In a game that wasn’t exactly an advertisement for scintillating offense, Ohio State managed to take a 17-7 victory Saturday at 16th-ranked and previously undefeated Illinois despite completing only one pass the entire game.
The Buckeyes avoided their first three-game losing streak since 2004 by taking advantage of three turnovers and surviving a furious fourth-quarter comeback attempt by the Fighting Illini, who scored their lone touchdown and totaled 134 yards in the final period. Illinois had only 151 total yards to show for the first three quarters.
Meanwhile, the OSU offense used an attack that would have made former head coach Woody Hayes very proud. Swirling, gusty winds at Memorial Stadium allowed the Buckeyes to force-feed the Illini with a steady diet of off-tackle plays and draws – 51 rushing plays in all worth 211 yards.
The main beneficiary of the ground-based attack was senior Boom Herron, making his 2011 season debut after serving six games of an NCAA suspension. Herron carried 23 times for 114 yards and a touchdown while junior tailback Jordan Hall added 56 yards and 12 attempts.
Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller returned to his starting position after missing the final quarter of the loss to Nebraska and added another 34 yards to the ground assault. Miller was called upon to throw the ball only four times and his lone completion was a 17-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jake Stoneburner.
Illinois, which entered the game No. 3 in the Big Ten in total offense and No. 4 in scoring, sputtered throughout much of the afternoon before finally finding its footing in the fourth quarter. Even then, however, the Fighting Illini were disjointed. Their only touchdown drive covered 80 yards, but it took 16 plays and ate up nearly seven minutes as UI tried to rally from a 17-0 deficit.
Later, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase pitched a costly interception with 3:43 remaining in the game and threw behind his intended receiver on a fourth-and-2 at the Ohio State 17 with 1:11 to go in the game.
Scheelhaase completed 20 of 34 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions while rushing for a team-high 49 yards.
Illinois senior A.J. Jenkins entered the game as the Big Ten’s leading receiver with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns, but he was largely a non-factor against the Buckeyes despite eight catches for 80 yards.
The first half featured very little from either team in the way of offense with OSU holding a 3-0 halftime lead thanks to sophomore kicker Drew Basil’s 43-yard field goal into the stiff breeze at the 9:04 mark of the first quarter.
That held up until early in the third period when OSU defensive back Bradley Roby picked off Scheelhaase and returned the interception to the Illinois 12-yard line. Herron took it from there, sweeping around left end on first down for the touchdown. Basil tacked on the extra point for a 10-0 Ohio State lead at the 14:06 mark of the third quarter.
Another Illinois turnover gave the Buckeyes a short field early in the fourth quarter. OSU senior Tyler Moeller stripped Jenkins of the football after a short reception, and linebacker Storm Klein recovered the fumble for the Buckeyes at the Illinois 37-yard line.
A subsequent personal foul penalty against the Illini gave Ohio State another 15 yards, and three plays later Miller found Stoneburner on a post pattern over the middle for a 17-yard touchdown. Basil added the PAT again and the Buckeyes enjoyed a 17-0 advantage at the 13:06 mark of the final period.
Scheelhaase tried to get his team back in the game, engineering that 16-play, 80-yard scoring drive, capping it with a 3-yard TD pass to tight end Evan Wilson. During the march, the Illinois quarterback rushed six times for 40 yards and completed 4 of 6 pass attempts for 30 yards. Once Illini kicker Derek Dimke added the extra point, the OSU lead was down to 17-7 with 6:22 remaining.
After the Illinois defense forced a three-and-out series, Scheelhaase went to the air on his team’s next play from scrimmage. But he underthrew his intended target just enough to Ohio State cornerback Travis Howard to snatch the ball out of the air for an interception with 3:43 to go.
Illinois got the ball back again a minute and a half later and drove to the OSU 17. But on fourth-and-2 from there, Scheelhaase threw behind Jenkins and the Buckeyes were able to run out the final 1:11 for the victory.
Ohio State (4-3, 1-2) takes next week off before returning to action Oct. 29 at home against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Badgers (6-0, 2-0) rolled to a 59-7 victory over Indiana earlier this afternoon. Kickoff next Saturday is set for shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern.
Ohio State (4-3, 1-2) takes next week off before returning to action Oct. 29 at home against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Badgers (6-0, 2-0) rolled to a 59-7 victory over Indiana earlier this afternoon.