The Buckeyes won their first nine games by margins ranging from 17 to 44 points. Over their last four games, they had decimated Bowling Green, Michigan State, Indiana and Minnesota by a combined score of 161-17.
But Ohio State found itself in quite a tussle at upstart Illinois on Saturday as the Fighting Illini defense held down OSU's powerful offense. OSU recovered an onside kick after an Illinois touchdown with 1:40 left and held on for dear life, escaping Champaign with a 17-10 win before 53,351 on a raw day at Memorial Stadium.
"Illinois is a good football team," said OSU coach Jim Tressel, whose team won its nation's best 17th straight game. "They played hard and they were defending their home ground. We have to pay them as much respect as anyone could possibly deserve.
"It's a Big Ten victory on the road, and that's huge."
The victory – narrow as it was – allowed the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0) to remain on pace with No. 2 Michigan (10-0, 6-0), which survived a scare at home before dispatching Ball State 34-26. The Buckeyes visit Northwestern and Michigan travels to Indiana before the teams meet on Nov. 18. That game, set for Ohio Stadium, figures to decide the outright Big Ten championship and at least one slot in the BCS national title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.
"We're 10 weeks through it and hopefully we can learn a lot from what we haven't done well," Tressel said. "We'll grow from this game. We have excellent leaders and they handle that well."
The OSU defense held Illinois to 233 yards total offense with 43 of those yards coming on an early run by Pierre Thomas.
But the Illini (2-8, 1-5) also were impressive on defense. Ohio State, averaging 418.3 yards total offense per game, was held to a season-low 224 yards. OSU played without ailing left tackle Alex Boone as senior Tim Schafer filled in for him.
The Buckeyes led 17-0 at halftime, but managed just four first downs and 29 net yards on 30 plays in the second half. It was the fifth straight tough loss for the Illini since a win at Michigan State on Sept. 30.
"You can see conceptually Illinois has grown to understand their system," Tressel said. "That's why they took Wisconsin to the wall and had the opportunity to beat Penn State. It's 17-0 and we're kind of in control in the third quarter, but they kept playing."
Quarterback Troy Smith completed 13 of 23 passes for 108 yards with an interception. Smith, who was sacked three times, also had 11 carries for 37 yards.
"We have to understand that Big Ten road games and any Big Ten game in general is going to be a battle through and through," Smith said. "It was that way today. But a win is a win any way you cut it, whether you score 50 points or if you score 17 points. We won today and we continue to grow."
Tailbacks Chris Wells (four carries, 21 yards) and Antonio Pittman (32 carries, 58 yards) each had short touchdown runs for the Buckeyes and Aaron Pettrey booted a 50-yard field goal.
"It was a physical game," said Pittman, who logged a career-high in carries. "Illinois gave us all they had. They played all four quarters. They gave it up today. They were fired up today. This could have been the highlight of their season to beat us. They're 2-7 and to get a win against the No. 1 team would have been something."
Illinois coach Ron Zook relieved quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams in the second half by putting former starter Tim Brasic in the game. Williams returned late in the game, only to again be spelled by Brasic when he got hurt.
Williams was 8 of 18 passing for 77 yards, while Brasic was 6 of 17 passing for 57 yards and an interception.
"We knew it was going to be tough," said OSU corner Antonio Smith. "It was a Big Ten road game. It doesn't feel good because we probably should have played better. But it does prepare us for some of the adversity we face in the Big Ten."
Zook was especially proud of his defense, which tallied 11 tackles-for-loss against Ohio State. Linebacker J Leman led the way with 19 tackles, including 3-1/2 for loss.
"I'm proud of our guys," Zook said. "I'm proud of the way they fought. In the first half, we played tight like we were playing the No. 1 team. But we said, ‘Hey, you just got to go out there and have fun,' and they did. That's why I'm proud of them."
Ohio State opened the scoring on its first possession, moving 80 yards in 14 plays. Smith hit Ted Ginn Jr. (five catches, 26 yards) for an 8-yard gain on a screen and Pittman for 7 more. Smith then converted a third down with a 10-yard pass to Brian Hartline. Smith then stepped up and hit Brian Robiskie (two catches, 33 yards) for a 17-yard gain down to the Illinois 11-yard line.
"That's just an adjustment our coaches made this week," Robiskie said of Smith's step-up on the pass. "We just put in a play for that. We knew if they played true to form, that might be open for us."
Smith's 8-yard quarterback draw moved the ball down to the 2, but the Buckeyes faced fourth-and-1 there. Wells powered into the end zone, though, after right guard to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead with 8:16 left in the first quarter.
The Buckeyes cashed in off an Illinois turnover as Williams hit Derrick McPhearson with a pass. But OSU's Marcus Freeman and Lawrence Wilson hit McPhearson, causing a fumble that teammate Curtis Terry recovered at the Illini 38 with 2:03 left in the first quarter.
Ohio State needed eight plays to find the end zone. Smith converted a third down with a pass to Anthony Gonzalez for 9 yards and a first down at the 25. Two plays later, Smith rolled out and hit Robiskie for a 16-yard gain and a first down at the 9. Pittman got 2 yards on first down and Smith got 6 more on second down. Finally, on third-and-goal from the 1, Pittman powered into the end zone behind right tackle Steve Rehring for a 14-0 lead with 12:39 left in the first half.
Late in the half, OSU drove 40 yards down to the Illinois 35. But when the drive stalled, Pettrey came on and drilled a 50-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead with 56 seconds left in the first half.
Illinois' defense stiffened in the third quarter, holding OSU to 9 yards on 14 third-quarter plays. The Illini used field position – and a pass interference penalty on OSU's Brandon Mitchell and Malcolm Jenkins – to drive into the red zone early in the fourth quarter. But the Ohio State defense turned the tables again on the Illini, forcing a pair of incompletions by backup quarterback Tim Brasic. Jason Reda's 27-yard field goal cut the OSU lead to 17-3 with 8:54 left in the game.
The Illini got a glimmer of hope when a Smith pass to tight end Rory Nicol went off Nicol's hand and Illinois' Kevin Mitchell intercepted it with 5:14 left. But on the very next play, Brasic threw an interception over the middle to linebacker James Laurinaitis with 4:50 left.
Illinois, with Williams and then Brasic at the controls, rolled 80 yards in 10 plays to make it a 17-10 game. Rashard Mendenhall capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run off an option pitch from Brasic. That made it a one-touchdown game with 1:40 left.
The Illini, with just two timeouts left, opted for an onside kick. Jason Reda's kick went through one OSU player's hands before Robiskie recovered it at the Illini 47 with 1:36 left.
"I'm just thinking get on the ball," Robiskie said. "We practice that every week. We come out on Thursday each week and practice that with the hands team. If something like that happens, you just have to get the ball."
Zook said he told his team the game would hinge on an onside kick.
"I told the guys on Thursday that it's going to come down to an onside kick," he said. "It's a critical, critical play. When I saw the ball in the air, I really thought we were going to get it. But it wasn't meant to be."
OSU was able to hold the ball until it punted it back to Illinois with just four seconds left. The Illini had one last ditch play from their own 2. They tried a hook-and-ladder play, but McPhearson stepped out of bounds at the Illini 19 as the clock expired.
* Wells lost a fumble for the fourth time this year. He went to the bench in the second quarter and did not return, allowing Pittman to have more carries.
"You can't worry about that," Pittman said. "He's a young kid. He's a freshman. He's got a long way to go. Everybody fumbles. When I first got here, I had a hard time holding on to the ball. That's just something he has to learn and put behind him and quit dwelling on it and worrying about it."
Tressel said he had no qualms leaning on Pittman.
"I like Antonio Pittman's hands on the ball," he said. "It was a tough battle and we just decided to go that way."
* The Buckeyes have had at least one interception in all 10 of their games this year.
On the year, OSU now has 22 takeaways that have led to 93 points. OSU's opponents have 10 takeaways and have not scored off any of the to date.
* Laurinaitis' interception was his team-high fifth of the season. He also led the Buckeyes with 11 tackles.
* Troy Smith is now 23-2 as OSU's starting quarterback. His interception was his first in 141 pass attempts dating to the Penn State game.
* Pettrey's 50-yard field goal was OSU's third field goal of at least 50 yards this year. Pettrey had a 51-yarder against Indiana and Ryan Pretorius made a 52-yarder against Cincinnati.
* OSU's 17-game winning streak is its third longest in school history. The Buckeyes won 22 straight games between the 1967-69 seasons and 19 straight between 2002-03.
* Ohio State now leads the all-time series 60-29-4, including 32-12 in Champaign.
* The 2006 Buckeyes are the eighth team in school history to open a season 10-0 and first since the 2002 national championship year. Other seasons with a 10-0 start include 1954, 1968, 1975, 1979, 1995 and 1996.
This also marks the 16th 10-win season in OSU history. The Buckeyes have reached the 10-win plateau in four of Tressel's six seasons.
* OSU's record as the nation's No. 1 team is now 61-8-1.
* Tressel becomes the fastest coach to reach 60 wins at Ohio State. In his sixth season, Tressel's record at OSU is 60-13.
In the records department under Tressel, Ohio State is now 18-8 in road games and 36-10 in Big Ten games. The Buckeyes are also 45-3 under Tressel with a halftime lead and 48-3 when they lead after three quarters. Tressel is now 3-1 all-time against Illinois.
* The Buckeyes go back on the road next Saturday to Northwestern (3-7, 1-6). The Wildcats upset Iowa 21-7 on Saturday. The OSU-Northwestern game will be regionally televised by ABC with a 3:30 p.m. start.