Columbus, OH (Sports Network) - One of only six unbeaten teams left in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the sixth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes go in search of their 10th win of the season as they play host to the Illinois Fighting Illini this Saturday in Big Ten Conference action.
Illinois is just 2-6 on the season, and the team is in the midst of a five- game losing streak. The Illini suffered a 31-17 Homecoming loss to Indiana last Saturday, dropping the team to 0-4 in the Big Ten. Illinois has lost 10 straight to conference foes, with its last win coming over the Hoosiers last October. That was also the last true road win the team posted, as it has dropped six in a row on the enemy's home field.
At the other end of the success spectrum sits Urban Meyer's Ohio State squad, which recently took out Penn State in Happy Valley, 35-23, to notch its ninth win of the season, and fifth in conference. The Buckeyes, who are ineligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game or participate in a bowl game this year, are off to their best start since the 2007 team ran out to a 10-0 start. OSU hasn't enjoyed an off week yet, but will do so next week before closing out the regular season with a pair of tough bouts at Wisconsin (Nov. 17), and at home against bitter rival Michigan (Nov. 24).
This game marks the 99th meeting in the all-time series between these two schools, and not surprisingly Ohio State owns a 63-30-4 advantage -- adjusted to reflect recent NCAA sanctions. Officially, the Buckeyes have won five of the last six meetings.
The Illini, who are coached by former Meyer assistant Tim Beckman, actually outgained the Hoosiers last week, 372-292, but eight penalties for a loss of 81 yards, along with a couple of costly fumbles doomed their chances. Add the fact that QB Nathan Scheelhaase was sacked seven times and it's somewhat surprising the team was able to stay as competitive as it was. RB Donovonn Young carried the ball 21 times for 124 yards (both career-highs), while Scheelhaase finished 17-of-27 for 176 yards and a TD. WR Darius Milliness led all pass catchers in the game with five grabs for 80 yards.
The Illinois defense actually performed well for the most part, allowing the Hoosiers just 1-of-13 success on third-down conversion attempts and logging three sacks. LBs Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim paced the unit with 11 and 10 tackles, respectively.
With a scoring average that comes in at just 18.0 ppg, it's little wonder the Illini have struggled the way they have. They average just 317.4 ypg (132.5 ypg rushing, 184.9 ypg passing), and the unit has committed 20 turnovers while allowing a whopping 30 sacks. Scheelhaase has taken the majority of the snaps and is completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 839 yards, four TDs and five interceptions. Reilly O'Toole has also see considerable action, and he has been the more efficient of the two in hitting 74.7 percent of his throws for 539 yards, six TDs and three picks. Young has amassed 400 yards and scored a pair of TDs on the ground, while catching 27 balls for 131 yards and a score. Ryan Lankford is the team's leading receiver with 29 grabs for 413 yards and five TDs.
The UI defense allows 365.9 total ypg, with foes generating 152.6 ypg and scoring 17 TDs on the ground, while airing the ball out for 213.2 ypg and another 15 scores. As a result, the Illini give up nearly 31 ppg, and they've come up with only six interceptions and a dozen sacks. Brown paces the club with 55 tackles, 8.5 of which have been behind the line of scrimmage.
Despite his team's struggles and the fan base clamoring for better results, Beckman realizes Rome wasn't built in a day and know it's going to take some time for the Illini to start showing dramatic improvement.
"You're looking at some programs that have built some continuity and that's exactly what we're trying to do. You want it to happen fast, just like everybody else. You want to be successful as fast as you possibly can, but right now, we're not. We've got to evaluate things again that we're doing and create things that can help our players be successful and for this program to be successful."
As expected, last Saturday's conference showdown with Penn State proved to be a physical one as the two teams fought tooth and nail in the first half. The Buckeyes took control after intermission however, as QB Braxton Miller accounted for 277 combined yards (143 passing, 134 rushing) in leading Ohio State to a double-digit victory. Miller, who a week prior suffered a neck/head injury that obviously looked worse than it was, finished the night 7-of-19 passing with a TD and an interception. It was the sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season for Miller, as he became only the third Big Ten QB and first in Ohio State history to rush for a 1,000 yards in a season.
Defensively, the Buckeyes stuffed the Penn State run game to the tune of 32 net yards on 28 attempts, but allowed 327 yards and a pair of scores through the air. The two teams combined for 17 penalties for a loss of 160 yards, and each posted four sacks. LB Ryan Shazier registered seven tackles and returned an interception 17 yards for a TD at the start of the third quarter, highlighting a defensive effort that was impressive considering the opponent and hostile environment.
With Miller leading the way, Ohio State is lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 38.6 ppg this season, averaging 247.9 ypg on the ground and 183.9 ypg through the air. Miller paces the club both in passing (112-of-198, 1,527 yards, 12 TDs, six interceptions) and rushing (166 carries, 1,093 yards, 12 TDs), but Carlos Hyde has been effective in the running game as well, having rumbled his way to 600 yards and 10 scores. The Buckeyes boast a number of talented pass catchers, but Corey Brown (44 rec., 447 yards, one TD) and Devin Smith (23 rec., 505 yards, six TDs) have been the most productive.
The Ohio State defense hasn't been as stingy as in years past, as foes are scoring just over 24 ppg, but the Buckeyes have performed well against the run (111.7 ypg). That was certainly the case last week at Penn State, but as was also the case in that contest, the defense has been vulnerable against the pass (277.9 ypg). Shazier continues to lead the team with 84 tackles, which is 27 more than his closest teammate, and he has 9.5 TFL, four sacks and nine PBU. Bradley Roby is OSU's top guy in the secondary, as he leads the Big Ten with 18 passes defended. He has 43 total stops and two picks to his credit as well.
While obviously pleased with the outcome last week at Penn State, and not dismissing his team's effort through the first nine games, Meyer knows there is still things upon which he expects his guys to improve.
"It's good to be 9-0", he continued, "We are going to enjoy that win. We are going to work on some things. We were exposed on some things, but those guys are some good players and they are some good coaches. We've got to get better."