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COLUMBUS - It was 45 minutes before kickoff when the Ohio State team came out on the field in Columbus yesterday and was greeted near the 50-yard line by a bunch of animated Illinois players, jawing and gesturing in a highly confrontational manner.
The Illini had pulled off a stunning upset the last time they played in Ohio Stadium, and this time they looked confident and cocky and prepared for a fight.
Illinois must have spent all of its bravado on that pre-game woofing and shoving, because in the four quarters that followed the Illini had very little fight left in them. Ohio State manhandled Illinois along the line of scrimmage in a 30-0 win that gives the No. 13 ranked Buckeyes two straight shutouts for the first time since the 1996 season.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said his team refused to let the steady downpour of the first half affect its performance in the Big Ten opener. And all of that posturing by Illinois had little impact, either.
"We talked all week about playing fast, and playing very focused," Tressel said. "It was an ugly day out there, but I thought our kids came out of the gate in the Big Ten the way you should. We had to stay focused, regardless."
The first big play of the game came from the Ohio State defense that had shut out Toledo last weekend. After Illinois had moved inside the Buckeyes' 30 early in the first quarter, Ohio State linebacker Brian Rolle stepped in front of the Illini's Arrelious Benn and intercepted a pass by Juice Williams, then returned the ball 39 yards to the Illinois' 46.
"That was huge," Tressel said about the play that ended an Illinois drive that started at midfield and got a couple of quick first downs. "I thought that was a huge momentum change. They made a couple first downs, but our guys came in and were where they were supposed to be."
Ohio State (3-1) got just one first down following the interception, and had to settle for a 50-yard field goal by Aaron Pettrey and a 3-0 lead with eight minutes left in the first period.
Illinois (1-2) had its next possession thwarted when Todd Denlinger surged in and sacked Williams near midfield. The Buckeyes were driving as the first quarter ended, powered by seven straight carries by Brandon Saine that produced 64 yards. Pettrey kicked a 46-yard field goal to end that drive and give OSU a 6-0 edge.
The Buckeyes finally found the endzone with 7:30 left in the first half after an 80-yard drive that was boosted early by a pair of 15-yard penalties on Illinois. After carrying the load for most of the drive, Ohio State's Dan "Boom" Herron scored on a 4-yard run that gave the Buckeyes a 13-0 lead.
Ohio State held that margin at the half, despite not completing a pass in just four attempts. Tressel said that with rain in the forecast, his team was prepared to rely on its running game, which produced 236 yards.
"We wanted to lead with the run and mix in the pass, had it been a beautiful day. We wanted to be very balanced, but that didn't make sense under the circumstances," Tressel said. "The run game was called upon when those conditions got horrible, and they delivered."
After the OSU defense stuffed Illinois to start the second half, a poor punt by the Illini set the Buckeyes up at the Illinois 39. A 23-yard run by sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor helped get the ball close, and Herron pushed in for a touchdown from two yards out, giving Ohio State a 20-0 lead.
An interception by Lawrence Wilson set up a 27-yard Pettrey field goal that made it 23-0 late in the third quarter, and the Buckeyes added a touchdown in the final two minutes of the game on a fourth down pass from Pryor to Dane Sanzenbacher from three yards out. Ohio State finished with just 82 passing yards as Pryor went 8-for-13. Sanzenbacher had three receptions for 36 yards.
"It was a challenge for us overall dealing with the weather, but I think we knew that coming in," Sanzenbacher said. "The defense made it easy on us the past couple of weeks. When you get shutouts, the pressure is off the offense to make plays."
The Ohio State defense held Illinois to just 170 total yards, had five sacks, and made three interceptions.
Williams, who was the architect of an upset win by Illinois two years ago when the Illini beat a then-No. 1 ranked Ohio State, had difficulty explaining what transpired yesterday.
"It was a nightmare. It was like one of those dreams when you can't wake up," Williams said. "I'm still in awe."
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