Ohio State slugged out a 30-20 victory on a raw Nov. 15 afternoon over Big Ten rival Illinois, fueled by a second-half offensive performance Woody Hayes would probably have liked.
The Buckeyes ran the ball on 31 of its 33 second-half plays, totaling 176 of their 310 rushing total for the game. Junior tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells led the way with 24 carries for 143 yards, pushing his career total well past the 3,000-yard mark. Only five other OSU running backs – Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Tim Spencer, Keith Byars and Pepe Pearson – have cracked the 3,000-yard mark in scarlet and gray.
“You knew that you were going to have a lot better chance of winning if you were going to be able to run today,” OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. “You could pass it some but you'd better not try to make a living on that.
“The other thing is that those two quarters you were against the wind really affected your special teams. You didn't want to be doing things that would stop the clock. ... You wanted everything you were doing to keep that clock rolling.”
As far as the defensive effort for the Buckeyes was concerned, Woody might have been a little less pleased. Illinois rolled up 455 total yards, by far more than any OSU opponent this season, but repeatedly shot itself in the foot.
Illini quarterback Juice Williams committed two costly turnovers in the first half – a fumble and an interception, each of which led to Ohio State touchdowns. The Illini also had a punt blocked in the first half that resulted in a safety.
Nevertheless, the game went into the win column and allowed OSU (9-2, 6-1) to remain in a first-place tie in the Big Ten standings. The Buckeyes, seeking their fourth consecutive conference title, are tied with Penn State (6-1, 10-1) and Michigan State (6-1, 9-2). While the Buckeyes were taking care of Illinois, the Nittany Lions rolled to a 34-7 win over Indiana. The Spartans were idle this week.
Wells was the workhorse for the Buckeyes on offense, tallying a second-down touchdown as well as another highlight-reel play at the end of the third quarter when he vaulted over an Illinois defender during a 29-yard run.
OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor was the perfect complement to Wells as the freshman rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown and added 49 yards and another score on 6-for-10 passing.
It marked the first game during which two Ohio State players had topped the 100-yard mark in rushing since 2005 when Antonio Pittman totaled 171 and Troy Smith added 127 during a 31-6 win over Iowa.
Pryor got the scoring under way with a 1-yard run at the 8:48 mark of the first quarter, topping off a short, 19-yard drive. It began after Ohio State safety Tyler Moeller caused Williams to fumble and the loose football was recovered by defensive tackle Nader Abdallah.
Williams regrouped, however, and marched his team quickly the other way with an eight-play, 82-yard drive that took just over three minutes. The touchdown came when Williams found receiver Jeff Cumberland running free in the back of the end zone, and Cumberland made a diving catch of a 7-yard pass.
The score remained tied until late in the first quarter when Ohio State senior Malcolm Jenkins smothered an Illinois punt, knocking the ball out of bounds for a safety. That was followed by a short free kick by the Illini, and the Buckeyes needed only five plays to move 43 yards for the touchdown.
Wells got an excellent block from fullback Brandon Smith and then stiff-armed Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis at the goal line on a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 16-7 with 14:15 remaining in the second quarter.
The Buckeyes padded their lead when Williams pitched an interception that was snagged by safety Kurt Coleman at the OSU 6-yard line. Coleman returned the pick to the 24, and Ohio State responded with its quickest scoring drive of the afternoon. Wells rushed for 13 yards on first down, and two plays later Pryor scrambled for 35 yards. Three plays after that, the freshman QB lofted a 20-yard touchdown pass to split end Dane Sanzenbacher to push OSU’s lead to 23-7 with 6:30 remaining until the half.
Illinois got a pair of field goals before the break – a 28-yarder and one from 44 yards out from redshirt freshman kicker Matt Eller – to pull within 10 points at intermission and that’s the way it stayed for much of the second half as the teams played a game of cat and mouse.
Ohio State threatened to take control of the game early in the third quarter, but Wells fumbled at the Illinois 18 to end the threat. Later, the Illini pinned the Buckeyes back at their own 1-yard line and forced a three-and-out series. But Illinois couldn’t do anything with the ball once they got it back and missed an opportunity to seize field position.
When they punted the ball back to the Buckeyes, Wells hit the Illini with a signature play. In the midst of a 29-yard run on second down, the OSU tailback vaulted high in the air over strong safety Donsay Hardeman, reminiscent of his leap over Minnesota defender Kyle Threat earlier in the season.
Best of all for Ohio State, Wells’ run moved the ball out to the Illinois 45 to start the fourth quarter. Six plays later, backup tailback Dan “Boom” Herron carried a pair of Illini defenders with him over the goal line for a 12-yard touchdown.
Illinois tallied the final score with a 24-yard touchdown pass from Williams to receiver Chris Duvalt with 0:42 showing on the clock.
Williams finished the game with 17 completions in 26 pass attempts for 192 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 48 yards on nine carries and was sacked twice. Running back Daniel Dufrene added a team-high 79 yards on the ground and also led the Illini with five receptions for 42 yards.
OSU did a good job holding down Illinois star receiver Arrelious Benn, limiting him to just three catches for 65 yards, two punt returns for a net of zero yards and one kickoff return for 17 yards. His all-purpose total of 82 yards against the Buckeyes was well below his average of 149.6 per game which ranked third in the Big Ten.
Defensively, OSU was led by Coleman, who had 11 tackles to go with his interception. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis added eight tackles and forced a fumble, while Moeller had his forced fumble along with a career-high seven stops, including two for loss.
Ohio State returns home next week for the traditional season finale with Michigan. The Wolverines were 21-14 losers at home to Northwestern, giving them a school-record eighth loss of the season.