The 12th-ranked Buckeyes played through a handful of mental and physical mistakes before pulling away in the second half for a 40-2 victory over the outmatched Fighting Illini before 104,799 at Ohio Stadium.
"I thought our defense did a great job of really controlling the tempo of the game and creating field position for us and really did an excellent job of handling the various things that Illinois brought at them," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. " We were a little disappointed in the first half with our offensive consistency. We didn't think that we were as sharp as we need to be at this time of the season.
"I thought we came back and did a little bit better job in the second half. We obviously made a lot of big plays. But we've got work ahead of us."
The win allowed Ohio State (7-2, 5-1) to remain a half-game behind Big Ten-leading Penn State (9-1, 6-1), which dispatched Wisconsin 35-14 Saturday at State College, Pa.
Quarterback Troy Smith completed 13 of 21 passes for a career-high 298 yards and three touchdowns.
"Any time we get out there as an offense, we have a goal to score 42 points," Smith said. "That's one of our key things that we want to do. But we do understand that when we score 24 points and above, we have something like a 98 or 97 percent chance of winning in the past, so any time we can get points on the board, that's what we're going to do."
Two of those touchdowns went to split end Santonio Holmes, who ended up with three catches for 59 yards. The other TD pass – a 73-yarder -- went to flanker Ted Ginn Jr., who also had a 65-yard kickoff return. Ginn had four catches for a career-high 138 yards.
Tailback Antonio Pittman ended up with 96 yards with two touchdown on 22 carries for the Buckeyes, who were a five-touchdown favorite to beat an Illinois team that had lost its first five conference games by an average of 33 points. Pittman also had two catches for 41 yards.
The Buckeyes piled up 526 yards total offense and reached the 40-point plateau for the third straight game – the first time that has happened since 1995.
"We're not opposed to scoring, contrary to popular opinion," Tressel joked afterwards.
The defense never gave Illinois (2-7, 0-6) an opening. In fact, the Illini got their only points on a two-point return of a botched snap on an OSU extra point attempt. Illinois ended the game with 160 yards total offense and just nine first downs. The Illini were a woeful 3 of 15 on third down conversions.
Illini quarterback Tim Brasic was 18 of 24 passing for 92 yards.
"They are a well-coached and disciplined football team," first-year Illinois coach Ron Zook said of OSU. "We're not the first to have trouble against Ohio State's defense. They have a lot of seniors and are very athletic in the secondary."
The Buckeyes sacked Brasic five times. Linebacker A.J. Hawk led the defense with 10 tackles and two sacks.
It was a far cry from a week earlier when the Buckeyes allowed 578 yards in a 45-31 win at Minnesota.
"I definitely felt like we were getting after them," said defensive end Mike Kudla, who had nine tackles and a sack. "It seemed like we were hitting that guy a lot. He was having a tough time getting time to pass it."
Ohio State opened the scoring on its third possession. The Buckeyes drove from the Illinois 49 down to a first down at the 5. But they were flagged for illegal substitution there. Smith had a pair of incompletions and OSU had to settle for Josh Huston's 29-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Buckeyes then drove from their own 10-yard line all the way to a first down at the Illini 7. Smith hit Pittman for a 21-yard gain and then ran for 20 yards himself. Smith then got 18 more yards on a third-down scramble down to the 7. But Pittman got just 2 yards, Smith got 1 after bobbling a snap and Smith's third-down pass to Holmes in the end zone was incomplete. OSU had moved 86 yards, but had to settle for Huston's 22-yard field goal and a 6-0 lead with 7:38 left in the half.
Ohio State notched its first touchdown with a nine-play, 80-yard march. Smith converted a third down with an 11-yard pass to Anthony Gonzalez. Finally, on first down at the Illinois 41, Smith lobbed a perfect pass left to Holmes. He juked Illinois' Charles Bailey Jr. at the 10 and got a crushing block from Ginn to complete the 41-yard touchdown that gave OSU a 13-0 lead with 2:20 left in the half.
"He's a great athlete," Smith said of Holmes. "You give them the ball and they're going to make a play. As much as we can, we try to give them the ball. You know, he does great things."
The OSU defense then turned up the heat with defensive end Mike Kudla pressuring Brasic into an intentional grounding penalty at the Illini 3. OSU used its timeouts and forced a punt with 1:57 left. But Ginn fumbled the ball near midfield and Illinois' James Cooper recovered. The 13-0 score stood at the half.
Ginn atoned on the opening kickoff of the second half. He was bottled up in the middle of the field, but raced around the outside and down the left sideline for his 65-yard return. OSU needed seven plays to cash that return into points. Smith found tight end Marcel Frost for a 17-yard gain and then hit Pittman with a 20-yard screen down to the Illini 4.
On third-and-goal from the 3, Smith hit Holmes on an out pattern and he caught the ball on the goal line for the touchdown and a 19-0 lead with 11:12 left in the third quarter.
But the PAT attempt went awry when holder A.J. Trapasso mishandled the snap from Drew Norman. The ball skitted backwards and Illinois' Kevin Mitchell recovered it at the Illini 25 and rolled 75 yards the other way for the two-point return. Mitchell benefited from a blatant block in the back on Huston at the OSU 20 to complete the play, cutting the OSU lead to 19-2.
Illinois then attempted a fake punt deep in its own end. But punter Steve Weatherford was forced out of bounds at the Illini 27, 2 yards shy of the first down.
Four plays later, OSU was back in the end zone. Smith faked a run to his right and pitched left to Pittman. He bounced off Illinois' Morris Virgil at the 10-yard line and went down the sideline on his bruising 16-yard touchdown run that put the Buckeyes up 26-2 with 7:22 left in the third.
"I think he's getting back to his form when he was at Buchtel, you know, when they gave him the nickname The Beast," Smith said. "(Virgil) is supposed to be Illinois's hard hitter and they were out there doing a lot of jawing and within that. I think he got what he deserved because I don't understand why guys talk stuff all the time on the field anyway.
"Pittman is just a hard tough runner, you know, the more carries he gets, the more he's going to grind the defense out."
OSU pushed the lead to 33-2 with 4:00 left in the third as Smith connected with Ginn on a deep ball that went for a 73-yard touchdown.
"The played is called Z-Go Rocket, and once I saw that I beat my guy, I kind of heard him say, ‘Man,' " Ginn said. "Once I heard him say, ‘Man,' I looked up and I saw the ball, so I knew he had bit on Santonio's route and the only thing it is is catching the ball."
The Buckeyes then went up 40-2 with 12:10 left in the game on Pittman's 8-yard burst up the middle. That touchdown was set up by Smith's 15-yard pass to Holmes and a 52-yard bomb to Ginn.
* OSU is now 30-4 at home under Tressel. Tressel is now 47-13 in five years at OSU. He improved to 2-1 against Illinois.
* Ohio State now leads the all-time series 59-29-4, including 26-17-4 in Columbus. This game ended a two-year hiatus in the series. Illinois had won six of its last eight visits to Columbus.
* Holmes' touchdowns were his eighth and ninth of the season and he now has 23 in his career. David Boston tops that OSU career list with 34, while Cris Carter had 27.
* Smith matched his career high with three touchdown passes. He has now thrown 13 touchdown passes on the year against just three interceptions. For his career, he now has 21 TDs against six interceptions.
* Ginn scored for the fourth straight game. He now has five touchdowns on the season (three receiving, one kick return, one punt return) and 13 for his career. Ten of those Ginn touchdowns have been for 57 yards or longer.
* Pittman just missed out on his sixth 100-yard game of his career and he came up just shy of 1,000 yards on the season. He now has 978 yards and four touchdowns on the year.
* OSU will wrap up the home schedule by hosting Northwestern next Saturday. The Wildcats improved to 6-3 overall and 4-2 in Big Ten play with a 28-27 win over Iowa Saturday. The game will start at noon and will be televised regionally by ABC.
* OSU played the game without wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell, who took ill at about 1:15 p.m. and was sent from the team hotel at the Blackwell Inn to OSU Medical Center.
"Coach Hazell in the pre-meeting before we were heading over to the skull session took ill and – and the trainers thought it would be best if they took him over from a preventative standpoint, took him over to the hospital," Tressel said. "The word I got as we were coming up is that he's doing fine and don't know for sure if he'll be out today, but they feel good about where they have him and he'll be fine."
With Hazell gone, backup quarterback Justin Zwick wore headphones and assisted in relaying play calls. Gonzalez said it was different not having his position coach on the sideline.
"It was really weird to be honest because every game the last two years he's been down there," Gonzalez said. "You have a system we have developed and it kind of took us out of that. On top of that, you're wondering if the guy is all right. I was told it was pretty bad."