After 10 games of the 2011 season, the Ohio State football team sat shell-shocked following a dramatic 26-23 overtime loss at Purdue. That defeat dropped OSU to 6-4 with two games to play. The Buckeyes would drop both of those contests, as well as its Gator Bowl appearance against Florida, to finish the season with a losing record.
The season, there will be no sub-.500 mark for Ohio State. In fact, heading into the team's open week, the Buckeyes boast an unblemished 10-0 record. On Saturday, Urban Meyer's men throttled visiting Illinois 52-22 and had plenty to feel good about after arguably its best performance of the season.
"This is definitely one of the great games we've played this year," senior cornerback Travis Howard said. "I feel like a lot of guys put a lot into it, and our coaches put a lot on our shoulders. (Meyer) told us we're capable of doing our job and playing our best game of the season.
"Right there, it showed. The defense did a good job. The offense did a great job of putting up points. We definitely have some little things to work on, and we'll get those things fixed, but on the whole I feel like this was one of the greatest games we've played all season."
The final statistics make a good case for that. Illinois is certainly struggling, leaving Columbus 2-7 and winless in five Big Ten games, but the Buckeyes did not play down to their competition. They rushed for 330 yards and ended with 567 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, the Buckeye defense limited the Fighting Illni to 74 net rushing yards and 170 yards overall.
Ohio State even had more first downs (32) than the number of points scored by the visitors.
Both the OSU offense and defense deserved to take a bow after the win. On offense, junior tailback Carlos Hyde and sophomore quarterback continued to be a dangerous one-two punch rushing the ball, combining for 210 yards and four touchdowns. Miller also had a solid day passing, completing 12 of 20 passes for 226 yards and a pair of scores. Eight different players caught passes, with Corey "Philly" Brown leading the effort with four grabs for 79 yards and a highlight reel-worthy 37-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
Brown said the offense is as confident as he's ever seen it.
"We go out there expecting to score every drive," he said. "As a whole – it's not just me – we don't think anybody in the country can stop us if we play our game. So we just focus on executing and doing our jobs and we should be good."
Defensively, the Buckeyes got consistent pressure on Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini QB completed 19 of 34 passes, but did so for only 96 yards and no touchdowns. He also had a pass intercepted. While the Illini couldn't find success through the air, the Buckeyes also squashed the ground attack. Despite being sacked twice, Scheelhaase led his team with 36 rushing yards. Leading tailback Donovonn Young had 17 yards on six carries.
"Any time a quarterback is running around and scrambling, you know (the line) is doing a great job of getting pressure up the field," said Howard, who recorded the game's lone interception. "A couple of times, as soon as the quarterback got the snap, he just rolled out because of the pressure."
The defense also did a good job of getting off the field when it had an opportunity to do so. The Illini only converted two of its 14 third-down opportunities.
The game was arguably the best of the season for the Buckeyes, but there still were some warts. Ohio State allowed Illinois to take a 3-0 and the Fighting Illini kept it close at 7-6 before pulling away thanks to 31 unanswered points between the second and third quarters. The Buckeyes also committed four personal fouls.
Several of the Buckeyes said there are still improvements to be made before they can say they played a complete game.
"I feel like once we start off the right way and finish all four quarters like that, then that'll be a complete game," Hyde said. "That'll be the best game we have."
That's a dangerous thought for the rest of the Big Ten.