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.
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.