That test, of course, came in the form of a road game against a previously undefeated Illinois team that was ranked No. 15 in the polls. Many didn't think Fickell's battered team had enough to pull of what was suddenly considered the upset.
The Buckeyes – who had started Big Ten with an 0-2 mark after giving up a 27-6 second half lead to Nebraska – answered the critics and more importantly the challenge, knocking off Illinois 17-7 at Memorial Stadium Saturday to enter the bye week with a must-needed bounce-back win.
Ohio State, of course, is now two weeks away from its home clash against Wisconsin, who is currently unbeaten and a considered one of the main national title contenders.
The Buckeyes won't play for two more weeks, so they will have the luxury of preparing for the deep and talented Badgers with good vibes, a vast difference from the mood of the team after enduring back-to-back Big Ten losses.
Before the team enters the bye week and begins looking ahead to what could be the season-defining game for the Buckeyes, we take a gander back at the information gathered in the Illinois win in the latest version of Sunday Observation:
The Buckeyes were coming out running — Maybe it was because of the wind or maybe it was because the coaching staff wasn't comfortable letting freshman quarterback Braxton Miller throw the ball on the road in inclement weather, but there was no question with what Ohio State was trying to do and it worked. Concentrating solely on running the football – they did it on 51 of 55 plays – Ohio State mustered up enough of an offensive output to hold off Illinois on the road.
And that was one of the main differences between this win and the loss at Michigan State. Though the Spartans have a vastly superior defense to Illinois' in my opinion, Ohio State was able to get the ground game going even though the Illini knew exactly what to expect most of the game. In a situation where the offensive line can get enough push and the Buckeyes can move the sticks even when being predictable, that shows the opposing defense isn't a viable opponent. When Ohio State was moving the football in the first half despite the predictability, the Buckeye fans had to be comfortable with how the game was going to play out.
The main difference for that change was Dan Herron — Despite being suspended for the first six games of the season, Fickell and the staff inserted Herron into the starting lineup immediately. And it's not hard to see why the team chose to do that, as I am comfortable saying the senior is by far the most superior running back talent on the team even with how impressive Jordan Hall has been at times. He is incredibly patient, makes the perfect backfield cuts because of advanced vision and he hits the hole harder than anyone on the team.
That's how the Buckeyes were able to stay effective in the face of predictably. They kept handing the rock off to Herron, who finished the game with 23 carries for 114 yards, which is roughly five yards per pop. It doesn't get much better than that, particularly in a game where the quarterback completed only one pass on four attempts.
Though DeVier Posey is still going to be missing for four more games, the reemergence of Mike Adams and Herron have helped the Buckeyes return to the feeling of a full team. Last season Herron was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and he scored 16 touchdowns, and he found the end zone early in the second half on a 12-yard touchdown scamper. It was the 13th game in a row he has found pay dirt. The insertion of Herron back into Ohio State's offense is immeasurably valuable, as this team will unquestionable continue to rely on the run game.
And I am going to go out on a limb and say there's no way this team loses the Nebraska game with Herron in the backfield, as he could have helped the team move the sticks when Ohio State desperately needed it late in the second half against the Cornhuskers. Buckeye fans welcome the return of the senior, even if he is a multiple-time NCAA offender.
The biggest difference between this win and the MSU loss — Was the fact that the Buckeyes got the big turnover when they needed it and they capitalized on it. Ohio State's offense was more effective because the running game was working against the Illini, but the offensive output was still abysmal for most of the game. The Buckeyes had a 3-0 lead at halftime, but they couldn't muster up any points after getting a Drew Basil field goal on the opening possession.
Even down at the half, Illinois had to feel good about its positioning. Ohio State couldn't move the football long enough to sustain a drive to get into range and the staff clearly wasn't going to let Miller throw down field. So at the break, Illinois had to like its chances of getting in the end zone one time after moving the ball fairly well in the first half. That one score, in their minds, probably would have been enough to win the game.
Then the coveted turnover happened, which was something the Buckeyes forced against Michigan State but was unable to make it happen in a situation that set up the offense for easy points. Illinois did turn it over in that fashion and it was the difference in the game. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception right to Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, who returned it all the way to Illinois 12 yard line. The next play Herron rushed for the score and the Buckeyes increased its lead to 10-0. In essence, that one mistake won the game for Ohio State. Didn't it feel like "Tressel Ball" Saturday?
Sometimes it is risky, but you have to take chances — I feel like I am going senile because I say the same thing every week, but at what point is it worth taking a shot at being unpredictable. What it kill the team to run one play action pass to set up a shot downfield on first down? What's the worst that could happen? A pick downfield in the area the subsequent punt will likely land? I think it is clear that Miller is a novice passer, but there has to be a better way to help him be successful than putting him in situations where it is cut and dry to the defense whether the team is going to run or pass. He's never going to look good when the defense can call what's going to happen.
I understand that there was no reason to get cute in the second half, particularly after the Buckeyes held its 10-0 lead, but there were times in the first half where Ohio State could have caught Illinois with its pants down. But to the Illini, there was no risk in committing to the run because Ohio State hasn't made an opponent that it has lulled into a false sense of security pay with unpredictability.
Miller has a long way to go, but that development would be easier — If he was passing in situations where he wasn't destined to be obvious about it. Sure, there were some terrifying passes and he has an extremely long way to go, but this is time to develop the quarterback. The team has three losses, the quarterback is a freshman and his main attribute at this point is athleticism. Let him use that athleticism to make plays for the team. I feel like he'd develop confidence and experience so much better in a less predictable situation that plays to his talents. If anything, run, run and sack is not only hindering Ohio State's offense, it is also getting in the way of his development.
Roby is going to be special in the future — Roby's infamous comments about Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins being "nothing special" were probably blown out of proportion, but the cornerback really stepped up and backed up his comments. Not only did he make the play of the game with an interception that set Ohio State up for the win, that's the third time he's picked off a pass this season. He seems to be improving in coverage and he is a very physical cornerback. Not only is he making plays when this team needs them the most, he also is a youthful guy that will get his hands dirty. He seems to have all the makings of a future stud.
Again, Johnathan Hankins and John Simon dominated — Though I thought it was clear that Hankins was gassed by the end of the game, I simply cannot say enough about the output of both of these guys this year. They have been perhaps the most consistent playmakers on the team and at times they are unblockable. Both will have another year of eligibility next season and if Nathan Williams returns to the Buckeyes next year, Ohio State has a chance to have a very special defensive line next year. For now, both of these guys have been getting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzes and that is the key to good defense. Kudos to both of these guys for continuing to leave everything on the field every week. They've been incredibly effective and it has been noticed.
How does Ron Zook not kick a field goal at the end of the game? — Illinois was down by 10 points with less than two minutes in the game and faced a fourth down deep in Ohio State's territory. Instead of kicking a field goal and trying to get within one score, Zook's offense goes for it and doesn't convert the fourth down. Not exactly sure how anyone can excuse that decision. Please don't tell me he didn't know the score... Again.
Fickell doing a better job than we think? — Given the circumstances of the situation Fickell took over in, Ohio State could have collapsed after the Nebraska game and mailed it in. Instead, they head into the open week having knocked off a ranked team on the road and are riding high in confidence. People talking about knocking off Wisconsin in two weeks – farfetched or not – has to be a good sign instead of the usual "adversity" talk following the game. This team has had its bumps (injuries, NCAA violations, suspensions and youth) and it has transpired into losses, but things could be a lot worse right now. Fickell didn't lose his team, they're confident moving forward, and this season still has a lot on the line. Maybe he is doing a better job than we're giving him credit for?