For the longest time on Saturday at Illinois, the Buckeyes looked like they were headed toward their second straight shutout. The Illini rallied with 10 fourth-quarter points, although the top-ranked Buckeyes were able to hang on for a 17-10 win.
"That was a great job by the defense today," said OSU center Doug Datish. "They really helped us out, especially in the second half."
Some may say Ohio State overlooked Illinois, which came in with a 2-7 record.
"We knew coming in their mind-set was the only chance to have a little bit of glory in their season was to knock off Ohio State," said defensive end Jay Richardson, who tallied two tackles, one for loss and a pass broken up. "We understood that and we knew they weren't going to just roll over for us. We got a little lax for a quarter or so and they tried to get a little surge. They got a turnover and got a little spark. We just had to play better."
Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock added, "We knew it was going to be a battle. All four quarters, their players, their fans and their coaches were in the game. It's hard to be somebody when they (stick around) for four quarters. Defensively, we held them under our goal of 13 points or less. We feel like we can win the game if we can do that."
The defense came up big on what was the first true off night for the OSU offense, which was held to a season-low 224 yards.
"We can't always expect our offense to put up tons of numbers," Pitcock said. "It's a team effort. Our special teams also helped us in a lot of situations."
The game was billed as a match-up of Illinois' strong rushing offense (181.9 yards per game, second in the Big Ten) against OSU's rushing defense (91.7 yards per game allowed, also second in the Big Ten).
The Buckeyes held Illinois to 99 yards rushing on 22 attempts.
"They're second in the Big Ten in rushing and stopping the run is always what we try to do first," Pitcock said. "They had a 43-yard run (by Pierre Thomas) on the third play of the game, but I think other than that we were able to do that."
Defensive tackle David Patterson summed up the work turned in by the defense.
"It was a hard fought game," Patterson said. "They gave us some different looks. They came off the ball and they were physical. Their running backs were running hard and their quarterbacks were making plays. They really gave us a great challenge."
Cormerback Antonio Smith, who had five tackles, 1-1/2 tackles-for-loss and a pass broken up, said the Buckeyes knew they would get Illinois' best shot.
"We knew it was going to be tough because we knew they were going to play hard," Smith said. But I think this does prepare us for some adversity we will face in the Big Ten.
"When you don't give up any points, you are definitely doing something right. The defense has done a good job this year with everyone executing their responsibility and doing what they're supposed to do. Unfortunately, they got some points in this game and we weren't able to execute to our best. We have some things we have to get better at and that's what we will focus on."
Squeezing The Juice
In the throes of a tough year, Illinois coach Ron Zook has turned to freshman quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams. But the Buckeyes got after Williams, prompting Zook to replace him briefly with former starter Tim Brasic.
They each played on Illinois' late touchdown drive that made the game a bit more interesting.
"We wanted to stop the run first," Pitcock said. "Juice Williams is a great scrambler. Some people say he throws better on the run. We wanted to try and keep him in the pocket."
Richardson confirmed that the Buckeyes wanted to make it difficult on Williams.
"Juice Williams is going to be a really good player," Richardson said. "He's a young guy and we had to get after him. We showed them a couple different coverages and tried to disguise some things and get some pressure on them. But they made a little surge."
Williams ended up 8 of 18 passing for 77 yards, while Brasic was 6 of 17 passing for 57 yards with an interception.
Ten Late Points
Through three quarters, Ohio State had a 17-0 lead and the defense had dominated Illinois. The Illini had just 100 yards total offense. But early in the fourth quarter, Brasic hit a pass to Derrick McPhearson for 8 yards and Rashard Mendenhall rumbled for 13 more to the OSU 26.
On the next play, Illinois' DaJuan Warren tried a pass on an end around. He threw deep in the end zone to McPhearson, who was all but tackled by corner Malcolm Jenkins and safety Brandon Mitchell for the season's easiest pass interference penalty.
"I'd rather give up 15 (yards) than six (points)," said Jenkins, who had five tackles and 1-1/2 tackles-for-loss.
But the OSU defense stiffened with Pitcock pressuring Brasic into an incompletion and the Illini had to settle for Jason Reda's 26-yard field goal with 8:54 left in the game. (Those were, incidentally, the first points scored on the OSU defense in 10 quarters, dating to a field goal by Indiana.)
OSU quarterback Troy Smith then threw a tipped pass interception with 5:14 left. But the defense stepped it up one play later as Brasic threw late over the middle and linebacker James Laurinaitis, who had a team-high 11 tackles, made his fifth interception of the year.
"That was really big," Laurinaitis said. "They were starting to get some momentum going there. It was big for us to get a turnover there."
The Illini defense forced a quick three-and-out, giving the Orange and Blue possession on their own 20 after an OSU punt with 3:43 left. What came next was one of the most impressive drives any team has mounted on OSU all year. Brasic opened the drive with a pair of incompletions before Williams replaced him. He rolled left and threw back across his body for a 24-yard completion to Jeff Cumberland.
But three plays later, Laurinaitis hit Williams on a pass attempt and knocked him out of the game. Brasic came back in and hit three straight passes for 32 yards down to the OSU 3. There, Brasic made a strong option pitch to Mendenhall, whose 3-yard touchdown run capped the impressive 10-play, 80-yard march.
"That's how football is," Jenkins said. "One play and a team is back into it. I think we did a pretty good job the whole game until the fourth quarter. That is one thing Coach Tressel harps on a lot – we have to finish games. We need to do a better job of that."
The Buckeyes brought pressure, but the Illini made a series of plays and got a had-to-have touchdown to cut the lead to 17-10 with 1:40 left.
"They did a good job of executing and getting first downs," Jenkins said. "They came at us with a lot of different things. We just needed to relax and settle down and play defense.
"We had the momentum the whole game, but once that momentum swung they just had it and they brought out everything. Once they continued to shut down our offense and they were making plays on defense, that's when they started getting confidence. They knew if they scored, the game could be close."
Linebacker Marcus Freeman, who had three tackles and a pass broken up, said the defense will need to play better in clutch situations over the season's last three games.
"We have to be able to handle that adversity and continue to play," Freeman said. "But they have a lot of athletes on that team and they're well coached."
Patterson said the defense did not mind being on the spot for once.
"It was something that we actually looked forward to," he said. "We like it as a defense when the pressure is put on us and we have to step up and make plays. It was a feeling of guys getting together and rallying together and knowing we had to stop them to win."
Jenkins said the defense just needs to keep working hard.
"As a unit, we need to get back and put the hard hat on and get ready for next week," he said.
Pitcock returned after missing the Minnesota game last Saturday due to a reported concussion. Senior Joel Penton started in his place, though.
"My health is fine," Pitcock said. "Joel started and I rotated in. He practiced all week. In the Indiana game, I had a minor injury. They kept me out (against Minnesota) being cautious. They didn't want to make it major."