Gutting It Out

Ohio State survived a scare in Champaign today, beating a fine Illinois team 24-13.  Some of the scare came from the fact that Terrelle Pryor was injured and missed part of the third quarter, although he was able to return to the game and lead the team on two crucial scoring drives.  The rest of the scare was delivered by the Fighting Illini, who scrapped and clawed and played tough for four quarters before falling short at the end.  A loss is a loss, but Illinois showed to anyone who wanted to watch that they have a good team and lots of promise.

I am sure that many commentators will argue that this victory shows that Ohio State is weaker than people thought.  They may be right; only time will tell.  In my view, however, today’s performance instead showed a lot of strength, both in terms of strength of character and strength of will.  The Buckeyes faced a fired-up opponent in a hostile environment.  Illinois had two weeks to prepare for the game and had developed a good scheme on both sides of the ball.  The Buckeyes fell behind early.  Their best offensive player got hurt, and his back-up promptly came in and threw a bad interception.  Any one of those developments could cause some teams to lose heart; not many teams could overcome them all in combination.

Yet Ohio State did overcome them.  The defense rose to the occasion time and again, stuffing the Illinois running game and holding the Illinois offense to 250 yards, some of which came after the Buckeyes went into a prevent mode after the game was finally put out of reach.  Terrelle Pryor showed real guts by getting back onto the field and quarterbacking the team to its final two scores.  The special teams avoided a breakdown that could have quickly changed the tone of the game.  And, most importantly, the offensive line and Boom Herron, who lived up to his nickname today, led the Buckeyes on time-consuming drives, running the ball again and again into the teeth of the Illinois defense when every Illini defender knew that another running play would be called.  Ultimately, the Buckeye offensive line broke down the spirited Illini defense, and Herron’s tough running — including a huge bounce-out run for a key first down that allowed the Buckeyes to keep running the clock — put the game out of reach.

Daniel "Boom" Herron

I think Jim Tressel is a good coach who also is a good teacher.  I wonder whether he wanted his Buckeye offense, which has struggled to develop a tailback-oriented running game in the first few games, to dig down deep and show that they could block and run for first downs under adverse circumstances, when their star quarterback was gimped up and any failure could put the game at risk.  The offensive line and Boom Herron did so, and now the Ohio State offense will always know that it can run the ball when the going gets tough.  I think that experience and resulting understanding will serve this team well as the Big Ten season continues.

There will be time enough to focus on negatives from this game.  For now, the Buckeyes should savor a road win in the Big Ten that allows them to remain undefeated and on task to meet their goal of winning another league championship.

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A Trip To Champaign

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.

Mikel Leshoure

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.