CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On a day when Ohio State football freshman quarterback Braxton Miller completed just 1-of-4 passes against then-No. 16 Illinois, the Buckeyes defense helped pick up the slack.
Defensive coordinate Jim Heacock’s unit limited Illinois to just seven points and 285 total yards of offense at Memorial Stadium as the Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2) captured a 17-7 upset win against the Fighting Illini.
First-year OSU head coach Luke Fickell said two keys to Saturday’s game were turnovers and field position. In addition to denying the Illinois offense throughout the game, the OSU defense helped satisfy the two needs Fickell identified.
OSU held a 3-0 advantage at half time, but an interception by freshman corner back Bradley Roby, which he returned 36 yards, helped the Buckeyes extend their advantage.
With the team just 12 yards from the end zone, Daniel “Boom” Herron scored on a touchdown on the next play to put the Buckeyes up, 10-0.
“This is a game of momentum,” Fickell said after the game. “That’s probably the biggest thing about it (Roby’s interception). One thing we’ve lacked on defense is making some plays and to have a play start right there and then answer right away with the offense — that’s what this game is all about.”
The touchdown came in Herron’s 2011 debut and with his return to the lineup, 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.
Sophomore corner back Dominic Clarke, who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for shooting what one witness described as a “compressed-air” gun from the top of Marketplace, a diner on OSU’s campus, did not travel with the team to Champaign.
Junior linebacker Storm Klein recovered a fumble on Illinois’ 37-yard line early in the fourth quarter to position OSU for another score.
Three plays after that, OSU again used the short field to its advantage as Miller completed his only pass of the game to junior tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 17-yard touchdown to put OSU up, 17-0.
There was more to OSU’s defense than positioning the offense for scoring opportunities too.
The Buckeye defense limited Illinois, which averaged 226 yards per game through six games, to 116 rushing yards on Saturday.
“We tackled well,” Fickell said. “We didn’t give up big plays.”
Sophomore safety C.J. Barnett agreed with Fickell.
“The coaches gave us a good game plan,” Barnett said. “We were able to execute. Everyone was able to do their job.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, junior defensive tackle John Simon and Klein also combined for seven tackles for loss, totalling -23 yards against Illinois.
Simon, and Hankins both tallied career highs in tackles with eight and nine, respectively, and helped OSU hold Illinois’ offense to 162 yards below its per game average through six games.
Thanks to an efficient outing from both OSU’s offensive and defensive units, OSU junior tight end Reid Fragel said the team was ecstatic in the locker room after the game.
“It’s a much-needed win,” Fragel said. “We kind of felt like our backs were against the wall. (With) both sides of the ball finally coming together, playing some good football, that’s big for us.”
Fickell said more improvement is needed as the Buckeyes enter their bye week.
“We’re not going to let this define us,” Fickel said. “This game is a lot more fun when you win. That momentum is so huge… and maybe those guys (the OSU players) haven’t had that in a while.”
After the bye week, the Buckeyes continue Big Ten Leaders Division play against No. 4-ranked Wisconsin on Oct. 29 at Ohio Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.