It was surprising the Illinois Fighting Illini dismantled the Nebraska Cornhuskers last week. It was not surprising the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Indiana Hoosiers. Ohio State won the game, but it was close, and Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields was a turnover machine.
Was it Buckeye rust from an off-week the week before? Is Indiana that good? What does that mean for the game against Illinois? Let’s take a look.
Quarterback Justin Fields is an all-world talent. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he’s lightning quick and can throw the ball a mile. The former Georgia Bulldog has found himself a home in Columbus, and he’ll be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. Against the Hoosiers, Fields threw 2 touchdown passes and ran for another, but he also tossed a career-high 3 interceptions. Indiana’s strength is their defensive line, and they made Fields uncomfortable all game long. Still, Fields completes nearly 80% of his passes on the year and leads the nation in completion percentage. He can make the tight window throw on the wide receiver slant and he can loft the ball up for a 50-yard bomb right into the breadbasket.
Surprise, surprise — Ohio State is stacked on the offensive line. Guard Wyatt Davis is the best interior offensive lineman in the country, and center Josh Myers is easily a top-3 player at his position in college football.
Ohio State’s wide receivers combined are without question the best group in the entire country. Each and every one of them from the experienced Chris Olave to the young guns Garrett Wilson and Julian Fleming are elite pass catchers. Illinois would have their hands full keeping up with just one of those guys — the fact the Buckeyes have four or five Olympic-level athletes at the wide receiver position is an example of just how different the recruiting is at Ohio State. It’s truly an abundance of riches, and there is NFL talent everywhere you look.
Running back Master Teague is also a problem. Power. Speed. He’s one of the best running backs in the conference and averages more than a touchdown per game. He’s got a low center of gravity, and in comparison to recent Ohio State running backs of the past, he’s not quite as much of a bulldozer as JK Dobbins, Mike Weber, Zeke Elliott etc., but he’s a tackle breaker and extremely difficult to bring down. He looks healthier than he’s ever been having battled injuries throughout his career, and Illinois will have to pick its poison in choosing to stop the read option with Fields and Teague versus trying to cover those wide receivers down field. Running back Trey Sermon, a transfer from Oklahoma, also gets his fair share of touches, but it’s Teague who handles the bulk of Ohio State’s carries.
There are no weaknesses when looking at Ohio State’s offense. None. In order to beat them, Illinois will need Ohio State to beat itself.
It’s a good thing Illinois did not play the Buckeyes last year when they had one of the best defensive linemen we’ve ever seen in college football in Chase Young. While Young is busy wreaking havoc on quarterbacks in the NFL as a member of the Washington Football Team, his current Buckeye teammates are playing outstanding football.
Top to bottom, this is a deep, talented defense — the star of which is none other than cornerback Shaun Wade, who should easily land in the top half of the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, depending on how he tests at the combine. Wade has prototypical size for a corner and is as good at stopping the run out on the edges as he is at deflecting a pass or intercepting the football. Against Indiana, it was his playmaking ability that essentially put the game out of reach:
Senior linebacker Peter Werner is somewhat unheralded, but he’s Ohio State’s leading tackler and has played a ton of football in some huge games for one of the best programs in the country. He’s on the bigger side and an important leader for what Ohio State is trying to accomplish on that side of the ball.
Tuf Borland and Baron Browning are other linebackers who are great against the run and are your typical tuf guy (sorry) defenders.
Up front, Jonathon Cooper is a frightening defensive lineman. The fifth-year player has played in 35 games in his Buckeye career and has 8.0 sacks to his name. He’s not overly explosive, but his versatility in his ability to play as a nose tackle or on the edge should be appealing to NFL scouts.
Another player to keep an eye out for — if he is healthy and raring to go against Illinois — is defensive end Tyreke Smith. He had 3.0 sacks a season ago and is certainly tall and athletic enough to bat screen passes down.
The kicking situation at Ohio State is somewhat of a mess. Kicker Blake Haubell is OSU’s top choice at kicker, though he’s been banged up and has missed the last two games. In his place has been freshman kicker Jake Seibert. Seibert missed his only field goal attempt in his career — the Buckeyes have been too busy scoring touchdowns instead of attempting field goals to really make this much of an issue.
The punter is senior Drue Chrisman. He’s punted 13 times this season for an average of 42.0 yards per punt.
OSU’s primary kick returner is Demario McCall, and the Buckeyes rotate punt returners between wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.