CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Before they could talk about playing for the Big Ten championship, or even utter that forbidden word - Michigan - the Ohio State Buckeyes had to first navigate four quarters against Illinois, the most explosive team in the conference.
Yesterday the Buckeyes (9-2, 6-1) held Illinois to one touchdown while the outcome was being contested, and supplemented that defensive effort with more than 300 yards rushing. That added up to a 30-20 win.
The victory puts Ohio State in position to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title if it can defeat its rival in the final game of the season Saturday. And it gave the Buckeyes formal permission to talk about playing Michigan.
"All the focus had to be on Illinois, since we knew they were such a good team and had a great offense," Ohio State sophomore receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. "If you start worrying about the next thing, you don't take care of the situation right in front of you, and we had to get past Illinois here today for the rest of the year to have the most meaning."
The Buckeyes tweaked their offense to get it in sync with the weather conditions - temperatures in the high 30s and a strong wind. Junior tailback
Chris "Beanie" Wells rushed for 143 yards on 23 carries with a touchdown, and freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor had 110 yards rushing on 13 carries, scored a touchdown, and threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Sanzenbacher.
"There was a lot of wind out there, so our game plan was to run the ball," Pryor said. "With Illinois having a great offense, we knew we needed to run the clock on them. We couldn't throw as much, but Beanie had a big day - he always has a big day - and we moved the ball when we had to."
Illinois had 455 yards of
offense, slightly better than its Big Ten leading average of 438, but the Buckeyes kept Illini quarterback Juice Williams out of the end zone, and allowed him just one touchdown pass.
"We did a lot of bending, but we didn't break," Ohio State defensive lineman Nader Abdallah said. "They're gonna move the ball on you, because that hurry-up offense is pretty good. But we won a lot of the individual battles, and had guys make a few big plays besides."
Abdallah was involved in the first critical sequence of the game when Williams fumbled after taking a hit from Tyler Moeller, and Abdallah recovered for the Buckeyes at the Illini 19-yard line less than four minutes into the first quarter. Five plays later Pryor faked the ball to Wells up the middle from the 1, and rolled around end for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
After Illinois answered with a quick scoring drive to even things up at 7, the Buckeyes got a big play from their special teams late in the quarter when Malcolm Jenkins shot in from the left side and smothered an Illinois punt, with the ball bouncing out of the end zone for a safety and a 9-7 OSU lead.
Following the safety, Illinois had to free kick into the strong breeze, and the Buckeyes started near midfield. Ohio State scored in five plays, with Wells running three yards for the touchdown and a 16-7 edge.
"Last night I got the feeling that we would be running it a lot today because of the weather," Wells said. "We knew it was going to be a cold one. It was a running backs' dream - cold and wet."
A short time later, Moeller blitzed and blind-sided Williams as the Illinois quarterback released the ball inside the red zone. The pass was intercepted by safety Kurt Coleman, who returned it to the Illinois 24 before fumbling, with Marcus Freeman recovering for Ohio State.
Pryor scrambled with cuts and fakes across the field for a 35-yard gain to the Illinois 25, and three plays later he found Sanzenbacher open behind the Illini defense for a 20-yard touchdown and a 23-7 advantage.
Utilizing its hurry-up offense, Illinois got a pair of field goals before the half ended and trailed 23-13 at the break. Neither team scored in the third period, but Ohio State consumed more than eight minutes with two drives.
"They took the wind in the third quarter, and probably the best thing we did was to eat up a whole lot of clock," coach Jim Tressel said.
The Buckeyes stretched the lead to 30-13 with a 12-yard touchdown run from Daniel "Boom" Herron early in the fourth quarter. Illinois added a touchdown against the Ohio State second-team defense in the game's final minute.
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