It will be the battle of the Illibuck on Saturday when No. 3 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) takes on Illinois (3-6, 0-5). This will mark the 100th meeting between the rivals, with the Buckeyes leading the series 65-30-4.
Last week, the Illini fell to Indiana 52-35, dropping their 19th-straight Big Ten game.
Meanwhile, OSU was off last week but comes into the game with the nation’s longest winning streak – 21 games – and an opportunity to tie the school record for consecutive wins.
When Illinois Has The Ball
Like most offenses, the Illini’s starts with their quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, a four-year starter. He has been very effective in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s open offensive scheme.
The senior leads the Big Ten and is in the top 25 nationally in completions and passing yards per game. He is also second in the conference and 23rd nationally in total offense, with 285.7 yards per game.
The Ohio State coaching staff is well aware of what Scheelhaase can do with his arms and his legs, comparing him to Braxton Miller.
Scheelhaase is coming off a career day against the Hoosiers, when he had 450 yards passing and 45 rushing, good enough for third-best in school history.
The entire defense will have to be aware of Scheelhaase because he can hurt them in different ways. He is able to get out of the pocket and make throws, so the Buckeyes will need their defensive line to keep containment.
Noah Spence and Joey Bosa have been terrific for OSU on the outside, but they are yet to face a quarterback like Scheelhaase. They will need to get to the quarterback frequently as they have recently, but be prepared that he can slip through their grasp.
Whether it is running or receiving, Illinois’ main threat is sophomore running back Josh Ferguson. The tailback leads the team in carries and receptions and is second in the nation in receptions by a back.
Ferguson is one of the Illini’s best athletes and they look to get him the ball in space as much as possible. He leads Illinois in rushing with 485 yards and eight touchdowns and is second in receiving yards with 483.
Ryan Shazier, Curtis Grant, and Joshua Perry will have to be aware of where Ferguson is because he is their biggest threat after Scheelhaase.
When he does look for receivers, Scheelhaase’s top target has been senior Spencer Harris. At 6’3”, 205-pounds, Harris can use his size to make plays. Steve Hull – who is 6’2, 200 and started at safety the last three seasons – leads the team in receiving yards at 564 and tied for the lead in touchdowns with three.
After disappointing performances early, Bradley Roby has played up to expectations of late. Doran Grant has also rounded into form in his first year as a starting cornerback. The two will have their work cut out for them, along with their safety help, as the receivers attempt to get open when Scheelhaase scrambles.
Tight ends are not a big part of the Illinois offense, combining for just 22 receptions, but they will use them when they get in the redzone. Matt LaCosse and Evan Wilson have just 245 receiving yards between them, but five touchdowns.
Kicker Taylor Zalewski is 8/12 on the year with a long of 40 yards and punter Justin DuVernois is averaging 40.2 yards.
Ohio State is still waiting for a touchdown on a kick or punt return after Corey “Philly” Brown had his score called back on a penalty two weeks ago against Purdue.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
With a week off to prepare, the Buckeyes will have made some changes to their offense, but like the old saying goes, when it’s not broke don’t fix it.
OSU leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally in scoring with 48.2 points per game and are outscoring opponents 171-38 in the first quarter.
It could be a long day for the Illini, who are towards the bottom of the conference in all the important defensive categories.
This season, they are giving up 34.7 points and 482.7 yards per game.
Like Illinois, Ohio State’s offense begins with the man in the shotgun, Braxton Miller
Miller is playing at the highest level of his career right now, coming off a 19-of-23 passing day against the Boilermakers for 233 yards and four touchdowns in a half. He ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency and needs 90 yards of offense to become the third Buckeye in school history to reach 7,000 total yards.
In order to do that, he will continue to look to Philly Brown and Devin Smith, who are the Buckeyes’ top two in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.
On the season, Illinois is giving up over 243 yards through the air per game. The secondary is young and has been learning on the fly this year, but it has been trial by fire and they have been exposed.
Up front Illinois is also young, but talented. They only have 11 sacks on the year – bottom in the Big Ten – but players like D.J. Smoot, Jared Clemons, and Teko Powell are gaining experience each week.
Unfortunately for them, they are going up against one of the best offensive lines in the country that features four seniors. The Buckeyes have only given up 11 sacks all year, so don’t expect the Illini to get too much pressure.
The success of the offensive line has led to success for Carlos Hyde and he could be in for another big game. Illinois has allowed a 200-yard rusher four times this season and Hyde could be the fifth if he is on the field enough.
Against Purdue, the running back had eight carries for 111 yards and played just more than a half because the Buckeyes were blowing the door of the Boilermakers.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown has been the most productive defensive player for the Illini this season. He leads the team in tackles – and is 20th in the nation – with 88 and has one of their two interceptions on the year.
He ranks fifth in the conference in tackles for a loss and is an All-American candidate. He has a knack for getting to the ball and will be flying around attempting to slow down Ohio State.
Drew Basil continues to be perfect on the year with his kicking, making all of his field goals and extra points. Punter Cameron Johnston still only has two return yards against him this season.
V’Angelo Bentley can be dangerous on punt and kick returns – having returned a kick for a touchdown this season – but has missed time this year with injury issues.
How It Will End Up
Memorial Stadium is always a difficult place to play due to weather conditions, namely the wind. The forecast for Saturday is calling for a 50 degree day with some chance of rain.
In a game where the Buckeyes are favored by more than 30 points going on the road, things could be setup for a trap. This team continues to stay focus though and knows they need to continue to impress the voters.
The Illini provide more of an offensive test than Purdue, but they game could be similarly out of hand.
If Scheelhaase isn’t able to be as dynamic or turns the ball over, things could get rough in Champaign.
Ohio State 52 Illinois 13