CHAMPAIGN — Ohio State didn’t necessarily look like a national-championship contender on Saturday, but it was good enough to beat Illinois. By a lot.
The Illini offense couldn’t do a thing for much of the afternoon and missed out on the few opportunities it did have, as the Buckeyes improved to a perfect 10-0 with a 28-3 victory at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois amassed just 261 total offensive yards, gaining a staggeringly low 20 yards rushing and going 0-for-2 on its red-zone chances, blowing a couple other chances that weren’t official red-zone tries, too, in the loss.
Plus, Ohio State got a big second-half performance from Ezekiel Elliott, who after rushing for just 47 yards in the first half finished the day with 181 rushing yards — his 15th straight game with a triple-digit rushing total — and a pair of touchdown runs.
But as good as Elliott was in the second half, it was the Illinois offense that dropped the ball Saturday.
“The issue is the depth, we just have so many guys out,” interim head coach Bill Cubit said, blaming a not insignificant amount of Illini injuries for not being able to do what they want on offense. “And the problem is personnel groupings. You just get locked in. A lot of it is on (quarterback Wes Lunt’s) shoulders, and the guy made some hellacious throws and we probably should’ve helped him out a couple other times.”
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Illinois’ defense answered the bell early on, holding Ohio State’s offense to just one touchdown through much of the first half. The Buckeyes missed a short field-goal attempt on their first drive, scoring on the next when J.T. Barrett threw a beautiful pass to Michael Thomas for a touchdown. Ohio State punted three times and fumbled on its next four possessions.
But the Illini offense couldn’t capitalize on the window of opportunity, getting nothing done of any of those punts and only getting a field goal off the fumble. Taylor Zalewski missed a field-goal try in the second quarter. Illinois gained just 101 yards in the first half, just 32 coming on the ground.
Then the Buckeyes turned in the game-changing drive just before the half. Barrett gained 16 yards on the ground on fourth and 11, keeping the drive alive to end in a touchdown run for the quarterback who was back in action following a one-week suspension. That put Ohio State in front, 14-3, at the break.
The Illini were then worn down by the Buckeyes in the second half, with Elliott gaining 134 of his rushing yards and scoring both his touchdowns in the final 30 minutes.
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Illinois missed a couple opportunities in the second half, as well, with a fumble coming on a botched field-goal snap and a miscommunication on a fourth-down handoff resulting in a turnover on downs.
“Just got to put points on the board, got to put touchdowns on the board, mainly,” Lunt said of the team’s red-zone and up-close struggles. “That’s something we’ve just got to keep fighting, keep working on.
“It’s one play. I think one play can completely ruin a drive, especially with us. We play off momentum, and on play here and one play there ruins the whole drive really.”
Punt returner V’Angelo Bentley muffed a punt, too, setting up Elliott’s second touchdown run.
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In the end, Lunt completed 23 of his 47 passing attempts for 241 yards. He had no touchdown passes and was sacked three times. The rushing attack was practically non-existent with Ke’Shawn Vaughn knocked out of the game with a potential concussion and Josh Ferguson banged up, as well. Ferguson had 49 yards on 12 carries, one rush accounting for 27 of that yardage total.
The Buckeyes, currently ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, remain undefeated and would figure to control their destiny for a spot in the final four. Ohio State’s two remaining regular-season games are the toughest tests on the schedule, against Michigan State and Michigan. Win those games, and the Buckeyes will likely meet the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title game.
The Illini fell to 5-5 with the loss and remain one win away from bowl eligibility with games against Minnesota and Northwestern remaining on the regular-season schedule. Can Illinois reach the postseason? That remains to be seen, but Cubit has the team thinking it can.
“The worst thing that can ever happen is going in there and being negative. There’s so much negativity out there,” Cubit said. “If you don’t see the passion in these kids, somebody’s blind. These kids are playing their butts off and against a lot of odds. It’s up to the coaching staff every time to come up here and be positive, it’s up to them. And they look to the leader. If I’m negative, they’re negative. I’m not being negative.”