Those past games helped to create plenty of motivation for the Buckeyes as they hosted Illinois on Sept. 26. Ohio State used that to its advantage, beginning its quest for a fifth consecutive Big Ten title with a convincing 30-0 blanking of Illinois on a rainy afternoon at Ohio Stadium.
"I've never seen the locker room so excited after a game," defensive tackle Todd Denlinger said. "It's a great day to be a Buckeye."
The Buckeyes were fired up from even before the opening kickoff. After gathering in the south end zone for the traditional "hive" before pregame warm-ups, the team rushed to midfield for its customary final huddle before breaking up into position groups. However, they were not alone. The Illini also converged near the Block "O" logo on the 50-yard line, a spot where punches were thrown two years earlier after some of the Illinois players celebrated on the logo after upsetting the Buckeyes.
Cooler heads prevailed this time, with coaches separating the two sides before anything other than trash talk could occur.
"There was just some friendly barking, smiling at each other and knowing that we were both ready," defensive lineman Doug Worthington said. "They weren't going to back down and we weren't going to back down. It was a little friendly get-together and something that has to happen once in a blue moon."
The Ohio State defense set the tone early, stopping an Illinois scoring opportunity to start the game. The Illini started their first possession at the OSU 49-yard line thanks to a short punt and drove all the way to the 24 before Buckeye linebacker Brian Rolle then ended the threat by picking off a Juice Williams pass.
The Buckeyes did not allow Illinois any closer than the OSU 30 for the remainder of the afternoon.
"It was a nightmare," said Williams, who could not replicate his impressive 2007 performance at Ohio Stadium and finished with 77 yards passing on 13-of-25 passing with two interceptions. "It was like one of those dreams when you can't wake up."
Rolle returned the ball 39 yards to the Illinois 46 after intercepting the Williams pass, and that set up Ohio State's first scoring drive. Senior kicker Aaron Pettrey booted a 50-yard field goal to give the Buckeyes a 3-0 lead with 8:09 left in the first quarter.
Illinois responded by driving back into OSU territory before a sack by Denlinger stopped the momentum and the Illini were eventually forced to punt. After regaining possession, the Buckeyes added to their lead on another Pettrey field goal. His 46-yard kick with 12:46 left in the second quarter came at the end of a nine-play, 63-yard drive that took place as heavy rain began to fall.
As the rain continued, things got worse for Illinois. After another punt, the Buckeyes posted their best drive of the afternoon. Thanks in part to two personal-foul penalties against the Illini, Ohio State drove 80 yards in six plays. Sophomore tailback Dan "Boom" Herron capped the drive with a 4-yard TD run that helped put the Buckeyes ahead 13-0, a score that would hold through halftime.
Herron added another touchdown run, this from 2-yards out early in the third quarter. Pettrey's point-after attempt made it 20-0 with 10:55 left in the frame. The lead increased to 23-0 after the Buckeyes turned Williams' second interception into points. Lawrence Wilson picked off a pass, and a Pettrey later added his third field goal of the afternoon on a 27-yard boot with 2:28 left in the third period.
If the pregame meeting at midfield was a message being sent by the Buckeyes that they would protect their home turf, another message was sent in the final minutes. With time winding down, Ohio State had a drive seemingly stalled at the Illinois 2-yard line. Instead of kicking a field goal on fourth-and-2, Tressel called time out and then decided to go for it. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor connected with Dane Sanzenbacher for a TD pass to set the final score with 1:18 remaining.
Tressel said after the game that there was no message intended, but center Michael Brewster was happy – message or no – they chose to go for it.
"We all remember what happened in '07, them stomping on the Block ‘O,' " he said. "I didn't want to let them get away with a field goal on that last drive. I wanted us to put it in and send a message that this is our house and we're going to protect our house. You're not going to come in here and disrespect us. I was happy when Coach made that call."
Ohio State finished the game with 318 yards, including 236 of that on the ground. The Buckeye defense held the Illini, which had entered the game averaging 436.5 yards per contest, to 170. The defense also posted its second straight shutout and did so for the first time since blanking Minnesota and Illinois in November 1996.