After Indiana, could Illini really be Ohio State's next-toughest Big Ten test?

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Last week’s game against undefeated and No. 9 Indiana was billed as the toughest game on Ohio State’s regular-season football schedule.

As strange as that seemed, the Hoosiers’ impressive performance in the Buckeyes’ 42-35 victory gave credence to the pregame hype.

This week’s game at Illinois poses an even more unlikely question: Could the Fighting Illini, a 28-point underdog, be the second-best team No. 4 Ohio State faces until, presumably, the Big Ten championship game?

At first glance, it seems preposterous. It’s Illinois. The Illini are only 2-3, with victories the past two games over Rutgers and Nebraska. Ohio State has won its past nine games against Illinois, which is considered one of the Big Ten’s habitual underachievers.

But this year, almost everyone on the Buckeyes’ schedule qualifies as that. Nebraska is 1-3 after committing five turnovers in its 41-23 loss to the Illini.

Ranked No. 7 in the preseason, Penn State is 0-5 for the first time in school history. Rutgers is better, but, well, is still Rutgers. Michigan needed a missed field goal attempt by the Scarlet Knights before prevailing in a three-overtime game that was more comic than epic.

After crushing Michigan, Michigan State has been outscored 73-7 in two games.

Other than Indiana, Ohio State’s regular-season opponents have a 7-21 record. No wonder the College Football Playoff selection committee cited the Buckeyes’ schedule as a major reason it ranked them behind one-loss Clemson in the first CFP rankings this week.

“That certainly factored in and was one factor in where Ohio State ended up,” said CFP selection committee chair Gary Barta, who’s also the athletic director at Iowa.

Ohio State linebackers Tuf Borland (32) and Pete Werner (20), here chasing Indiana receiver Whop Philyor in last week's escape against the Hoosiers, said the Buckeyes will be up to the task defensively this week at Illinois.

As for Illinois, its 2-3 record should be viewed with a bit of a disclaimer. The Illini were hit hard by COVID-19, particularly at quarterback. Four players have started behind center. Brandon Peters, a graduate transfer from Michigan, missed three games after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The Illini are now healthy. Peters returned for the Nebraska game and was effective, passing for 205 yards to provide balance to a strong run game featuring Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. The Illini trail only the Buckeyes in rushing yardage per game in the Big Ten with an average of 222.4.

On defense, the Illini are living up to coach Lovie Smith’s philosophy of emphasizing turnovers. They have forced 13.

“They’re definitely a solid team,” said Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland, an Illinois native. “They're well-coached. They have talent. They’ve given people problems throughout the season.

“We know at Ohio State we're going to get everyone's best shot every week, so we're going to be ready to be ready for that.”

The Buckeyes will be looking to clean up some of the problems they showed against Indiana.

Quarterback Justin Fields matched his previous career total by throwing three interceptions.

The OSU pass defense again struggled in the second half. Indiana, like Rutgers in the previous game, scored four touchdowns against the Buckeyes in the final 30 minutes. 

Indiana threw for 491 yards last week. The Buckeyes know opponents will try to follow that passing blueprint.

Linebacker Pete Werner said Ohio State welcomes that and vows that the defense will be ready.

“We didn't play and respond the way that we should have,” he said. “So yes, I definitely think we'll see those again. I hope they give it to us again.

“We're going to (have) a great week prepping. I just hope they give it to us because it's going to be a dead play for them.”

Dead play seems to be an appropriate phrase for the Big Ten opponents on Ohio State’s schedule this year. The challenge for the Buckeyes is to set the bar high for themselves. Eventually, the true tests will come.