Illinois travels to Columbus for the first time since 2014 to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in the battle for The Illibuck Trophy. Here are some of the key matchups to look out for.
Illinois interior defensive line vs. Ohio State center protection
The Ohio State Buckeyes could tell their opponents what play they are going to run before the ball is snapped, and it likely wouldn’t make a lick of difference. It all starts with the man with the ball in his hands before the whistle blows, Buckeyes’ starting center Billy Price.
Not one, but two blocks by Ohio State center Billy Price to spring Mike Weber’s 47-yard touchdown run. One of the many reasons why he will most likely be an All-American this season. pic.twitter.com/gw5YcXoiCc— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) November 11, 2017
Billy Price will be starting his 52nd straight game when he suits up against the Illinois Fighting Illini — a school record. Remember how many freshmen the Illini are starting on the offensive line including Larry Boyd and Alex Palczewski?
Their counterpart in Scarlet and Grey has more starts than all of them combined, and the more experienced offensive lineman has played in some pretty huge games, including Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff games.
Illinois defensive tackles Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan are two critical players on Saturday. Those two can make the difference between a blowout and a competitive game. The Fighting Illini interior linemen must wreak havoc up the gut and force the Ohio State quarterback and running backs outside the tackles. If Ohio State can run up the middle at will, this game could be over by halftime (or earlier).
Illinois offensive line vs. Ohio State run defense
Ohio State ranks fifth in the Big Ten Conference in rushing defense behind Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State. In order to make this a competitive game, Illinois will need to have some share of possession and not go three-and-out over and over again, giving Ohio State’s prolific offense the ball to dictate the game.
That’s a problem considering Illinois is starting three true freshmen on the offensive line against a defense that absolutely wrecked Michigan State a week ago.
On Malik Harrison's sack, Nick Bosa split a double-team block, preventing Brian Lewerke from escaping Harrison. Bosa almost got sack on next play, a 16-yard scramble. Other than those 2 runs, MSU gained 28 yds on ground total.— Bill Rabinowitz (@brdispatch) November 14, 2017
Illinois’ game plan changes depending on who the starting quarterback is, and the styles of Jeff George Jr. and Cam Thomas could not be more different. Lovie Smith (as most coaches do) is keeping his cards close to his chest early in the week and as of now we don’t know who the starting quarterback will be.
If it’s Cam Thomas, Illinois must at least attempt to beat Ohio State at its own game: Try playing run-first, option football. Control the clock. The Buckeyes scored 35 first half points against Michigan State last week. Ohio State is loaded with players, including starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, who are fast and explosive enough to score on any given play. Illinois must keep those players off the field by moving the chains when Thomas/George Jr. and Co. have the ball.
Illinois’ hunger for first Big Ten win vs. Ohio State’s mindset one week before The Game
Illinois’ last Big Ten win was last November against Michigan State, losing 10 in a row since. The Buckeyes are the better team by a mile. Anyone that knows even the slightest bit of college football (or took a look at the opening point spread) expects Ohio State to come out and crush Illinois. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is too disciplined and has too much respect for the game to look past Lovie Smith and the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Here’s the reality.
Ohio State’s biggest game of the year — every year — is the rivalry game against Michigan. That game is in Ann Arbor this season one week after the Buckeyes host the Illini. Ohio State’s blue chip recruits (and there are many of them) come to Ohio State with the understanding that playing in The Game is the pinnacle of their college football existence. Also, anyone remember what happened in last year’s UM/OSU game?
It would be easy and even understandable for Ohio State to come out flat against an Illinois team that has lost 46 of its last 54 conference games, knowing full well that a trip to The Big House is within reach. It would be easy for Lovie Smith and his Fighting Illini to be intimidated, to be down on themselves, mentally and physical exhausted from a 2-7 campaign. Will Illinois roll over for Ohio State, or will the mindsets of both of these teams with the season just about over impact the play on the field?