Ohio State improved to 10-0 Saturday with a convincing win against Illinois, 52-22. While the result shouldn’t shock anyone – Illinois is likely the worst team in the Big Ten – this is an OSU team that has struggled against the likes of Indiana and Purdue. But everything was clicking for the Scarlet-and-Gray on Saturday, and OSU is now just two wins away from a perfect season.
More than just Miller
Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller will continue to receive Heisman hype, but it was a collective effort on the ground for the Buckeyes, who piled up 330 yards rushing against the Illini.
Carlos Hyde has been a revelation this season. The junior running back rushed for 137 yards and three scores, while averaging 7.6 yards per carry. It’s fairly easy to move the chains when your running back averages nearly a first down, and thanks to Hyde, the Buckeyes had no problem doing so against Illinois. All told OSU converted 32 first downs, a team best for the season.
Defenses have to respect Hyde, and they occasionally over-commit when it looks like the physical running back is about to tote the rock through the middle. When the defense does, Miller is able to keep the ball on read-option plays, and scamper toward the undefended outside for big gains.
Hyde’s power complements Miller’s speed and elusiveness and the duo have become one of the nation’s most lethal combinations on the ground. It should be comforting for Buckeye fans to know that each has eligibility to return next season, though Hyde potentially could flirt with an early departure for the NFL.
Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore running back Rod Smith is piecing together a respectable season in his own right.
Smith was ranked by ESPN as the seventh best running back prospect in 2010 coming out of Paul Harding High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., but it’s taken some time for him to live up to that billing.
After redshirting in 2010, Smith opened the 2011 season as a potential breakout star. Instead he struggled with ball security, and was eventually buried on the depth chart.
This year, Smith has quietly emerged as a solid backup option, and the coaching staff seems intent on getting him more touches. Smith caught his first career touchdown reception against Illinois, a 51-yard strike off a wheel route.
The play featured a formation that the Buckeyes used a lot on Saturday, lining both Hyde and Smith in the backfield on either side of Miller.
“It’s a great look,” coach Urban Meyer said. “That has always been in the playbook, but we never had enough confidence. Now we do. I think it was a productive set and I think you’ll see more of that.”
Looking past the bye week
OSU is off with a bye next weekend, and will return to action on Nov. 17 against Wisconsin in the team’s final road test.
Wisconsin was a preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, but has been an up-and-down team all season. They will likely be on the down turn against the Buckeyes, playing without starting freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who was injured for the season last weekend.
Wisconsin is a run-first football team, and without its starting quarterback it will rely even more on its ground attack. This plays right into OSU’s strength – though the Silver Bullets have struggled against spread offenses, power-run teams haven’t fared well against the Buckeye’s defense. The most comparable opponent to Wisconsin is Michigan State, and OSU held its run game in check earlier this year.
OSU will have to overcome one of the Big Ten’s most ruthless road environments in Camp Randall Stadium, but it fared well in a similar test at Penn State on Oct. 27. With an extra week to prepare, OSU will be favored to do the same at Wisconsin.
Then there is The Game, the finale against Michigan. With a potentially perfect record on the line, in Meyer’s first game against the Wolverines, expect to see a fired-up ball club on Nov. 24 in Ohio Stadium.
Both games will likely be close contests, and OSU could very well be facing its two most talented opponents in the coming weeks. But the bottom line is, with two games remaining, OSU is in a favorable position to complete a perfect season.
Give an extra helmet sticker to …
Sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Shazier led the team with 14 tackles, and he continues to assert himself as one of the team’s leaders on defense.
Aside from Miller, there may not be a more valuable player on this team than Shazier. He has almost single-handedly legitimized the Buckeyes’ linebackers, which seemed to be the weak-link of the defense not too long ago.
Because of a lack of depth and injuries, OSU features senior Zach Boren, a converted full back, next to Shazier at linebacker. Shazier has elevated his play the past three weeks, allowing Boren to settle within the defense.
OSU’s defense as a whole has also looked improved the past three weeks, and that, by no means, is a coincidence.