Columbus, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - The 13th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes go in search of their sixth consecutive victory when they entertain the Illinois Fighting Illini in Big Ten Conference action on Saturday night.
Illinois picked up its first conference win and pulled even on the season at 4-4 after knocking off visiting Minnesota last week, 28-24. The victory put the brakes on a three-game slide for the Illini, who still have a shot at earning a bowl bid but will need to win two of their remaining four games -- the others being against Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern. The bouts with the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions will take place in Champaign, where Illinois is 4-1 this season.
Ohio State blew a 17-point lead at Penn State last Saturday, but managed to pull out a 31-24 victory in double-overtime to keep alive its prospects of reaching the Big Ten title tilt. The triumph improved coach Urban Meyer's squad to 6-1 on the season, 3-0 in conference, and was its fifth straight since suffering a double-digit home loss to Virginia Tech back on Sept. 6. OSU's remaining games include a showdown with undefeated Michigan State on the road next week, followed by a trip to Minnesota and home bouts versus Indiana and bitter rival Michigan.
Ohio State leads the all-time series with Illinois, 65-30-4, and the Buckeyes have won the last five meetings, including a 60-35 verdict in Champaign last season.
Sporting all gray uniforms to honor Illinois legend Red Grange, the Illini showed plenty of fight in battling back to upend Minnesota last weekend. Coach Tim Beckman's club didn't put up gaudy offensive numbers, tallying only 263 in the game, but took advantage of three turnovers and didn't fold when the Golden Gophers scored 21 points in the third quarter.
Reilly O'Toole, a 57.7 percent passer on the season, threw for only 118 yards with a TD, but he was not intercepted and he also served as the team's top ground gainer, totaling 59 yards on 17 carries, scoring on a nine-yard run in the opening frame. Josh Ferguson found the end zone as well, and he finished with 48 yards on 15 totes. Mike Dudek led the receivers with five grabs for 41 yards. Ferguson (518 yards, six TDs) and Dudek (42 receptions, 639 yards, three TDs) are the top performers at their respective positions for Illinois.
The Illini recorded four sacks in the game, and while they permitted Minnesota RB David Cobb to rush 118 yards and a pair of TDs, an interception, two fumble recoveries and four sacks played an integral role in keeping the home team in the game. T.J. Neal, Jr. led all defenders with a dozen tackles, while Earnest Thomas III was credited with 2.5 sacks.
Illinois is a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten when it comes to offensive production (28.5 ppg, 390.5 ypg), although it ranks No. 1 in passing offense (284 ypg). Defensively, the Illini have had trouble stopping the run (league-worst 258.6 ypg), and forcing turnovers has also been a problem as they have only come up with four INTs. Sacks have also been an issue, with UI allowing 25 while securing only 16. Mason Monheim leads the Illini with 72 tackles, while Zane Petty is hot on his heels with 70.
Beckman was extremely proud of the effort his guys put forth last Saturday in the win over Minnesota.
"The fight, the competitiveness, the belief that we can be successful if we just play four quarters and if we don't beat ourselves, and that's exactly what they did."
Ohio State opened up a 17-0 lead at Penn State last week, but needed a pair of rushing TDs in overtime by quarterback J.T. Barrett and a huge sack by standout defensive tackle Joey Bosa to stave off the upset-minded Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes had more success on the ground than any team has had against the PSU defense this year, logging 219 yards, but they managed only 74 yards through the air as Barrett went 12-of-19 with a TD and two INTs, one of which was returned for a score early in the third quarter. Ezekial Elliott paced the OSU ground assault with 109 yards and a TD on 26 carries, while Barrett added 75 yards and the two late scores on 20 totes.
Bosa got the last laugh, but it was Joshua Perry that served as the Buckeyes' most active defender last Saturday night, as he recorded 18 tackles, a dozen of which were unassisted. Penn State couldn't do anything when it attempted to the run the ball, tallying a paltry 16 yards on 31 attempts, and as a result Ohio State saw its average yield for the season drop to 120.4 rushing ypg.
Meyer knows his team dodged a bullet last week.
"Obviously pleased. I don't think relieved is the right word, but pleased to get out of State College with a win."
Barrett leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency (172.8), as he has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,689 yards, 21 TDs and seven INTs. Elliott ranks sixth in the conference with 91.4 ypg, while no receiver has more than the 22 catches Michael Thomas (380 yards, five TDs) does.
Perry leads the team with 63 tackles, Bosa has recorded a league-high eight sacks, and four different players have picked off two passes for an Ohio State defense that is giving up 20.7 points and 308.1 yards per contest, both of which rank it in the top half of the conference statistical register.