What were the keys to victory, and what do the Buckeyes need to improve upon to stay unbeaten in the coming weeks?
OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY: Average.
Certainly not the finest moment for the five starters, nor offensive line coach Jim Bollman, as the Buckeyes never seemed to get a handle on the Illinois' slanting front or blitz package. After the game, the linemen talked about the confusing scheme, but that's where coaching needs to get it solved within three hours of play. Ohio State's tackles never seemed to get a handle on the blitzing linebacker, and I don't believe it was lack of talent, but rather lack of preparation and adjustment.
To their credit, they were able to muscle down the clock late in the fourth, and put the game away with a tractor-pull drive following an Illinois field goal that cut the lead to 17-13. Not to Ron Zook: thank you for kicking the field goal.
One of the drawbacks to the offensive line not playing great football is it exposes the mediocrity of Brandon Saine and Dan Herron, who need tremendous blocking at the point of attack to gain yards. Saine, in particular, looks lost with the ball in his hands and should not be carrying the football in the running game. Herron had 23 carries and his longest run was 13 yards, averaging four yards per crack. Boom tries hard but doesn't have the ability to cut back into the hole in an instant, which leaves yardage on the table. Could Jordan Hall and/or Jaamal Berry do better behind this line? We don't know for sure, and we probably won't this season, but I have to think they both would. Right now, if Ohio State blocks them five yards, the backs gain five yards. Making the first defender miss doesn't happen, and that's the staple of an exceptional tailback. Bottom line: Average line play, with average backs carrying the football, is what happened last Saturday. The offensive line has to play better, because the backs are who they are.
Terrelle Pryor Is The Ultimate PlayMaker.
Get healthy please, Terrelle, because without you, it ain't real pretty on the offensive side of the football. Joe Bauserman just needed to be the caretaker, not try to throw a 30-yard pass on the run, late into coverage. Just a terrible high-risk, low-reward play, and not what's expected out of an older player.
Pryor is just an amazing broken-field runner, and aside from the interception, threw the ball well. Had the injury not occurred, Ohio State might have been in position to put the game away, but that didn't happen. Make no mistake: Pryor is the most valuable Buckeye, and the player they absolutely cannot afford to lose.
Safety: Next Man Up.
Not too sure on the extent of Tyler Moeller's injury, and it's best to wait for Ohio State to comment, but I'm not optimistic. Which means it's Christian Bryant-Time. Just like it became time for C.J. Barnett to step up when Orhian Johnson was hurt early in the fall, and the spot went back to OJ after the Barnett injury.
Orhian Johnson played well against Illinois, as did the entire defensive backfield, and there is no reason to think he won't continue to improve each week. OJ has serious skill, and just lacks minutes. He should be fine, as should Bryant.
Obviously, injuries to the secondary are mounting, add Donnie Evege and Travis Howard to the walking wounded also, but the talent is deep. Aaron Gant and Nate Oliver would be next at safety, with Dominick Clark and Corey Brown getting the call on the corner. Serious credit to some excellent defensive back recruiting over the past few years, and the depth is being counted on right now.
Make The Adjustment: Defense
Illinois had an excellent drive to start the game, reaching the end zone after covering 55 yards in only 9 plays. Then it was time for Jim Heacock to turn out the lights on the Illinin offense. Illinois was 2 out of 3 on third down conversions in the first quarter. The rest of the game? Try zero for 10.
Ross Homan, Johnny Simon and Dexter Larimore had strong games in particular, while Nathan Williams was all over the field, showing the versatility the NFL is looking for. Cameron Heyward was not his usual self and someone from Illinois deserves a lot of credit for neutralizing him most of the game.
For Williams, it was probably his best game in a Buckeye uniform, and he had two sacks and several tackles, while playing more in space than ever before. He was a player that needed to step up to replace Thad Gibson, and once he recovered from the pre-season ankle injury, he has played at a high level. Major props to Nathan Williams, and to Jim Heacock for using him in a position to make plays.
Special Teams Becoming Special Again?
Things looked 100% better for the third game in a row, with guys flying to the football, but staying disciplined in their lane assignments. I have no concerns about Ben Buchanan or Devin Barclay, and it's only a matter of time until Berry or Hall takes a return to the house. For sure, the right players are returning kicks, although it would be nice to see them as part of the offense as well. Can you imagine the impact of a punt or kickoff return in two weeks against Wisconsin?
Aberration Or Trend?
The overall offensive performance against Illinois wasn't indicative of the number two-ranked team in the country, and it comes on the heels of some defensive lapses against Eastern Michigan.
For the second week in a row, there are comments coming from Buckeye players about not executing, not being focused, and making too many mistakes.
Is there a reason for concern, and is this team as overrated as the 2008 team that started out highly-ranked in the polls? Where is this team at today, and is it good enough to finish the regular season undefeated, headed to the BCS title game?
I believe this team is fine, and there is no reason to believe this team can't reach the heights many have predicted for them. Are things perfect? Absolutely not, but this is a banged-up team, on both sides of the football and there are far more inexperienced players playing key minutes than was planned for.
Offensively, the return of Jake Stoneburner is needed, maybe more than people realize. No disrespect to Reid Fragel, but Stoney opens up the field, making the game easier for everyone on the offense.
The offensive line simply needs to look themselves in the mirror, individually, and make a commitment to not playing at the level they performed at against Illinois. They proved against Miami how good they can be, but that effort needs to be repeated on a weekly basis. This was supposed to be the best line of the Tressel era, and that can still happen, but they must play at a higher level.
The defense has survived several injuries to the back line, and you have to hope that stops pronto, but that's out of the player's control. The depth factor is being tested, and right now they're passing that test.
In the end, Ohio State should be able to pound Indiana and get themselves ready for the big road test at Wisconsin. Simply put, the effort given against Illinois will be good enough to beat Indiana. It might not be good enough to beat Wisconsin. This is a week this team needs to use to get better, and the good thing is you don't win championships in September, but you can lose them. I expect this team to get better, and I still see an undefeated season in 2010.