After the Illinois humiliation against the powerful Buckeyes, an exasperated head coach Ron Zook tried to find something positive about his team.
"We're better than we're playing. The one thing we did have was enthusiasm, at least until the middle or end of the third quarter. But we're not playing well."
They definitely did not play well. The Illini moved the ball at times, but they could not sustain drives. The Ohio State defense is strong, but it was Illini mistakes that did them in.
Penalties came at inopportune times. Juice Williams threw two critical interceptions. Plays would break down at critical moments. Receivers dropped balls. Special teams were inconsistent again.
Zook is understandably frustrated by all the errors.
"Penalties are gonna kill you. It's about being smart, playing smart football. We've got to take care of the football. We didn't do that again. That's three games in a row now we've turned the ball over."
It appeared the Illini formulated a conservative game plan to control the ball and keep the score close. That plan became more extreme since the game was played in a steady rain that became a downpour during the first half. The Buckeyes were able to focus on Illini quarterback Juice Williams and his option attack since there was no threat of downfield passing.
Still, it was the UI's mistakes that guaranteed their failure.
"Every drive, we were moving the football, but we'd shoot ourselves in the foot," Zook remembered. "Those are the things we've got to go back and look at. Is it what we're trying to do? If we have to change people, we'll change people. We have to keep experimenting until we get the right mixture."
The Buckeyes were also conservative offensively, their star quarterback Terrelle Pryor throwing only two times in the first half with no completions. But they established an inside running game behind Pryor and running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine.
It appeared they took advantage of the season-ending surgery to Illini middle linebacker Martez Wilson. Illinois decided to stay in a nickel package the whole first half, probably figuring freshman middle linebacker Evan Frierson was not ready to perform under pressure. With only two linebackers opposing them, Buckeye blockers opened numerous holes for their running backs.
When the Illini finally inserted Frierson as a third linebacker late in the game, OSU began to pass the ball, ultimately completing 8 of 13 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown with one minute left in the game. It is likely future Illini opponents will use this same formula to exploit what appears to be a weakness in the Illini defense.
Ohio State ended the day with 318 yards including 236 on the ground. Herron had 75 yards in 14 carries with two touchdowns. Saine added 81 yards in 13 carries, and Pryor ran for 59 yards.
In contrast, the Illini offense generated only 170 yards total offense, 82 rushing and 88 passing. Williams was 13 for 27 for 77 yards and 2 interceptions. He added a net 18 yards in 15 carries. Mikel Leshoure was the Illini's leading rusher with four carries for 25 yards. Arrelious Benn added four receptions for 33 yards. Overall, the Illini were whistled for 8 penalties totaling 71 yards.
Illinois was supposed to have a powerful offense, but that has not proven to be true up to now. They have now scored a meager nine points against two BCS teams, and they show no ability to get their receivers the ball in the open field where they can make plays. Is it incompetence, or are they just in a temporary funk? Zook believes it is the latter.
"We're good enough, we've just got to play ourselves out of this thing."
To their credit, the Buckeyes are a talented team that will win most if not all its remaining games. Zook praised them afterward.
"It was hard hitting. In the Big 10, they're all gonna be physical. Ohio State has good football players, there's no question. They're a good football team and well coached. We just didn't give them the kind of game I thought we could."
Illinois now returns home to face mighty Penn State, OSU's equal. Players and coaches must search their souls for an answer, a spark to upgrade their play and make their fans proud. Zook says they have much to learn and little time to do so.
"It's not gonna be easy next week, but it's another challenge and we're gonna have to get up for it. There's some things we've got to learn. We don't have a lot of time for it, but we're gonna have to learn quickly."