10 Things We Learned in a Gritty Win over Illinois
By Brandon Castel
The Buckeyes were facing uncharted waters Saturday as they headed to Champaign, Ill. looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2004.
Luke Fickell had already lost his first two Big Ten games and now he was facing an undefeated Illinois team playing at home in a tough environment that always provides interesting weather conditions.
It was a true test of this team’s grit, and we learned a lot about Fickell and the Buckeyes in their 17-7 win over the Fighting Illini.
1. A win is a win. It wasn’t pretty, but let’s face it, the team needed this. After all the adversity they have had to deal with, the last thing they want to be talking about heading into the bye week was a three-game losing streak. There is still going to be a lot of frustration amongst the fan base over why it took Ohio State so long to at least attempt a pass, but it’s hard to argue with the game plan after seeing the final result. They squeezed out a win, on the road in tough conditions against a 6-0 football team. They showed some heart and some grit and they made a statement that this team isn’t going to fall apart after all the adversity. Just win, baby.
2. Passing is overrated. So Ohio State really completed only one pass all game and still found a way to win? That’s what Woody does. He is the master…oh wait. This wasn’t Woody and this isn’t the 1950’s. This is 2011 and Ohio State won a football game against a pretty decent team with one completion? Maybe passing is overrated. The Illini had to know the Buckeyes were going to come out running early and often. They saw what Michigan State did to this team two weeks ago, and even with a healthy Braxton Miller, Ron Zook had to know that this staff wasn’t about to sling the ball around in the swirling win. It didn’t matter.
3. Braxton Miller needs some time to develop. All we heard about Braxton before the start of the season was how much better he was at passing than Terrelle Pryor at this stage of his career. Miller may have a quick release and a strong arm, he may even learn to throw a nice spiral, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to pass the ball at this level. One of the most critical parts of being a good passer is knowing where to go with the football and having confidence to get it there. Miller has a long way to go with both aspects right now. He showed very little confidence throwing the ball at Illinois, and everyone knew it. He’s not the first quarterback to struggle up there, but there is a reason he only attempted four passes. This is his learning year. Ideally, he wouldn’t even be playing right now. That’s not an option, obviously, but let’s not forget how the 2008 season unfolded. That team went to the BCS because they had a veteran coach a fantastic running back and a solid defense. This team may have one part of that equation now, but it is going to take some time for Miller to get comfortable with what he can do. Let’s not be quick to pass judgment on his passing.
4. Boom Herron is the best player on the offense. We will never know how this game would have turned out without the return of Boom Herron, but the Buckeyes were thrilled to have him back. After missing the first six games of the season, he stepped in and ran for 114 yards on just 23 carries. He showed great vision, good toughness and just enough quickness to make him elusive in the open field. His 12-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty and he’s only going to get better. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde did a very nice job filling in over the last six weeks, but there is a reason I’ve been saying Herron is the best back on the team all season long.
5. The offensive line carried the day. Herron and Hall are going to get most of the credit for the win, especially with Ohio State racking up over 200 yards on the ground. Herron went for 114 and Hall had 56 yards on 12 carries, but let us not forget the real heroes in this game. They gave up a lot of sacks, but the OSU offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage in the run game against a pretty good defensive front and despite the fact Illinois knew they were going to run. That is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Very few teams are able to have success on the ground without at least the threat of balance. Fickell talks every week about how the offense needs to be balanced, and it was anything but this week. Andrew Norwell had a couple rough patches and Jack Mewhort got dinged up, but having those two first-year starters playing between three seniors has really solidified things up front.
6. This team needed some guys to make a play. After last week’s loss at Nebraska, a number of the coaches—including Fickell—talked about the fact they just didn’t make a play in the fourth quarter. For as poorly as they played all around after Braxton went out of the game, all they really needed was one big play. If one player steps up and does something to change the momentum, maybe the Buckeyes pull out a victory in that game. The message was received this week, and the OSU defense came up with a few big plays to swing the momentum in their favor. Cornerback Bradley Roby made the big one, picking off Nathan Scheelhaase and returned the interception to the Illinois 12-yard line to set up Herron’s touchdown. Travis Howard also had an interception on the other side and Tyler Moeller stripped A.J. Jenkins after a short reception on the Illini half of the field. Storm Klein fell on the ball at the 37, setting up Miller’s lone completion to Jake Stoneburner in the end zone.
7. How about Hankins and Simon? Ohio State’s two best players on defense were everywhere Saturday against Illinois. They were constantly in the Illini backfield and were wreaking havoc on the running game. Solomon Thomas didn’t play a great game in his return, but it allowed Simon to move back over and play his more nature position on the defensive line. He had been playing the Leo spot since Nathan Williams went down, which really is not the best use of his strengths, but he was the only veteran guy they had who could play the spot. Simon and Hankins seemed to benefit from the move, and both those guys are developing into stars right before our eyes. They give it all when they are out there, and that’s what you want from your best players.
8. There are still some concerns with the defense. All that being said, there are still some concerns after watching this defense in the fourth quarter Saturday. It looks like tackling is going to continue to be an issue for this team the rest of the year. They are going to need to create turnovers and make big plays, because when they don’t, it is going to be tough for them to get off the field. After building up a 17-0 lead through three quarters, the OSU defense struggled in the fourth. They allowed an 80-yard drive that ended with the Illini’s first touchdown and they surrendered 134 yards in the fourth quarter after allowing just 151 over the course of the first three.
9. This is one of Heacock’s best coaching jobs. In reality, this defense should be too young and not talented enough to win games for Ohio State. They have a lot of good young players on the defense, but that youth has shown in their three losses this season. When Christian Bryant is a senior, he probably doesn’t sell out for that big tackle in the fourth quarter against Nebraska. With all the attrition, Jim Heacock has had to make the best out of what he has. The loss of Nathan Williams should have crippled this team, but Heacock and his staff are finding ways to get the most out of this group. The shoddy tackling will hurt them if they don’t get it figured out, but give Heacock credit for the job he’s doing. This is not the typical Ohio State defense fans have become accustomed too over the last sis years.
10. Somebody give Ben Buchanan some love. I know he had a rough 30-yard punt in the fourth quarter that gave Illinois the ball near midfield, but Ben Buchanan played a heck of a game Saturday. It has never been easy to kick the ball in Champaign. It’s cold, the wind is swirling and it’s really hard to get a gauge on exactly where it will be blowing at any given moment. It’s dangerous to kick the ball high into that wind, but Buchanan did an excellent job Saturday of giving the Buckeyes much-needed field position. Their offense wasn’t working, but Buchanan and Drew Basil made some big kicks. Basil’s 43-yarder to get things started was huge, and so were some of the punts Buchanan made. He averaged 39 yards on a really tough day and pinned two of his seven kicks inside the 20.
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