Ohio State Buckeyes: 5 things to know about Saturday’s game vs Illinois

Ohio State plays its last home game of the season Saturday when Illinois comes to town.

The Buckeyes began the home slate with a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma but bounced back with six straight wins.

They started November with a stunning loss at Iowa, but blew out then-No. 12 Michigan State last week to regain control of their own destiny in the Big Ten East race.

Was that the start of another winning streak, this time at the most important time of the year?

Ohio State’s most important rivalry game looms a week later, but first the Buckeyes will take on their second-oldest foe.

Here are five things to know about the matchup between the Fighting Illini, the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and the conference race.

1. The next-to-last week of the regular season is kind of a weird one in the Big Ten.

Wisconsin has already wrapped up the West division title and a berth in the conference championship game. Ohio State will do the same in the East with a win and a loss by Michigan.

The Wolverines and Badgers play in the conference’s marquee game of the week, which typically would mean a late-afternoon or nighttime kickoff. Not this time: UW-UM will play at noon on Fox with Ohio State-Illinois starting at 3:30 on ABC.

Even if the Wolverines upset Wisconsin, Ohio State would earn a share of its sixth straight division title by topping the Fighting Illini and could clinch a trip to Indianapolis depending on other results.

Everything important in the conference standings could be wrapped up by the time the late games across the country kick off. 

2. It’s the battle for the Illibuck.

Ohio State only has one rivalry trophy game, and this is it: The Buckeyes and Fighting Illini play for a wooden turtle that was made in the 1920s after the original living turtle unfortunately passed away way too soon.

The Buckeyes have dominated the series overall (leading 68-30-4), including winning the last seven, but Illinois has beaten Ohio State nine times since 1988. The only team with more wins against the Buckeyes in that span is Michigan (12).

The last five Illinois wins in the series are all at Ohio Stadium (1992, ’94, ’99, 2001 and ’07).

3. Ohio State is a heavy favorite.

This week the Buckeyes have been favored by as much as 41 points, a mark that would be the highest for Ohio State in a Big Ten game in the past 30 years according to the Toledo Blade.

While Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense, passing offense and pass efficiency, Illinois is last in the conference in scoring offense, rushing offense and sacks allowed.

Ohio State and Illinois are similar in one area: A league-high 73 penalties for 722 yards have been marked off against the Buckeyes. Illinois is next in both categories with 72 penalties for 654 yards. 

4. One group for Illinois has caught Urban Meyer’s eye.

“Defensive line catches your attention,” Ohio State’s coach said Monday. “They’re penetrators and they’re big dudes, 310 pounds and 290, the other guy. But the defensive line catches your eye as a strength.”

James Crawford lead Illinois with in sacks with four despite playing only seven games. He also has a team-high 5.5 tackles for loss.

Centerville native Tito Odenigbo is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss, including a sack.

Ohio State’s offensive line is coming off perhaps its best performance of the season.

All five starting lineman graded out as champions, including Springfield native Demetrius Knox, who has started the last four games after Brandon Bowen went down with a broken leg.

“I think that’s three games that he’s graded at champion,” Meyer said. “So we’re moving in the right direction.”

5. Meyer is on red alert for a letdown.

Despite those numbers, nobody knows better than Ohio State’s coach that unexpected things happen every Saturday in college football.

“I wasn’t here 100 years ago, but I imagine it’s every year. Every year I’ve been involved in college football there’s (a result that is) like, ‘What? What happened?’ And it’s the nature of the beast.”

That includes Ohio State 55-24 loss at Iowa on Nov. 4 and multiple upsets last weekend that got the Buckeyes back into the playoff conversation — one Meyer hopes hasn’t reached his locker room.

“I’m going to be out of my damn mind on that,” Meyer said Monday before the Buckeyes moved up to No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings. “There’s going to be zero conversation about that, other than play really hard in Tuesday’s practice and get ready for a game on Saturday.”

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