CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – High winds and a stingy Illinois defense gave No. 3 Ohio State a hard time for much of Saturday afternoon’s contest, but the visitors pulled away in the second half to grab a 28-3 victory.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett returned to the OSU (10-0, 6-0) lineup after a one-game absence due to a suspension and piled up 224 total yards of offense, but it was junior running back Ezekiel Elliott who starred with 181 yards on the ground.
“I feel like we’re at a good place,” Barrett said. “We’re 10-0, at the top of the Big Ten, one of the top teams in the country. Not a lot of people can say they’re 10-0.”
OSU’s offense went to work quickly in front of a supportive road crowd following an Illinois (5-5, 2-4) punt, getting inside the 1-yard line after a touchdown run by Barrett was called back following a review. OSU stalled on its next two attempts, giving sophomore Sean Nuernberger a chance for his first field goal of the year after displacing redshirt senior Jack Willoughby.
Nuernberger could not take advantage of his chip shot, though, pulling it to the left from 24 yards for his eighth miss in just 21 career attempts.
The Buckeyes didn’t allow it to get that far in their following drive, as consecutive completions of 22 and 24 yards to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas put them up 7-0 late in the first quarter.
“In our room we have a lot of playmakers, so when the ball’s in the air and I have an opportunity to make a play, I want to make a play,” Thomas said.
The Illini got on the scoreboard two drives later, as a seven-play, 42-yard march ended with a successful 46-yard field goal to trim OSU’s lead to four points.
Illinois had a chance to cut into the lead further or grab it when Barrett fumbled the ball on a run midway through the second quarter, but a 50-yard field goal attempt went off the post after the offense went nowhere.
OSU’s offensive woes continued on its subsequent drive from midfield, going three-and-out.
After gaining 105 yards in their first two drives, the Buckeyes’ next four drives resulted in only one first down — three punts and the lost fumble.
“We have to be more balanced,” Meyer said. “We know what is coming down the road next week, and have to be a little bit more balanced than we were.”
With no offensive momentum to speak for, Barrett made a game-changing play on the following possession.
After getting the ball into Illinois territory, OSU faced a 4th-and-6, but chose to keep the offense on the field. A false start on redshirt senior Chase Farris made it 4th-and-11, but OSU coach Urban Meyer still opted to go for it.
That gamble paid off, as Barrett improvised after seeing no options downfield and ran to the outside for 16 yards. Two plays and a holding penalty later, Barrett again ran it, this time from six yards away for a touchdown to put OSU up 14-3 heading into the locker rooms.
“That’s one of those moments that you look and say, ‘Can you get this?’” Meyer said about the fourth-down try. “We needed that momentum.”
At the half, OSU held a margin of 209-101 in total yards. Barrett was 9-of-13 for 106 yards and also led all rushers with 56 yards, while his counterpart, redshirt junior Wes Lunt, was just 9-of-21 for 69 yards. OSU and Illinois were just 1-of-6 and 2-of-10 on third-down conversions in the first half, respectively.
After a bad snap caused Illinois to blow its second field goal in three tries, the OSU offense went back to work operating mostly with an up-tempo offense. With Elliott carrying the ball on eight of the 11 plays, OSU traveled 75 yards in less than four minutes. The final play was a goal-line dive by Elliott for his 15th touchdown of the season.
The 50 yards on the drive by the St. Louis native also extended his streak of games with over 100 yards rushing to 15.
“At that tempo, we thought our offensive line was starting to wear them out with body blows … obviously (Elliott) is a workhorse, he gets stronger as the game goes on,” Meyer said.
After a muffed punt by Illinois was recovered by OSU early in the fourth quarter, Elliott padded his stats further with a 10-yard touchdown carry to make it a 28-3 route.
Of Elliott’s 181 yards, 134 came in the second half. His performance moved him into third on OSU’s all-time rushing list with 3,565 in his career, passing Tim Spencer. Only Archie Griffin (5,589) and Eddie George (3,768) sit in front of Elliott.
“I grew up in that era with Archie and Eddie, and somebody told me that on the sideline,” Meyer said. “Even to say that just kind of takes your breath away because I grew up watching those guys.
“I know that if I had any choice at tailback in the country, I got mine. I think I speak on behalf of my team.”
For the game, Barrett completed 15 of 23 passes for 150 yards and ran for 74 more. He did have two turnovers, a lost fumble and an interception late in the third quarter.
“I felt he played well, and he never put he put his head down, never pointed any fingers or nothing,” Thomas said. “I feel like that’s something he’s going to build on, he’s getting back in his rhythm.”
Freshman wide receiver Desmond Cain was the lone bright spot on the Illinois offense, pulling in 10 catches for 102 yards. Lunt finished the game 23-of-47 for 241 yards. The Illinois running game, which piled up 382 rushing yards in its previous game, a 48-14 win against Purdue, was held to just 20 on Saturday.
“Overall we’re playing great defense,” redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “We just want to continue that, that’s our goal, that’s what we’re focused on.”
OSU is next set to turn its attention toward a pivotal home game against No. 13 Michigan State on Nov. 21. Kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.