Second-ranked Ohio State survived a pair of scares Saturday afternoon, losing quarterback Terrelle Pryor for a handful of third-quarter plays and dodging an upset challenge from Illinois before securing a 24-13 victory in front of 62,870 fans at wind-swept Memorial Stadium.
The game was the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Pryor appeared to strain a quadriceps muscle in his left leg during a run early in the third quarter and it completely changed the Buckeyes’ offensive game plan. Head coach Jim Tressel stuck almost exclusively to the ground once his quarterback returned and Ohio State was able to ground out the 11-point win.
After featuring 16 rushes in the first half against 12 passes, the Buckeyes buttoned things up in the second half with 27 running plays and only six passes.
Pryor still managed to run for 104 yards on 11 carries and completed 9 of 16 attempts for 76 yards and two touchdowns. All of his rushes came before the injury.
Tressel told reporters after the game he believed Pryor’s injury was not serious.
“I’m not a doctor and this is only Saturday,” the OSU head coach said, “but as far as next week is concerned, I would expect (Terrelle) to be ready to rock and roll.”
The Buckeyes’ second-half change in strategy benefited junior tailback Dan “Boom” Herron, who carried 20 times for 89 yards and a touchdown after the break. Herron wound up his afternoon’s work with a season-best 95 yards on a 24 carries.
OSU wound up with only a slight 290-251 edge in total yardage.
Illinois was led by freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaasse, who had success early. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 109 yards and added 12 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Meanwhile, junior tailback Mikel Leshoure accounted for 80 yards on 19 carries, but his personal string of four straight 100-yard games was broken.
In addition to losing Pryor for a short time in the third quarter, Ohio State lost the services of safety Tyler Moeller in the first quarter with what appeared to be a shoulder injury.
The afternoon didn’t start out well for the Buckeyes when they had their initial possession of the game wind up in a third-and-out for the first time this season. OSU punter Ben Buchanan’s effort into a 25-to 30-mph wind traveled only 35 yards and the Illini took over at their own 45.
Scheelhaasse converted a third-and-9 play with a 10-yard completion to senior receiver Jarred Fayson and then got 14 more yards on the next play with another connection to Fayson, who led all receivers in the game with eight catches for 83 yards. Two plays later, the roles were reversed when Fayson took a handoff and pitched a 23-yard pass back to Scheelhaasse to give Illinois a first-and-goal at the OSU 8.
Three plays later, Scheelhaasse executed an option read to perfection and scored on a 3-yard touchdown run. Kicker Derek Dimke added the extra point and Illinois enjoyed a 7-0 lead at the 8:29 mark of the first quarter.
It didn’t take the Buckeyes long to answer. On the first play of their next possession, Pryor broke away on a called quarterback run and didn’t stop until being pushed out of bounds 66 yards later. That gave Ohio State a first-and-goal at the 8, and two plays later Pryor found senior tailback Brandon Saine in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown.
Devin Barclay’s PAT was blocked but Illinois was called for defensive holding on the play. Barclay nailed his mulligan and the score was tied at 7 with 6:17 to go in the opening period.
The Illini played field-position for the rest of the first quarter, taking advantage of their wind advantage. They couldn’t convert their next possession into points but Anthony Sentella’s punt went 45 yards and was downed at the OSU 1.
The Buckeyes went ultraconservative from there and pushed the ball out only to the 2 before Buchanan’s punt into the breeze went only 32 yards.
Illinois took over at the Ohio State 36 and immediately got a first down on back-to-back runs from Leshoure netted 8 and 7 yards. But the quarter changed and when the Illini drive stalled, Dimke’s 41-yard field goal attempt was knocked down by the wind.
The teams traded punts for most of the rest of the second quarter until Illinois free safety Trulon Henry intercepted Pryor at the OSU 35 with 4:40 left until halftime. Henry returned the pick 11 yards, and although the Illini drive later stalled, Dimke came on for a 27-yard field goal to give his team a 10-7 lead with 1:50 left until halftime.
But the wind played havoc with Dimke’s kickoff and OSU sophomore Jordan Hall returned it 31 yards. A subsequent 5-yard illegal formation penalty on Illinois gave the Buckeyes the ball at their own 43, and then Pryor took off on first down for a 35-yard gain.
Two plays later, Pryor found senior co-captain Dane Sanzenbacher all alone in the left perimeter for a 16-yard gain to give OSU a first down at the Illinois 6. Pryor was sacked for a 5-yard loss on the next play, but then the junior quarterback found Sanzenbacher again and the senior co-captain made a diving catch in the end zone with 45 seconds left.
The 11-yard touchdown was followed by another Barclay PAT to give the Buckeyes a 14-10 halftime lead.
Pryor exited early in the third quarter for seven plays after appearing to injure his left quad muscle at the end of a 10-yard scramble. But he returned and led the Buckeyes on a 14-play, 59-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 32-yard field goal from Barclay that pushed Ohio State’s lead to 17-10 with 8:27 remaining in the game.
Meanwhile, the OSU defense was stoning Illinois. Three of the Illini’s four third-quarter possessions resulted in three-and-outs and the fourth contained only three plays after Scheelhaasse was intercepted by Ohio State safety Jermale Hines. In the third period, Illinois ran 12 plays on offense and netted only 24 yards.
It was a different story in the fourth quarter. After Barclay’s field goal, Scheelhaasse engineered a nine-yard, 67-yard drive that resulted in a 30-yard field goal from Dimke to make it 17-13 with 4:36 remaining.
But the Illini were their own worst enemy on the ensuing possession. A short kickoff was exacerbated by a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness and Illinois was called for two other major infractions on Ohio State’s next drive. One was a backbreaking offside penalty on a third-and-1 when it appeared Herron did not pick up the necessary first-down yardage.
As a result, the Buckeyes were able to put together a 53-yard drive that featured all Herron runs, including a 6-yard touchdown scamper around left end. Barclay’s PAT set the final score with 1:49 remaining.
Ohio State (5-0, 1-0) will return home next week to host Indiana (3-0, 0-0). The Hoosiers were scheduled to host No. 19 Michigan later this afternoon.