"November is for contenders, we always say that..." ~ former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel
The Illinois Fighting Illini will enter into Ohio Stadium on a forecasted chilly evening to battle long-time rival Ohio State. While Ohio State is listed by Las Vegas oddsmakers as a comfortable favorite (Ohio State has a -28.5 point spread), Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and his coaching staff will do their very best to focus their team upon defeating the Fighting Illini and securing the seventh victory for the 2014 season.
Ohio State fans recall how Illinois came into Ohio Stadium in 2007 and upset the then-top ranked Buckeyes. As I stated this past week on the MotSandG podcast, it is quite vivid to me how Illinois tormented Ohio State coaches (most especially, former Ohio State head coach John Cooper), players, and fans throughout the 1980s and 1990s (1988-1992, 1994, 1999). When Ohio State fans contemplate how the Buckeyes had to rally last weekend on the road at Penn State (31-24 2OT), as well as how Illinois defeated a favored Minnesota team last weekend, the coaching staff, players, and fans cannot overlook the capacity of Illinois upsetting the Buckeyes.
Illinois has seventeen players on its roster from Ohio. The overwhelming majority of these players were not recruited by Ohio State; the lone exception to this is Caleb Day of Hilliard, who spurned Ohio State for Illinois in 2013. The most notable Ohioan is V'Angelo Bentley of Glenville, who made the key fumble recovery against Minnesota that secured the Illinois victory last week.
The areas that I will be focusing upon throughout the game will be...
1. Ohio State relying upon its running game - Quarterback J.T. Barrett sustained a sprained MCL injury against Penn State. Although Barrett has been cleared to play against Illinois, it would be surprising to see Barrett being asked to contribute much in the running game against the Fighting Illini. Ezekiel Elliott may be a workhorse, and other running backs such as Curtis Samuel and Warren Ball may also have opportunities to pad their respective statistics. Bri'onte Dunn will not play against Illinois, due to injury.
2. How Well Will Ohio State's Defense Contain Illinois' Reilly O'Toole? - O'Toole has ascended into the role of Illinois' starting quarterback, after starter Wes Lunt was lost to injury. O'Toole is more of a dual-threat quarterback, capable of making plays with his legs as well as his arm. Will Ohio State's quick and aggressive defense be able to contain O'Toole Saturday night?
3. Will Ohio State Play Cardale Jones Against Illinois? - Anyone who has listened to me throughout this season's MotSandG podcasts will hear me questioning why backup quarterback Cardale Jones has not received more playing time this season. Considering Barrett's sprained MCL injury, it is in Ohio State's best interests to rest Barrett as much as possible, with the remainder of the 2014 season left to play. While Jones is not the passer Barrett is, Jones has the physical skills capable to play the quarterback position as a game manager for the Buckeyes. On this week's podcast, I even made the suggestion that true freshman quarterback Stephen Collier, who has been targeted for a redshirt season, may be worthy of playing time, depending upon the type of potential lead Ohio State may be able to build upon against Illinois. Think of it this way - suppose Barrett reinjures his leg, and is out for the season, so now Cardale Jones is the starter. Anyone else comfortable knowing Stephen Collier is next up, with no playing experience? Thought so.
Perhaps Ohio State will be able to shut down Illinois all across the board, and get off to a fast start. While that would be very pleasing to Coach Meyer, as well as all Ohio State fans, I believe Illinois will be able to keep it close until the end of the first half. Look for Ohio State to pull away in the second half, behind a strong rushing performance, and an opportunistic defense. I have it Ohio State 35, Illinois 17.