Ohio State and Illinois will continue their battle for the Illibuck trophy this Saturday.
The Buckeyes have won the last nine, the last five of which by 25 points or more. The last time Illinois won was 2007, which didn’t stop Ohio State from appearing in the BCS National Championship Game for the second year in a row. That game was the only Illinois victory over a top-ten team in the last two decades.
Illinois started the season as poorly as imaginable. The first three games included a blowout loss to Wisconsin, a comeback against Purdue that fell short, and a blowout loss to Minnesota. The Illini suffered three humiliating losses in three weeks.
In Week 4 of Big Ten play, Illinois came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Rutgers. The next week, Illinois soundly defeated Nebraska.
For as bad of a start as the Illini had, the season is trending in the right direction.
After Ohio State’s narrow win against Indiana, Illinois is hoping they can turn this into a trap game.
Ohio State vs. Illinois Preview
This game should not be close. Ohio State has the Big Ten’s highest scoring offense, while Illinois is third-last. After being second-worst in scoring, they swapped placed with Nebraska after defeating the Corn Huskers 41-23 last week.
The quarterback situation has been unsteady, the skill position players don’t create plays, and the defense has shown itself to be susceptible. On paper, it’s an easy Ohio State victory.
Las Vegas sees it the same way, and believes Ohio State to be a 28-point favorite.
Illinois Offense vs. Ohio State Defense
The quarterback situation at Illinois is a mess.
Brandon Peters transferred from Michigan in 2019 and led the Illini to their first bowl game of the Lovie Smith era.
Peters, now a fifth-year senior, got the start against Wisconsin on opening day. In the first game of Big Ten play this season, Peters completed eight of his 19 passes for 87 yards against Wisconsin. Illinois lost 45-7.
Coran Taylor started the next two games for Illinois, completed 23 of 46 passes, gaining 379 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He lost both of those games.
In the fourth game, Illinois started Isaiah Williams, for his first game. Though his passing numbers were slim–seven for 18 with only 104 yards–he broke the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Williams rushed for 192 yards and a touchdown on 31 attempts.
Peters went back under center against Nebraska. The Illini scored 41 points in their second win, off the back of Peters’ 205 passing yards and two total touchdowns.
Due to the constant changes at quarterback, Illinois has the worst passing offense in the conference. After being lit up by Michael Penix Jr. last week, Ohio State has the worst passing defense in the conference. Despite averaging almost 300 passing yards per game, the Buckeyes passing defense should bounce back this week.
The most probable starter is Peters but Illinois might bring Williams in to use his legs to its advantage. It’s possible to see a rotation like what Nebraska did with Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey against Ohio State in the first week.
Due to the inconsistency at quarterback, the wide receivers haven’t been a key part of this offense. Josh Imatorbhebhe is the team’s leader in receiving yards, and the most dangerous threat. He is six-foot-two-inches and 220 pounds, so he will provide a physical challenge to Shaun Wade or whoever has to cover him.
The one bright spot on the Illinois offense is the run game. Redshirt sophomore Chase Brown and redshirt junior Mike Epstein are a solid one-two punch. Illinois has the second-best rushing offense in the conference, right behind Ohio State.
Brown is a balanced running back, while Epstein is quick and explosive. Both vary in style from Stevie Scott of Indiana, who was held to negative rushing yards last week.
Ohio State Offense vs. Illinois Defense
The passing defense in general is much improved. Illinois went from allowing a 95.2 completion percentage to Graham Mertz to keeping Nebraska starting quarterback McCaffrey to 134 passing yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions last week.
Illinois runs a lot of zone defenses, which Ohio State can try to exploit. Garrett Wilson does a great job of finding soft spots in zone defenses and getting open.
For a team that runs so much zone, it is remarkably bad at defending quarterback runs. McCaffrey, who is the only dual-threat quarterback they have faced, burned Illinois for 122 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 26 attempts.
Justin Fields has made a concerted effort to become a pocket passer. However, he should take what the defense gives him. If that means he has to run more than normal, so be it.
Master Teague should have another big day against a defense that give up 195 rushing yards per game. It doesn’t always look like it, but Ohio State has the best rushing offense in the Big Ten.
Ohio State fans might be worried about the state of the program after the nail biter against Indiana. That game on its own is nothing to worry about. The Buckeyes should win decisively against Illinois this week. If that game is close as well, then it will be time to worry.