CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Prior to No. 3 Ohio State’s 28-3 victory over Illinois, The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz dished out five things they would be watching for during the game. Here is how those items materialized.
Does the offense return to form with Barrett?
Redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett was back in the lineup after a one-week hiatus and it looked, based off the first eight plays from scrimmage, that the offense was back to the form it displayed against Rutgers two games ago. OSU drove all the way down the field methodically to the Illinois 1-yard line on the opening drive, but a run for no gain, a false start and a loss of one yard was followed by a missed field goal to stunt all that early momentum.
From there, the OSU offense was a grab bag. At times, Barrett and the offense clicked flawlessly, especially on the first three touchdown drives. But nearly equally as often, offensive rhythm and flow was astray, indicated by the five drives that lasted fewer than five plays and resulted in no points.
On the day, the offense accumulated 440 yards and found the end zone four times. Barrett specifically threw for 150 yards and one score, while churning out 74 yards and another touchdown with his legs. He did fumble once, while also throwing an interception.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said he wasn’t totally satisfied with his performance.
“(I) wouldn’t call it exceptional,” he said. “But he managed the offense very well.”
One portion of the offense that never lost its form was the running game behind junior tailback Ezekiel Elliott. He was the lynchpin of the unit as usual on Saturday, rushing for 181 yards and two scores.
Meyer praised Elliott’s contributions, but he said in his mind, the only major issue with the offense was pass protection, which was part of the issue on the interception because Barrett was under duress.
“We’re gonna work extremely hard on that,” Meyer said of the pass protection. He later added, “we’re going to hammer that one hard this week.”
Illinois’ duo of running backs
It took some time, but after three drives of sporadic touches, redshirt senior Josh Ferguson finally began to show why he is a focal point of opposition’s scouting reports. On the Fighting Illini’s fourth drive, after registering just 15 yards of offense, Ferguson picked up 30 total yards, including a 25-yard reception off a screen pass, to set up Illinois’ first points of the game.
From there, even though the offense for Illinois still could not completely click, Ferguson still was impactful; or as impactful as one can be against the stingy OSU defense.
He finished the night with 75 total yards. However, a majority of those came on a 27-yard run and the aforementioned 25-yard catch-and-run.
The areas of focus for the OSU defense during practice paved the way to limiting his success, senior defensive lineman Tommy Schutt said.
“Attacking the line of scrimmage, we’ve been working on that the last couple weeks, getting off the ball” he said. “Just creating penetration with our front four, I think we did a good job of that tonight.”
The other half of Illinois’ running back tandem, freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, was relatively nonexistent on Saturday, though. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week touched the ball just six times for a total of minus-four yards before getting injured. Halfway through the third quarter, Vaughn was ruled out for the remainder of the game with an undisclosed injury.
OSU’s rushing defense allowed just 33 yards to Minnesota in its last game and for the day against Illinois, it allowed even less: just a net of 20 yards, which includes yardage surrendered on sacks.
Junior defensive end Joey Bosa said he was satisfied with the defense’s job in containing Ferguson, as well as with the unit as a whole.
“We knew he was a great player,” Bosa said of Ferguson. “But I think we’ve been playing the run really good the past couple weeks, we just need to keep it up.”
Will Nuernberger solidify the kicking game?
Meyer made a switch at placekicker from redshirt senior Jack Willoughby to sophomore Sean Nuernberger for Saturday’s game, hoping to solidify the unstable position.
On OSU’s first drive, however, instead of erasing the question marks about field goal kicking, Nuernberger wrote new ones in permanent marker.
OSU’s offense drove all the way down to the 1-yard line, but after two stuffed rushing attempts and a false start, Nuernberger trotted out for his kick since last year’s national championship game. But the sophomore missed the 26-yard attempt badly, pulling it way to the left. It was probably not what Meyer envisioned when he made the change.
Nuernberger remained the placekicker for the rest of the game, converting on all of his point-after attempts. He did not attempt another field goal.
It seems for at least one more week, the uncertainty surrounding OSU’s kicking game remains.
All week OSU players insisted they were not looking past Illinois, despite having the season’s two biggest games — against Michigan State and Michigan — on the schedule after this week. But, given the history of fits that the Fighting Illini have caused the Buckeyes, namely the 2007 upset, there was reason to think that this game could be the prototypical “trap game.”
However, the Buckeyes were able to not slip up and Champaign without a blemish. Now, the squads from the state of Michigan are coming into focus.
“This is exactly what you wait for,” Perry said of the chance to play the best two teams on OSU’s schedule.
Perry said the Buckeyes will take these two challenges one at a time, like usual, but he did concede that all season long players on the team had thoughts of the forthcoming games against the Spartans and Wolverines.
But now, after 10 games are in the books, Perry said it is time to dig in.
“It’s do-or-die, basically at this point,” he said. “We got a big week ahead of us, we’re going to watch film, break everything up from this week, but we’re definitely shifting our focus.”
Can Jalin Marshall certify himself in the offense?
After a big game against Minnesota that saw him compile over 100 all-purpose yards, redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall was looking to keep contributions flowing in Champaign.
For the most, the Middletown, Ohio, native did just that.
Marshall caught four passes — the second-highest mark on the team — for 38 yards, including a 23-yarder that set up OSU’s second touchdown of the game toward the end of the first half. He also did a nice job on the perimeter.
Meyer was asked about the consistency of Elliott, as well as redshirt junior wide receiver Michael Thomas, following the game, but the coach took it upon himself to categorize Marshall with the potential All-Americans.
On punt returns, Marshall was mostly kept in check, but that had a lot to do with the struggles of Illinois’ junior punter Ryan Frain. He checked in with just one return for one yard.
Overall, OSU’s offense showed flashes of the levels it can play at, and Marshall, once again, showed that he is a big part of it.
The Buckeyes will be back in action on Saturday against Michigan State in Columbus. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.