The #6 Ohio State Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) and Illinois (2-6, 0-4) will be meeting for the 99th time in the two schools' history on Saturday afternoon.
The Buckeyes own the series with a 63-30-4 record against the Illini all-time.
However, Illinois has won seven of the last eleven times they've been to Columbus.
When Illinois Has The Ball
The Illini have struggled on offense for most of the season. They are only averaging 18 points per game. In Big Ten play, that number drops to 9.5 points per game.
For the season, Illinois is rushing for 132.5 yards per game, but they can't run the ball consistently or put a complete game together. When quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is having a good game on the ground, he seems to be the only one. When the tailbacks are getting it done, Scheelhaase is nowhere to be found.
Sophomore Donovonn Young is leading the team in rushing with 400 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry with two touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson is second on the team with 226 yards on the ground. Both players are capable of big plays, but they rarely have anywhere to run.
The Buckeyes lead the conference in rush defense during Big Ten play, allowing just 107 yards on the ground per game. It is not entirely happenstance that the toughened-up defense coincides with the move of Zach Boren to middle linebacker.
Since his move three games ago, Boren's 20 tackles is second only to weakside linebacker Ryan Shazier's 26.
The Buckeyes will play quite a bit of nickel defense against the Illinois spread offense, and with the growing confidence in the defense as a whole, expect a good portion of their new-found defensive aggression to continue.
Illinois is throwing for 184.9 yards per game, and would be throwing for more if the offensive line could keep their quarterback upright.
The Illini are 121st in the country in sacks allowed, having given up 30 (3.75 per game) this season. The Buckeye defensive line will know these numbers and will want to add to them.
With Nathan Williams able to play some strong side linebacker, that will allow for some unique pass rushing from the Buckeyes. It will also allow freshman defensive end Noah Spence to continue to try and find himself. Even though he is playing more than ever, he still hasn't recorded a sack since the season opener.
Defensive end John Simon should have success forcing Scheelhaase out of the pocket, but Illinois will also move the pocket voluntarily in hopes of keeping Simon away from Scheelhaase.
Generally, Illinois will keep the passes short via screens and the like. They only have three receptions over 30 yards the entire season. This type of offense has given the Buckeyes trouble this season, but they are healthier and deeper than they have been for a while, which should help.
If the Ohio State corners continue to play an aggressive man defense, they should be in a position to make plays on the short passes. They'll just need to make sure that they don't miss the tackles and allow a big play.
The only receiver who has given Illinois a big play, however, is Ryan Lankford (29-413-5), and when he's matched up with cornerback Bradley Roby, it will not be favorable for Lankford.
Tailbacks Young and (27 receptions) and Ferguson (23 receptions) are actually the second and third-leading receivers on the team. Zach Boren will likely find himself matched up with them both at times, so this will be a matchup that Illinois could take advantage of.
The Illini have a pretty good punter in Justin DuVernois who is averaging 42.4 yards per punt with a long of 72 yards. They have zero return game to speak of, however. They are averaging just 1.8 yards per punt return, and their longest kick return is just 27 yards.
Illinois has used two placekickers this season, and they are both .500 on the season (4-8 combined).
When Ohio State Has The Ball
During Big Ten play, the Buckeyes are leading the conference in rushing, averaging 262.8 yards on the ground per game.
Overall, quarterback Braxton Miller leads the conference in rushing, averaging 121.4 yards per game, and his twelve touchdowns are just one short of the Big Ten lead.
Miller's ability to take a carry the distance should always be a defense's first concern, and for good reason. Miller leads the conference in number of carries of 50 yards or more with four.
The only time he has been held under 100 yards rushing in Big Ten play was when he was injured against Purdue and finished with just 47 yards.
He had some very good reps last week with the read option, which could be a sign that he is reading things better than he has all season. If that is the case, then he becomes an even more dangerous runner.
It won't just be Miller running the ball, however, as both Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith will get plenty of touches. Hyde had a tough go of it last week, rushing for 55 yards on 22 carries, but things should be quite a bit easier this week.
Hyde's production has tailed off the last two weeks as he's only rushed for a combined 146 yards after rushing for 296 yards the two weeks prior to that. The Buckeyes shouldn't need a big game from Hyde in this one, but they certainly won't turn it down.
Smith rushed for 48 yards on just four carries last week, and he probably needs to see more carries than he's gotten of late. He is a very tough runner that Illinois might not feel like dealing with after having already had to wrestle with Miller and Hyde. He could be the "last straw" for the Illinois defense.
Illinois is allowing 152.6 yards rushing per game, but that number jumps to 205 yards per game in Big Ten play.
Illinois' leading tackler is weakside linebacker Jonathan Brown with 55 tackles. His 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks also lead the team. Brown is very active and has a history of making big plays. He and Hyde should become very close by seven o'clock Saturday night.
Mason Monheim starts at middle linebacker for Illinois. He is a freshman from Orrville, Ohio. He has 35 tackles in Big Ten play and may be a step slow, but he seems to be adapting to college football fairly well.
Illinois' base defense is a nickel, with Ashante Williams playing the hybrid linebacker/safety position. His versatility helps on third down, which shows in Illinois' third-down conversion defense (30%), which leads the Big Ten.
The Illini's two most prominent defensive linemen are tackle Akeem Spence and rush end Michael Buchanan. Spence has always been tremendously active, and Buchanan is Illinois' best pass rusher. Neither has been as good this season as they were in the past, but the potential is there for both of them.
Urban Meyer would like to see the Buckeyes throw the ball better this week, which means they will likely throw more short passes to build Miller's confidence. This will allow Corey Brown to get back involved again after getting shut out last week in receptions for the first time all season.
Meyer also wants to see more from receiver Devin Smith, so expect him to get a few opportunities as well.
Illinois is dead last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense (149.2), though cornerback Terry Hawthorne is a very talented athlete.
The Illini safeties have had their issues, as has the entire secondary. Illinois has given up seven passing plays of 40 yards or more this season, which is the same number that Ohio State has given up. No other Big Ten team has given up more than four.
The Buckeyes are still searching for a big play in the kickoff return game, but for now they are sticking with the consistency of Rod Smith's 23.2 yards per return. Meyer doesn't expect him to hit any homeruns, but he likes the field position that Smith has provided this season.
Punter Ben Buchanan is averaging 42.1 yards per punt, and while Meyer has asked for more hang time, they did get some very good punt return defense from Devin Smith last week. That should continue this week as well.
How It Will End Up
With the Buckeyes focused on their passing game during the week, expect them to come out throwing the ball all over the field if the weather allows it.
Eventually, however, the Ohio State ground game will come back into the picture and Miller, Hyde and Smith will have success running at an Illinois defense that has been put on its heels since the outset.
Even if the Buckeye offense starts slowly, the Illinois offense can be very accommodating to a defense. A couple of first-half turnovers could be all the boost the Buckeye offense needs, assuming it even needs one.
The Illini offense hasn't been able to stay out of its own way this season, and with a more aggressive Ohio State defense, they should continue to have trouble.
However, don't be surprised if Illinois has a couple of big plays, because the Buckeyes still haven't been able to keep that from happening at home this season.
In the end, however, the two or three big Illinois plays won't be enough to overcome their mistakes, or the five or six big Ohio State plays.
Ohio State 42 - Illinois 17
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