On Saturday Ohio State makes its first road trip of the season.
The Buckeyes travel to Champaign, Illinois and Memorial Stadium to take on the Fighting Illini and play once again for the Illibuck trophy. Illinois is one of those teams that is a bit of a cipher in this early part of the season. They’ve only played three games and come into the game with the Buckeyes at 2 and 1. In their opening contest they lost to Missouri, 23-13, in a game where they led at halftime. (Missouri, incidentally, hasn’t lost a game this season.) In the last two games the Illini have spanked Southern Illinois and beaten Northern Illinois 28-22.
It’s tough to draw a lot of meaningful guidance from those games, but it is clear that Illinois prefers to run the ball. They have a big, mobile running back, Mikel Leshoure, who is 6-1 and 230 pounds. Leshoure has run for 100 yards in each of Illinois’ three games, has scored three touchdowns, and has broken some big runs. The Illini quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, is a rangy freshman who is the second leading rusher on the team. With Leshoure and Scheelhaase leading the way, Illinois ranks 18th in the FBS in rushing yards per game. The passing attack, however, is a little less robust, averaging 130 yards per game to rank 112th in the FBS. On the other side of the ball, Illinois’ defense seems to be improved over last year, when they gave up an average of 30 points a game.
How will it play out? Playing on the road in the Big Ten is tough, and Ohio State always draws a big, hostile crowd and a fired-up opponent looking to make a statement. In such situations, senior leadership is crucial; fortunately, Ohio State has a number of upperclassmen who knows how to perform on the road. I think the key for Ohio State will be avoiding turnovers and avoiding special teams mistakes. Ohio State’s goal will be to get ahead early, force Illinois to abandon its running game, and make Illinois’ freshman quarterback carry the load. If they can accomplish that they will put themselves in position to win the ballgame.
Beating Illinois on the road will be a challenge, but it is a challenge the Buckeyes have to overcome if they want to contend for the Big Ten championship.