After moving up to number nine in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, Ohio State (8-2) is not out of contention just yet. While they do not fully control their own destiny, the Buckeyes could help their own cause by beating Illinois (2-8) by a large margin this Saturday in the Shoe. The game will be televised at 3:30 on ABC.
Ohio State is coming off a dominating performance against then 12th-ranked Michigan State, dropping the Spartans to 17th in the latest poll. The Buckeyes returned to their ground and pound offense, racking up 335 rushing yards in the game. Running back Mike Weber had 162 yards on nine carries with two scores, including a career-long 82-yard touchdown run. J.K. Dobbins added another 124 yards on his 18 carries and had a receiving touchdown. The Ohio State defense showed up in a big way, limiting the Spartans to just 131 passing yards and 64 rushing yards in the game.
After learning the hard way in many of the team’s losses the past few seasons, the Buckeyes finally recognized that they are at their best when running the football. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has just been off of late, throwing six interceptions in his last two games. With both running backs now averaging over six yards per carry this season, the run game can take a ton of pressure off Barrett and really open up the passing game when needed. Dobbins and Weber have combined for 1,475 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground this year. If Ohio State wishes to sustain their offensive success, keeping the ball in these two guys’ hands will be essential.
Despite not having linebackers Jerome Baker or Dante Booker due to injury, the Buckeyes defense looked rejuvenated against the Spartans. Freshman linebacker Tuf Borland took over the starting duties at middle linebacker while Chris Worley moved to the outside. This system seemed to work very well, as the defensive breakdowns at those positions seen the week prior at Iowa were not present against Michigan State. The Ohio State defense held Spartans running back L.J. Scott to just 30 yards on eight carries while also recording six sacks and nine tackles for a loss. The Buckeyes really controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, something they were completely lacking against the Hawkeyes.
At 0-7 in conference play, the Fighting Illini come to Columbus as 41-point underdogs. Illinois was defeated 24-14 a week ago by Indiana, both teams coming into the game without a win in Big Ten play. Quarterback Jeff George Jr. threw for 261 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, also fumbling twice but losing just one. One of the lone bright spots in the game was freshman tight end Louis Dorsey, who compiled 107 yards and a touchdown on three receptions.
Illinois quarterbacks have struggled mightily this season, the team cycling through three different guys at the position. Their original starter, Chayce Crouch threw four picks in his first two games, and his apparent struggles opened the door for George Jr. to take over the job. The Illini have also given Cam Thomas some snaps. Thomas has been much more of a running threat than a passing one, with 34 rushing attempts and just 14 completed passes on the year. The Buckeyes will have to prepare for all three guys, as Illinois coach Love Smith is unsure who will be the starter in Saturday’s game. Regardless of who is at the helm, the Illini are not strong on offense, ranking 91st in passing yards and 121st in rushing in FBS.
It doesn’t get much better on defense for Illinois either, who ranks 74th in FBS in yards allowed per game. The Illini have not been getting to opposing quarterbacks, recording 16 sacks on the year compared to Ohio State’s 27. The Illinois defense is led by linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips. The 6-foot-2 junior has tallied 72 total tackles this season to go along with a sack and two passes defensed. Sophomore defensive end James Crawford has also been active, filling up the stat sheet with 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, and three forced fumbles.
There is a reason Ohio State is favored in this game by upwards of 40 points. Illinois quarterbacks have combined to throw 17 interceptions to go along with only eight touchdowns. They are going up against a Buckeye defense given new life after dominating the Spartans and earning a spot in the top-10. The Illini defense has allowed an average of 403 yards per game this year, and will be facing an Ohio State offense that put up 48 points a week ago against a top-15 team.
The game plan for the Buckeyes should look nearly identical from a week ago, with a strong emphasis on the run game and screen passes. Dobbins and Weber should see upwards of 25 combined carries and three touchdowns. Barrett’s last game at Ohio Stadium will be a quiet but effective one, rushing for two scores and throwing for one more en route to an absolute route of the Illini. The starters will not see the field past halftime as the Buckeyes once again take home the Illibuck.
Final Score: 63-0 Ohio State
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