of 96 points, scoring 167 points.
Previously for Illinois
It has been a season of change for the Fighting Illini, as the team fired its coach Tim Beckman just one week before the season, replacing him with interim coach Bill Cubit.
Then, on Monday, the school’s athletic director Mike Thomas followed Beckham out the door following a report detailing mistreatment of football and women’s basketball players.
Amid the high rate of turnover off the field has come an equal rate of inconsistent play on it.
After a strong start to the season that saw the Illini start 4-1 — with its only loss coming against now-No. 23 North Carolina — the wheels came off the bus. In its last five games, Illinois has gone 1-3.
That stretch featured a three-game losing streak, with competitive losses to No. 5 Iowa and No. 25 Wisconsin by nine and 11 points, respectively. However, the third game was a 39-0 thumping at Penn State.
The Illini bounced back last Saturday, traveling to West Lafayette, Indiana, to blow away Purdue 48-14.
Other than the rushing attack, one of Illinois’ strengths this season has been forcing turnovers, as it has come away with 11 interceptions, second most in the Big Ten. Redshirt junior safety Taylor Barton has led the way with four picks.
Illinois is led by a strong run game anchored by the tandem of redshirt senior Josh Ferguson and true freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who combined for 313 yards rushing against Purdue.
“This team is going to try to establish the run, but it’s up to us to stop it,” McMillan said.
Ferguson missed two games before the Purdue game but came back with 133 yards against the Boilermakers.
“He’s a spark for that team,” McMillan said. “He wants to be that playmaker, so they’re going to put the ball in his hands a lot.”
Back to full strength
After OSU lost a starter on the defense to the injury for the first time this season in the last two games, it appears the top 11 will be getting back to full strength on Saturday.
Senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt made his return to the depth chart for the Week 11 matchup after missing two games with a wrist injury.
Though he will still have to wear a cast on the field, Schutt’s return comes welcome for a defensive line that rotated redshirt senior Joel Hale and redshirt sophomore Michael Hill in Schutt’s absence.
For the season, Schutt has 20 tackles, including four for a loss.
While not missing more than part of the fourth quarter, redshirt senior Braxton Miller is also expected to be able to play.
Meyer said the H-back suffered a neck injury when his head was thrown to the turf on a tackle, but he should be fine for Saturday’s contest.
OSU will also be getting redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett back following a one-game suspension for a citation for operating a vehicle impaired.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing,” redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall said about Barrett. “He’s proven himself as a great player, so we’re looking forward to having him back with the offense and the team.”
The Buckeyes are set to finish up their home schedule in a key Big Ten East division game against No. 13 Michigan State on Nov. 21. Kickoff is scheduled for either noon or 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.