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October 2, 2010 Welcome to another edition of Gameday Report, coming to you today from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Today's battle pits two old rivals for the Illibuck Trophy, as Ohio State visits Illinois. This game would sorely test the Buckeyes perhaps for the first time although Miami did get close in the third quarter. When the Buckeyes lost their field general and the man behind 90% of their offense up to the third quarter, a four point lead looked mighty thin to hold onto. However, sometimes players cvome back from injury and inspire their team just by being around, and Terrelle Pryor came running back out of the locker room at the beginning of the fourth quarter to rally the Buckeyes at just the right time. Illinois would have one more chance in Ohio State's red zone, but could they convert against the most solid red zone defense in the country?

Coming into this game, Illinois had a bye week following two wins and an opening loss to Missouri. Ohio State, on the other hand, has rolled through four straight opponents but the last two have provided little resistance in Ohio and Eastern Michigan. The stakes rise considerably now that Big Ten play has begun, and teams never want to get off on the wrong foot in this race. Although the Illini are heavy underdogs, the fan base seemed very excited to have another chance at the secnod-ranked Buckeyes, and this will be an annual division game starting next year, so these two familiar foes will continue the series indefinitely. Ohio State fans also made the trip in numbers, considering this is by far their shortest roadtrip of the season with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa still on the road docket. This could be the second true test of the Buckeyes and their last chance to prove themselves before heading to Madison in two weeks, at least if OSU has any aspirations on a national championship. The Illini are one of the select few teams to knock off OSU in the past 5 conference seasons (Purdue and Penn State also have one win against the Buckeyes), so without further ado, let's get to the action!


Ohio State won the toss and chose to receive, which seems bold on the road in the Big Ten. Illinois rewarded them with a three-and-out after a sack of Terrelle Pryor and Illinois received their first possession nearly at midfield. Illinois tried to establish the run like the Buckeyes did, but ended up going to the air for their first two first-down pickups of the game. Then Illinois put the trickery on with a reverse throwback across the field from WR Jarred Fayzon to QB Nathan Scheelhaase to put the Illini in the red zone, where Scheelhaase delivered a 3 yard touchdown scamper 3 plays later for a 7-0 Illinois lead. Definitely not the start the Buckeyes had hoped for, but the run defense looks solid if they can figure out the stunt routes Illinois used to much success on their first drive. Terrelle Pryor answered right back with a 66 yard run along the right sideline to start the next drive and put the Buckeyes right into the red zone. Three plays later Pryor checked down to Brandon Saine for an 8 yard touchdown pass and the game was tied 7-7 (albeit with some drama as the extra point was missed but a strange defensive holding call gave Barclay another chance). Illinois found a little success with the passing game again on the next drive, but the Buckeyes stopped the Illini at midfield and a punt buried the Buckeyes at their own 1 yard line after a good kick by Anthony Santella. The Buckeyes could do nothing from their own end zone and punted to give Illinois great field position for the second time in three drives at the OSU 36. the quarter ended with Illinois pushing into the red zone with a couple of power runs.


The Illini drive stalled out on an illegal formation penalty, and a 41 yard field goal by Derek Dimke was missed because the wind is blowing heavily north to south as usual in this stadium, making kicking at the north end treacherous (this could be a big factor for the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter). Ohio State took the ball back at their own 24 and only pikced up one first down on the next drive, punting to pin the Illini at their own 9 yard line. Scheelhaase took a couple of major hits on the next three-and-out drive, and he cannot put himself in such risk despite being the main guy for the offense today. The ensuing punt gave the Buckeyes their best field position of the day at the Illinois 45 yard line, and the Buckeyes could do nothing with it as a dropped pass and a sack pushed them out of field goal range after one first down on the drive. Illinois could do nothing with the ensuing drive from the 20 after a touchback, and the Buckeyes again started with decent field position. On the first play, however, Pryor threw an interception for the first turnover of the game and although Illinois was unable to move the ball on the next drive, a Dimke 27-yard field goal was good to give the Illini a 10-7 lead. Poor coverage on the kickoff and a penalty gave the buckeyes the ball at their own 43, and Pryor had another big run on the right side into the red zone. The Buckeyes capitalized a few plays later on a 12 yard touchdown pass from Pryor to Sanzenbacher for a 14-10 lead with a few seconds left in the half. Illinois ran the clock out and we arrived at halftime with a close 4 point game.


As expected, Illinois has been a tough nut to crack for Ohio State in their first road game, but the only mistake thus far belongs to Terrelle Pryor with the interception that led to the game's only field goal. Illinois was able to exploit the defensiv backfield of the Buckeyes early, which is a surprising twist of fate for a team that looked like they wanted to run first to take the pressure off freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Despite a couple big hits, Scheelhaase continues to run with power and swiftness that the Buckeyes have not seen except maybe in practice against Pryor himself. On the opposing side of the ball, Pryor appears to finally be getting into a little passing rhythm himself, although he has done most of his damage on two big runs that set up short touchdown passes. Illinois will have to tackle better on the right side to survive those plays in the second half and keep this game close. So far the defense has gotten pressure on Pryor as usual with their defensive line stunts, so expect more of the same in the second half. If Illinois can keep from making any mistakes, they will be in this game with a chance to win late in the fourth quarter, assuming that the Illini continue to contain the running backs for the Buckeyes (Herron and Saine only have 16 total yards at the half).


Illinois was unable to move the ball on their first drive as they came out passing but the receivers dropped the easy balls. Ohio State started back behind their own 20 yard line, and on a run Terrelle Pryor tripped up on the turf as he gained a first down and needed helped off the field with an apparent ankle or leg injury, which could be major news beyond this game depending on how serious the injury turns out to be. With Joe Bauserman in at quarterback, the Buckeyes turned to their running backs and got absolutely stuffed just like in the first half. Illinois ran for a first down and then made their first mistaker as Scheelhause threw back across a covered middle where Jermaile Hines picked him off and put the Buckeyes back in Illinois territory. On the second play of the ensuing drive, Trulon Henry picked off his second pass of the game and gave Illinois possession right back after a Bauserman mistake. The next drive was killed on a frist down pass drop at the sideline, and Illinois could not capitalize on the Ohio State mistake. The Ohio State fans erupted on the next drive as Pryor emerged from the locker room and came right back out onto the field, as Herron found some serious holes through the line to start moving the ball on the ground. A chop block pushed OSU too far back to pick up another first down though, and the drive stopped short of midfield. Ohio State was helped out on the next drive by a faskmask penalty that drove them past midfield to end the third quarter.


Ohio State kept driving with a 15 yard pass play to Devier Posey, his first big catch of the day. The Buckeyes picked up a critical fourth and one in the red zone by about 2 inches to keep the drive alive. However, the drive still stalled and a 32 yard field goal made it 17-10 with 8 and a half minutes left. Illinois took the next drive right down to the red zone quickly and threatened to get the tying score when Scheelhaase threw a couple of questionable check down passes that did not pick up the first down, leading to a 30 yard field goal to cut the lead back to 4 at 17-13 with 4 minutes left. The Buckeye defense once again bent but did not break in the fourth quarter in Memorial Stadium. Ohio State responded on the next drive with 8 straight Daniel Herron runs, and by this point the Illinois defense could not stop the wide holes Herron was running through. The Buckeyes scored a touchdown to make the game 24-13 with only 2 minutes to go. Although the Illini had a couple of first downs on the final drive, they could not crack midfield and the Buckeyes left town with a 24-13 victory.


Jim Tressel looked incredibly relieved to escape Memorial stadium once again with another hard-fought victory. He emphasized that winning Big Ten conference championships are never easy, and this game highlighted the toughness and resiliency of his team, especially when Pryor went down for over half a quarter. Tressel was happy to reach one of his goals which was outplay the Illini in special teams, but his other focus of the week was turnovers and the Illini had 2 to OSU's one. So there's still a lot of improvement that can be done for this Buckeye team, but there's no questioning that this was a highly important victory before they head into even more hostile environments like Madison and Iowa City. The most interesting player interview for OSU after the game was unquestionably punter Ben Buchanan, who talked at length about his opposing number Anthony Santella and the outstanding performances both of them put up considering the wicked wind in Memorial Stadium. Buchanan avergaed only 38.8 yards on 6 punts, but he was directional punting successfully and was against the wind 4 times. Meanwhile, Santella shocked with 47 yards per punt on 6 punts including 3 within the OSU 20 yard line. A game at Illinois is always at least partially defined by the kickers, and Buchanan and Devin Barclay were just slightly better than Santella and Derek Dimke for the Illini. Buchanen understands that this was just the first game where Jim Tressel will rely on him heavily to flip the field position and keep the defense in good field position.

So what does it all mean? For the Illini, this is a good performance despite the 2-2 start. Everybody knew that Illinois could start 2-4 with road games at Penn State and Michigan State following this game, but the Illini could very well escape at least one of those stadiums with a win if they play like they did today. The Illinois offense needs to work Scheelhaase like they did today, letting him play a little like a young Juice Williams except with a better arm. If the Illinois receivers can avoid the dropped balls, this team will make a bowl and will also be a real threat to win 4-5 conference games in 2010. As for Ron Zook's job security, the feelings are still negative and decisions like kicking a field goal when down by 7 with 4 minutes to go will haunt Zook even if it was the right call in the circumstances (against the wind, it was not). As for the Buckeyes, this is yet another step in becoming the six-time conference champion they want to be. This was surely Ohio State's worst performance of the season overall, but with a defense that will not break and special teams back on track, Tressel can find ways to win with this sort of effort. Pryor struggled but still put up 121 yards rushing on the day, while Herron nearly cracked 100 by the end of the day as well. Ohio State started and stuck with the run on a windy day because that was the safe play, and it worked to perfection, which bodes well if they can stick with this effort against other defenses the rest of the year. This effort would not have beaten Wisconsin in Madison, but thankfully, that game is two weeks away and not today. Some may scoff at the 11 point margin, but make no mistake about it...Ohio State is a legitimate national title contender if they can go on the road and work out wins like Alabama did last week. The best news of all is that Pryor appears to be fine on initial reports and should be back to tearing up the Indiana defense next weekend.

Looking ahead, I do not have plans to attend a game next week after 4 straight weeks on the road, but I hope to return for yet another Ohio State road battle as the crazy kids in Madison turn up the heat in two weeks. Until next time, keep your faith in the running game and pray that the wind favors you.

The Pick: Ohio State 31, Illinois 13.
The Score: Ohio State 24, Illinois 13.

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