CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Michael Brewster had just spent three hours in the wind and the rain and the cold, and he knew he had not been involved in any kind of gridiron masterpiece.
So he didn't try and dress up Ohio State's somewhat clumsy, somewhat arduous, somewhat flawed 24-13 win over Illinois.
“Sometimes you just take the win, and you don't worry about the style points,” the Buckeyes' junior center said. “We knew there was going to be adversity, and there was. It was ugly at times, but we did what we needed to win, and we survived.”
Ohio State trailed the Illini twice early in the Big Ten opener, and had to rely on its defense to hold Illinois to a field goal after quarterback Terrelle Pryor threw an interception deep in OSU territory late in the second quarter.
“We didn't do very well at anything today,” Ohio State senior offensive lineman Justin Boren said.
The second-ranked Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0) survived another scare when Pryor left the game for a portion of the third quarter with a minor thigh injury, and then the defense had to stop an Illinois drive with under five minutes to play and hold the Illini to a field goal when a touchdown and extra point would have produced a tie.
“We knew we were going to face some tough times here, some real adversity,” junior running back Dan “Boom” Herron said. “Things definitely got tough out there.”
Herron finally delivered the clinching blow with under two minutes to play in the game. After the OSU defense had stopped a long Illinois drive at the Buckeyes' 13 and the Illini kicked a field goal to cut Ohio State's lead to 17-13 with 4:36 left, Herron took the ball on seven straight plays. He picked up three first downs, and eventually scored on a six-yard run, pushing Ohio State's lead to that 24-13 margin.
“We punched it in when we needed it,” Brewster said about that final drive that consumed almost three minutes and left Illinois in desperation mode, two scores down.
“It's always a battle over here,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “I'm just proud of our kids for slugging it out. You knew it was going to be like this, but I had no doubt in my mind that we would play through it and not wilt.”
Illinois got great field position after an early Ohio State punt into a stiff wind, and used a pass from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to receiver Jarred Fayson, who then threw back to Scheelhaase for a 23-yard gain to the OSU 8. Scheelhaase scored on a short run and the Illini led 7-0.
Pryor then broke a 66-yard run on Ohio State's next play, taking the ball to the Illinois eight. Four plays later lobbed a touchdown pass to Brandon Saine to tie the game.
Illinois (2-2, 0-1) went up 10-7 after a field goal that followed the Pryor interception, but the Buckeyes climbed back in front 14-10 just before the half as Pryor tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, and Ohio State never trailed again.
“I think you definitely saw the experience of being in games like this show,” Sanzenbacher said. “I knew we had the guys in the room that have been through enough adversity that when we got in that situation we could handle it.”
A Devin Barclay 32-yard field goal made it 17-10 Ohio State with under nine minutes left in the game, and after Illinois cut the lead to 17-13, the Buckeyes put it away with the Herron-powered scoring drive in the closing minutes. Herron finished with 95 yards on 23 carries.
“It was huge,” Sanzenbacher said about Herron and the Ohio State offensive line pounding away at Illinois down the stretch.
“We knew getting the ball that late in the game that this was it, we're either going to win it or lose it right here. To be able to give it to Boom … and have those guys perform and move the ball all the way down the field, that's huge for us.”
Pryor, who rushed for 104 yards, said Illinois gave the Buckeyes everything he expected before Ohio State was able to put the game away.
“That's what happens. Championship teams — no matter who you are — you've got to face adversity,” Pryor said. “We've got a target on our back. It was a hard-fought Big Ten game, but at the end of the day we came out with a win. We just have to keep on getting better, because we can't play like the way we did today.”
Contact Matt Markey at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.