Before the game came the salute — literally, from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer — as Ohio State’s 19 seniors received a proper sendoff in their final home game.
After the game, several of those players, wanting to savor the moment, went into the south stands to celebrate with the hardy students.
The game itself — well, that might have the least interesting part of the day, unless you enjoy watching football being played in a car wash. Knowing a heavy rainstorm was coming, the Buckeyes played with appropriate urgency in their 52-14 senior day victory against Illinois at Ohio Stadium.
The victory, combined with Wisconsin’s win over Michigan, clinched the Big Ten East for No. 9 Ohio State (9-2, 7-1). After playing the archrival Wolverines in Ann Arbor next week, the Buckeyes will play the undefeated Badgers on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title and — just maybe — a possible spot in the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State built a 38-0 halftime lead over an Illini team winless in the Big Ten before the rain became torrential. All week, coach Urban Meyer had an eagle eye for any sign the Buckeyes might look past Illinois toward next week.
But on Saturday, he kept one eye on the weather forecast. The heavy rain was expected to arrive around halftime.
“The message in the locker room was: Get out fast,” senior center Billy Price said. “We had a good game plan going in. We knew what they were going to do.”
What the Illini (2-9, 0-8) did was provide little resistance on either side of the ball. Ohio State scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, with Mike Weber providing two of them, including a 43-yard run.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett ran for another and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Binjimen Victor late in the first quarter to make it 28-0. It was Barrett’s 100th career touchdown pass.
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After settling for Sean Nuernberger’s 33-yard field goal on their next drive, the Buckeyes went 53 yards to make it 38-0 with 7:10 left in the second quarter.
Ohio State’s defense was just as dominating. Twelve of Illinois’ 23 first-half snaps went for zero or negative yardage. The Illini didn’t get a first down until only 3:32 remained in the second quarter.
“We really were just playing base defense, just executing,” senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said. “I was a little upset about the first down. We wanted a total shutout, total domination.”
Illinois finally stopped Ohio State’s offense when Barrett and the starting offensive line were removed for the Buckeyes’ final possession of the first half. But the starters returned in the third quarter after Dwayne Haskins fumbled and Illinois’ Ahmari Hayes returned it 54 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
“I was so (ticked),” Meyer said. “I just didn’t want it to turn into a clown show, which it looked like it for a minute.”
The decision caught the starters off guard.
“I was not taped up,” Price said. “It was 38-0 at that point and I said, ‘Well, I think I’m done.’ But hey, Coach is boss.”
Barrett added a second touchdown to Marcus Baugh before leaving for good. Haskins hit Victor with a 21-yard touchdown for the Buckeyes’ final score.
“I’ve gotta give Dwayne a lot of credit,” Meyer said. “He bounced back.”
Illinois’ offense finally scored on a 65-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Even with that, Ohio State outgained Illinois 543-105 and had 27 first downs to only five for the Illini.
“The defense was dominant,” Meyer said. “They did what they had to do.”
Several of the Buckeye seniors had one last thing to do once the game mercifully ended. They wanted to share the moment with the soaked students who had stuck it out until the end.
“I was just doing something to cherish the moment and cherish the fans, especially the ones in the Block O section,” Lewis said. “They bring the juice when we play at home.
“It’s the last time I’ll be able to do something like that. For me, Tracy (Sprinkle), (Chris) Worley, Jalyn (Holmes) and Damon (Webb), we did that because it was the last opportunity.”