CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ohio State football’s trip to Champaign, Ill., to play then-No.16 Illinois saw the Buckeyes facing adverse circumstances. A breakout 2011 debut for senior running back Daniel “Boom” Herron helped the Buckeyes overcome those and upset Illinois, 17-7.
Coming off two consecutive losses to Big Ten opponents, OSU also had to contend with the wind at Memorial Stadium, which gusted and swirled throughout the game, as well as the Fighting Illini offensive and defensive units, ranked third and fourth in the conference, respectively.
Originally slated to miss the first five games of the season for selling OSU football memorabilia in exchange for improper benefits in the form of tattoos, Herron was suspended for a sixth game for being overpaid for work he did not do at a summer job in the off-season.
Herron had an immediate impact in his first game Saturday, though, rushing for 23 yards on three carries on OSU’s first possession of the game, which resulted in a 43-yard field goal attempt into the wind that sophomore kicker Drew Basil knocked in to put OSU up, 3-0.
OSU took a 3-0 lead into half and had Herron out-gaining every player on both teams to that point with 70 yards on 12 carries.
“This is what (Herron’s) been working for,” first-year OSU head coach Luke Fickell said after the game.
“He’s gone through a lot. He’s sacrificed a lot and he’s learned a lot. He’s a big part of our team.
“He’s excited about it (being back) and I know the guys in the locker room are excited about it,” Fickell said.
On OSU’s first play from scrimmage in the second half, Herron darted for the corner of the Illinois end zone and scored on a 12-yard run to put the Buckeyes up, 10-0.
Freshman corner back Bradley Roby intercepted a pass from Illini sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and returned it 36 yards to position Herron for the score.
Herron is no stranger to putting points on the scoreboard for OSU, having posted a touchdown in 13 consecutive games for OSU.
“I was definitely happy to be back on the field,” Herron said postgame. “Missing the first six games was definitely hard on me and I was very anxious to get back out there.”
Despite not playing a single down for OSU since the Sugar Bowl Jan. 4 — a game that has since been vacated along with the rest of OSU’s 2010 season — Herron didn’t appear to miss a beat in his first competitive action in more than nine months.
“We have a great defense and I was definitely working with them (in practice),” Herron said. “They definitely made me better. I haven’t played a game yet, so you could say I was fresh.”
The Buckeyes’ freshman quarterback Braxton Miller attempted just four passes in the game and the rest of OSU’s offensive attack was comprised of 51 rushing attempts.
Illinois coach Ron Zook said his team knew the Buckeyes were going to try to run the ball on Saturday but they still couldn’t stop OSU on the ground, especially Herron.
“They have a … pretty good running back (Herron) and I think that was one of the things they were excited about, was having (Herron) back,” Zook said. “He did a great job and you can see why he’s one of the better backs in the Big Ten.”
Herron agreed that OSU’s run-intensive game plan was predictable, and gave credit to the offensive line for the collective success of OSU’s backs, who finished the game with 211 yards.
“We didn’t really pass the ball a lot, and that’s a big part of it,” Herron said. “I would say the offensive line did a great job today.”
Early in the fourth quarter, another turnover put the Illini in a deeper hole.
Miller found junior tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 17-yard pass for a touchdown to put OSU up, 17-0. The completion was the only one of the day for Miller.
OSU junior linebacker Storm Klein recovered a fumble on Illinois’ 37-yard line to set the table for Miller and Stoneburner’s scoring play.
Illinois was held scoreless for more than 53 minutes but finally broke through on an 80-yard scoring drive that Scheelhaase capped with a 3-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Evan Wilson.
The score cut Illinois’ deficit to 10 points, but the comeback fell short in the end.
The Illini drove for another late score, but Scheelhaase threw an incomplete pass to senior receiver A.J. Jenkins on fourth down from OSU’s 17-yard line with 1:11 remaining in the contest. Roby provided coverage on the play.
For the game, OSU’s defense limited Illinois’ offense to 285 total yards while also collecting two interceptions and a fumble.
OSU regained possession after Scheelhaase’s ineception and Herron, who finished the game with 114 yards on 23 carries, helped bleed the clock out to clinch the victory.
“Like I said, today was my first game and I didn’t want to go out there and make crazy things happen,” Herron said. “Now that I’m back out here, I’m going to do everything I can to help the team out and be a leader and get us more wins.”
With Herron’s return, only senior receiver DeVier Posey remains suspended for the Buckeyes. Posey sold OSU football memorabilia in exchange for improper benefits in the form of tattoos and was also overpaid for work he did not do at a summer job.
Herron and the Buckeyes will return to Big Ten Leaders Division play Oct. 29 at Ohio Stadium against No. 4-ranked Wisconsin (6-0, 2-0). Kick-off is set for 8 p.m.