CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Those two season-defining games, those two clashes of the titans against Michigan State and Michigan that Ohio State insisted it wasn’t thinking about suddenly could be talked about after the Buckeyes’ 28-3 win over Illinois on Saturday.
It started at the top. Twice during his postgame analysis of OSU’s 23rd win in a row coach Urban Meyer talked about “what is coming down the road.”
That road starts with Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) taking on Michigan State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) at Ohio Stadium this Saturday, then continues at Michigan a week later.
The Buckeyes hit a few potholes on the last stretch of highway before Michigan State and Michigan when it let Illinois (5-5, 2-4) hang around almost until halftime.
But a lot of defense and a lot of Ezekiel Elliott eventually wore down the Illini.
Elliott rushed for 181 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns. It was the fifteenth consecutive game over 100 yards for the junior tailback.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ohio State’s last two opponents haven’t combined for 100 yards on the ground. Illinois managed to get only 20 yards rushing. And a week ago, OSU allowed only 33 yards rushing by Minnesota.
“These two games coming up are the biggest games of the year for us. If we don’t perform in them we can’t accomplish our goals for the season,” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said.
“It’s going to be a good test, a good measure of where we’re at. Those teams are pretty elite. All three of us are playing for something so it’s going to be a big-time atmosphere,” he said.
Defensive lineman Tommy Schutt, who returned Saturday after missing two games because of wrist surgery, looked ahead to the Michigan State game and said, “That’s one we’ve been looking forward to all year. That’s a game we’ve been thinking about but couldn’t talk about until now.”
Quarterback J.T. Barrett (15 of 23 for 150 yards and a touchdown, and 74 yards rushing on 16 carries) returned from a one-week suspension and didn’t show a lot of signs of rust from his week off.
Meyer gave Ohio State high grades in every area except one. Barrett was sacked only once but felt defensive pressure most of the game.
“Our defense is playing lights out. Our defense did a marvelous job back to back weeks. We have to be better in pass protection. That’s the only negative. We have to work extremely hard on that,” he said.
Meyer said the offensive line’s run blocking was good. It’s just the pass protection he is concerned about.
“We know what’s coming down the road next week and we have to be a little bit more balanced,” he said.
Ohio State started slowly when it did not score on its first possession for the eighth time in 10 games.
A blocked punt by Curtis Samuel set up OSU’s first touchdown on a 24-yard pass from Barrett to Michael Thomas the next time it had the ball.
Taylor Zalewski’s 46-yard field goal early in the second quarter cut the lead to 7-3 and Ohio State’s next four series ended with three punts and a fumble.
But a 6-yard touchdown run by Barrett with 55 seconds left in the first half put Ohio State ahead 14-3. And two short touchdown runs by Elliott pushed the lead to 28-3 with 9:47 left in the game.
Maybe the defining moment of the game came two plays before Barrett’s touchdown that made it 14-3 when OSU went for it on fourth down and 11 yards to go at Illinois’ 38-yard line and got the first down.
“That was one of those moments where I just challenged the offensive line,” Meyer said. “With Zeke and four returning (offensive line) starters you’d better be able to get that. We needed that for the momentum.”
Illinois coach Bill Cubit said, “They’re a good football team. They kind of wear you down. Ezekiel Elliott is a good back. That’s why there up there where they are. They’re a really good football team.”
Ohio State’s next chance to establish just how good it is will come at 3:30 p.m. Saturday against Michigan State.