When a football team finds itself trying not to look past its current opponent and onto a more important date in the future, it usually doesn’t come during a prime-time home game with an 89-year-old trophy at stake.
But that’s exactly what the No. 13 Ohio State Buckeyes had before them on Saturday evening, as the Big Ten cellar-dwelling Illinois Fighting Illini came to Columbus. Even with the prospect of a showdown with No. 7 Michigan State coming the following week, coach Urban Meyer’s team collected its focus to execute a dominant 55-14 victory.
“I think we have a good bunch of players that care about each other and get ready for a big week,” Meyer said after the game. “I thought our defense came out and played well.”
As has been the case so many times this season, his defensive unit has held its opponent to a small output as redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeye offense lit up the scoreboard. Meyer’s singling out of the defense was telling, however. The group that struggled mightily toward the end of last season produced another steady performance on Saturday.
The Buckeyes held their opponents to less than 250 total yards for the second consecutive week, and set the tone for the game by forcing three Fighting Illini turnovers in the first half.
It began on the visitors’ first drive. With a first-and-10 at the OSU 39-yard line, Illinois senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole put a pass right onto the fingertips of his senior tight end Matt LaCosse. LaCosse couldn’t corral it, however, and the ball instead fell into the arms of redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee.
The pick was Lee’s second of the season, and he credited the mentality of the coaching staff for the interception.
“What our coaches push us to do is not only execute, but execute and try to make a play. We try to force turnovers literally every play and every call that we get,” Lee said. “Even if it’s a simple run play that they’re running, we’re trying to knock the ball out.
“That’s our mindset now, now that everybody’s starting to get really comfortable with what they’re doing. Now it’s time to go make plays when that comes to you and it’s our job to make those plays.”
That mindset was evident on Illinois’ last drive of the first quarter. Redshirt-junior running back Josh Ferguson looked like he had burst through a hole in the OSU defense for a solid gain. But just as Lee was dragging him to the ground, redshirt-sophomore safety Tyvis Powell arrived on the scene and dislodged ball from Ferguson’s grasp, allowing junior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington to recover the fumble.
Powell also had five total tackles, including one tackle for loss, to go along with his impact play. Sophomore Vonn Bell started at the other safety position, and he said the combination between him and Powell is built on familiarity.
“It is trust. It’s like a brotherhood, that’s like my brother across the field,” Bell said. “We can’t let each other down. That’s at all costs.”
Up front, the Buckeyes rode another standout performance by sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa, who had a team-leading two sacks. But it wasn’t just Bosa who was giving the Illini something to think about. Senior defensive lineman Steve Miller, who has kept his starting spot since sophomore Noah Spence reportedly failed a second drug test before the game against Kent State earlier in the season, chalked up his third-straight four-tackle game and forced a second-half fumble. For the veteran Miller, he knows the part he has to play, and he said he gives his maximum effort in order to help him teammates succeed.
“I knew it was gonna be a big part for me when Noah went down. So I had to just step up real big because Noah played a big role last year and I know I had to fill his shoes,” Miller said. “The whole thing is, I just don’t want to let my brothers down, so I’m just trying to get better every week and just be consistent.”
Just like he did against Penn State the week before, junior linebacker Joshua Perry led all OSU defenders in tackles with seven overall. There was also significant playing time given to players like freshman defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes and junior linebacker Cam Williams, both of whom recorded four total tackles.
The depth the Buckeyes are beginning to show is something senior linebacker Curtis Grant — the other defender to intercept an Illinois pass — said helps to keep the entire unit at a high level.
“With the rotation that coach has us going through, it keeps us fresh and keeps your body from being banged up so bad,” Grant said.
Despite such a successful night, Bell said that immediately after the game, the team’s focus turned to next weekend’s duel with the Spartans, who boast the No. 5 scoring offense in the nation.
“During this game, it started getting out of hand so we started thinking about it then. (Meyer) said something at the end of the game today,” Bell said. “This week is a big week for preparation so we’ll get it going.”
Both the Buckeyes and Spartans sit atop the Big Ten East Division with identical records of 7-1 overall and 4-0 in conference. The date many college football fans had circled on their calendar from the start of the season is almost here, and Bell said the Buckeyes will enter it with tremendous confidence.
“Everybody’s got each other’s back, we’re holding each other accountable,” Bell said. “We’re on a mission.”
The Buckeyes and Spartans are set to face off on Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.