While the battle for the Illibuck doesn’t seem to quite have much pull lately, the Buckeyes are emphasizing that they are not looking forward to next week’s matchup with the Michigan State Spartans.
With that in mind, The Lantern sports editors are trying to keep their focus on Illinois as well with a list of five things to watch for during Saturday’s game.
1. How will J.T. Barrett perform after injury?
Not only is the redshirt-freshman quarterback coming off his arguably worst passing performance of the season, but he’s also nursing a knee injury.
Barrett sprained his MCL during the first half of OSU’s 31-24 double-overtime win against Penn State, but many watching might not have even known. He ended up running for 32 yards and both of the Buckeyes’ touchdowns during the overtime periods. But despite his success against the Nittany Lions, OSU fans were well within their right to be worried when they found out Barrett’s injury is similar to the one that held then-junior quarterback Braxton Miller out for nearly three full games last season.
Barrett’s success throughout the season has been directly impacted to the success of the OSU offense, and if his knee is stiff enough to affect his play — or even keep him off the field — the Buckeyes will suddenly have to rely on redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones.
Jones is an athlete with a rocket for an arm, but don’t count out the Illini if he has to see the field for any extended period of time.
As it’s been all season, OSU will go as Barrett goes under the Ohio Stadium lights.
2. Can the Buckeyes rattle Illinois senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole?
The Fighting Illini kicked off the season with a bright spot at quarterback in the form of Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. And now they’re stuck with O’Toole.
Lunt — a redshirt-sophomore — is set to miss the game with an injury, giving O’Toole his fourth start in the past five games for Illinois. Lunt had thrown 13 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions in his five games, while O’Toole has tossed a measly four touchdowns to go with four interceptions in eight total appearances.
Now he’s set to face the Buckeyes, which just so happen to lead the Big Ten in interceptions. If sophomore safety Vonn Bell, senior cornerback Doran Grant or any other member of the OSU defensive backfield can step in front of a pass early and rattle O’Toole, expect him to have a very long night in Columbus.
3. Can Joey Bosa replicate his performance from last week?
The sophomore defensive end dominated the Penn State offensive line last week en route to six tackles, 2.5 sacks and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Bosa is tied for fifth in the country with sacks (8.0) and leads the Buckeyes in tackles for loss (11.5) in addition to being tied for first in the Big Ten in fumbles forced with three.
Seeing Bosa line up across from it could be terrifying for the Illinois offensive line, as it is tied for last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed, averaging just over three per game.
Bosa should no doubt dominate the Fighting Illini this year, as he did last season when he recorded 2.5 of OSU’s six sacks on Illinois quarterbacks.
4. Will the Buckeyes’ run game dominate?
With Barrett playing injured, one can assume the Buckeyes will rely on the ground game a lot more this week.
If that is the case, it shouldn’t be a problem for OSU, as the Fighting Illini sport the worst run defense in the Big Ten, allowing 258.6 yards per game on the ground.
With Rod Smith gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this week, look for sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott to get the bulk of the carries along with freshman running back Curtis Samuel.
During the week, Meyer mentioned that redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall could get more involved in the running game, which would likely make up for the carries that will go missing with Smith no longer on the team.
5. Can Illinois redshirt-junior running back Josh Ferguson build on 2013’s performance?
Yes, OSU beat Illinois, 60-35, last season and no, Ferguson didn’t even rush for 100 yards. But that doesn’t mean he played poorly.
Even though the Buckeyes won big, Ferguson was impressive against them with 69 yards on the ground to go with a touchdown. His production came on just 15 carries, but that number could be much higher this time around against OSU.
Ferguson leads his team with 518 rushing yards this year to go with six touchdowns, but with O’Toole under center, the Fighting Illini might decide to rely on the run game early and often, especially if the quarterback struggles to start things off.
OSU’s rush defense is no pushover, but neither is Ferguson. If he gets rolling, it could spark a solid outing from the Illinois offense.
The matchup is set for 8 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.