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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Forget that directive to keep hoarding big wins and bigger style points.
By the third quarter of Ohio State’s 60-35 win over Illinois, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was more worried about big heads.
On a gray, wind-swept afternoon that flirted with the bizarre, where the hapless Illini showed their namesake fight on and off the field, No. 3 OSU (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) stayed in the national title chase with another historic Saturday.
Carlos Hyde ran for 246 of the Buckeyes’ 441 ground yards and four touchdowns to match the third-biggest rushing day in 123 years of Ohio State football, quarterback Braxton Miller was at his improvisational best in dashing for 184 yards — two shy of his career best — and the undermanned Buckeyes tied a school record with their 22nd straight win.
Yet the winding, tension-filled path traveled to capture their sixth straight Illibuck — the wooden turtle senior left tackle Jack Mewhort jubilantly hoisted afterward — left Meyer less than satisfied.
Earlier in the week, he told a Buckeyes team fighting for national respect it was important they continue to amass scoreboard-straining wins, and that confidence leaked into the public. Receiver Evan Spencer playfully said OSU could "wipe the field" with top-ranked Alabama and No. 2 Florida State. Surely it would do the same with the Illini (3-7, 0-6), whose 20th straight Big Ten loss was marred by a sideline altercation between coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
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Saturday, Meyer said he realized he miscalculated.
"These guys work so hard, we have to make sure that our focus is just on getting better each week instead of all the national stuff," he said. "I think I'm learning a lesson. Just shut your mouth."
Linebacker Ryan Shazier said OSU was "focusing on too many other things."
Meyer pointed to Spencer, a coach’s son who is always polite and usually modest.
"Just think about that comment from Evan," he said. "Where does that come from? We might think about kicking it back a little as far as media availability. Let's just coach and get better. Let’s get our 11th win somehow."
The Buckeyes will be able to clinch the Leaders Division title with a home win over Indiana next weekend. Until then, Meyer said he "can’t wait" to return to practice.
Players said they now appreciate how much they have to work on, even if Saturday looked like another laugher at the start.
Miller knifed through the Illini’s defense for a 70-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage, and OSU kept piling on. The Buckeyes intercepted Nathan Scheelhaase on two of the Illini’s first three possessions — one of which cornerback Bradley Roby returned 63 yards for a score — and sprinted to a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter.
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Yet OSU pulled back too early. A Buckeyes team without Mewhort (hyperextended knee) for large stretches and a defense that finished down four starters — including two starting linebackers — suddenly allowed the half-empty stadium to awaken.
Illinois drove 75 yards for a touchdown on its opening drive of the second half to cut OSU’s lead to 35-21, and Miller lost a fumble at Illinois’ 39-yard line on the following possession.
The turnover followed an exasperating theme. OSU also had a punt returned for a 67-yard TD and allowed Scheelhaase — the Big Ten’s leading passer — to throw for 288 yards and two touchdowns on a day where 30-mph wind gusts shut down its own passing game.
The Buckeyes, though, shifted momentum permanently back to their side with a safety midway through the third quarter.
With Scheelhaase forced to the bench for one play after his helmet was jarred off, Shazier blitzed off the edge to throttle the ball from backup Reilly O’Toole’s grip in the end zone. Shazier tore toward the sideline in celebration, not knowing that the ball was loose and about to be recovered by the Illini.
"That’s what everyone told me: ‘If you hadn’t gotten up celebrating, you could have had it,’" Shazier said, smiling. "But at least we got the safety."
If you needed further evidence what the play meant, Beckman animatedly confronted Cubit, presumably about the third-and-long call for a pass. The coaches reportedly had to be separated.
"It was just a heat of the moment thing," said Beckman, the former University of Toledo coach. "Both of us want to be successful."
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Four plays later, Hyde capped a 55-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run to shove OSU in front 44-21, and the Buckeyes stayed turf-bound to close out the win.
Unlike the first half, when Miller completed 10 of 20 passes for both of his touchdown passes, the Buckeyes simply rode Hyde. His window-dressing touchdown runs of 51 and 55 yards in the final five minutes punctuated a career day.
Hyde’s 246 rushing yards on 24 carries were tied for third-most in OSU history with two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin, behind only Keith Byars’ 274-yard day against Illinois in 1984 and Eddie George’s 314 yards against the Illini in 1995.
"That last run, in my head I was like, we could do this the whole time," said Hyde, who now has 947 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns this season. "I had energy, and I just feel like we could have had that momentum the whole game."