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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The last time Ohio State visited the wind tunnel known as Memorial Stadium, the Buckeyes appeared to borrow their playbook from the Paleolithic era.
Expect both sides to return to modern times today — and that’s just fine with OSU.
While quarterback Braxton Miller is miles removed from the unsteady freshman who completed just one pass in a 17-7 win here in 2011, Ohio State’s once-derided secondary is also ready for the aerial movement.
On another potential name-your-score afternoon for the third-ranked Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) — they are 32½-point favorites — one of the few intriguing storylines will be a revived pass defense’s ability to stall the conference’s leading passer.
Illinois senior Nathan Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 450 yards in the Illini’s 52-35 loss at Indiana last week and now has 2,420 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. His 65.2 completion percentage is second in the Big Ten behind only Miller (72.5).
“You want to see how much we have improved,” coach Urban Meyer said of the Buckeyes’ secondary. “The last few weeks, it’s been night and day from where it was earlier in the season. This will be a good test for us.”
A month ago, chances are OSU would not have made the grade. A secondary expected to be a strength with the return of All-American cornerback Bradley Roby and senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett was suddenly the most glaring weakness on a national title contender.
With the Buckeyes concentrating their focus on stopping the run, passes soared. Meyer called the early returns “alarming” — the Buckeyes’ pass defense ranked 79th nationally through seven games. OSU gave up 371 passing yards to California, 295 to Wisconsin, 343 to Northwestern, and 245 to Iowa.
Adding heartbreak to insult, Bryant — a senior captain and three-year starter — suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the Sept. 29 Wisconsin game.
A challenge was handed down, and as senior safety Corey Brown said, “it was definitely personal.”
And just in time for the stretch run, the Buckeyes responded. In back-to-back routs, OSU held Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg — the Big Ten’s previous leading passer — to a season-low 112 yards and Purdue’s Danny Etling to 89 yards.
Though there are any number of reasons for the 180 — an improved pass rush, Roby’s sharpened play, Brown’s improvement in place of Bryant, light competition — cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said the biggest was simply a shifted focus.
“In everything in life, you get what you emphasize,” Coombs said. “For us, we found ourselves in a situation where it was obvious — we had to get better. [Pass defense] was a huge area of emphasis for everybody. You change a little bit of your practice habits, you change a little bit of your scheme, and you change a little bit about how you’re doing your business, and you get better.”
This week the Buckeyes are hopeful — if not confident — their final meeting with Scheelhaase will go a lot like the first three. In OSU wins the past three seasons, the fourth-year starter threw for 96, 169, and 109 yards.
Anything more may be unsatisfying.
“Our pass defense has been much better,” Meyer said. “But we’re certainly not where we need to be. We’re going to continue to grind on that.”
HALL RETURNS: Meyer said Jordan Hall should be available to play after the senior sat two of the past four games — including the Buckeyes’ trip to Purdue — with a chronic knee issue.
Hall ran for 412 yards and six touchdowns in the first three games before injuries and Carlos Hyde’s return from suspension nudged him to the background. He has 96 rushing yards in Big Ten play.