Sunday Morning QB: Struggle At Champaign

We are back with Sunday Morning Quarterback, our weekly look at the Ohio State game as well as the Big Ten and the college football world at-large. Today, we examine OSU's 17-10 win at Illinois and look at the scramble for the BCS national title game. Click here for more.

Welcome to Sunday Morning Quarterback, a column I intend to stand each week as a quick read on the news, notes and opinion on Ohio State's weekly game as well as the Big Ten and the college football nation at large.

We start with a look at OSU's 17-10 win over Illinois:

* On Saturday, Ohio State won its sixth consecutive game against Illinois at Champaign. OSU's last loss at Memorial Stadium was a 10-7 defeat in 1991.

For the third straight time, the Buckeyes scraped by at Illinois. In 2000, OSU needed a 34-yard field goal from Dan Stultz on the final play to take a 24-21 win.

Of course, everybody remembers the 2002 visit to Illinois, where OSU took a dramatic 23-16 win in overtime. Saturday's win brought back memories of that overtime win, especially when that Illinois team was just 4-6 coming into that 2002 game. The Illini fell to 2-8 with Saturday's loss.

"I didn't play here in '02, but I watched it," said OSU senior defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock. "It was a road game in the Big Ten. It was a hostile environment. We knew it would be hard to come out of here with a win."

Illinois gave Ohio State everything it had on Saturday. The Illini finished 2-9 last year and their final record this year will look fairly similar. But I think Ron Zook deserves credit. The Illini were not even competitive much of the time last year. On Saturday, the Illini suffered their fifth straight heartbreaking loss.

With a young quarterback like Juice Williams at his disposal, Zook will be turning some of those tough losses into wins a year from now.

From Ohio State's perspective, that game was inevitable. It is impossible to go through an entire season and have every game be a lights out performance. The calendar has turned to November and, using 2002 as a guide, this is when things become difficult.

If Ohio State is able to run the table, the Buckeyes will have to play through this lull and finish strong against suddenly surging Northwestern and Michigan.

Perhaps this performance was the wake-up call the Buckeyes needed to have to finish the season off the right way.

* What can be said about the offensive performance in the Illinois game?

Well, there were a chain of events that seemed to impact the decision making and the outcome.

First, you had the injury to Alex Boone. With Boone out, Tim Schafer filled in at left tackle. While Schafer wasn't the root of the problem, the Illini certainly did their best to try and exploit him. Junior linebacker J Leman (19 tackles) and sophomore defensive end Will Davis (one sack, two fumbles forced) led that charge.

Then, you had the fumble by Chris Wells (more on that below). The freshman was exiled to the bench, meaning that put more of the onus on Antonio Pittman and even Troy Smith to try and run the ball.

Suffice to say, I am certain Pittman and Smith were extremely sore when they woke up this morning. Pittman had never had more than 28 carries previously. He carried the ball 32 times in this game for a net of 58 yards. In the second half alone, Pittman carried the ball 19 times for a net of 28 yards.

"I feel like that was one of my toughest games in college football," Pittman admitted. "It was a straight grind-out. I worked for every yard that I got. We just have to get better."

There is something to be said about diminishing returns of having such a one-dimensional offensive attack. OSU built its 17-0 lead by attacking the Illini in various ways. The second half saw a couple of deep throws by Smith, but there was precious little on the underneath or intermediate game. He found himself running it far too often – that is, when Pittman wasn't running it.

"I really don't know what was going on," Pittman said. "We'll have to go to the film room and see if we can straighten some things out and fix it."

Pittman was asked if he was frustrated by the lack of results.

"Not at all," he said. "I figured it would be a tough game. Throughout the season, you have bumps you have to get over. Today was one of those times. I carried the ball 30 times and that's a career high for me. We came a long way. To come out here and get a scare, that's something we needed."

Wide receiver Brian Robiskie had a pair of nice catches in the first half, each one setting up an OSU touchdown. But Smith completed just 3 of 8 passes for 9 yards with an interception in the second half.

"There is always frustration when you're able to move the ball and then you get stopped a couple of times," Robiskie said. "But they did a good job today mixing it up and doing some good things."

Pittman was asked point blank if Boone's absence was to blame.

"We felt like Schafer came in and stepped it up a lot in the times when he needed to," Pittman said. "We need every piece of the puzzle if we're going to go where we want to go to. Everybody needs to get healthy and get their mind right."

Ohio State came into the game averaging 418.3 yards per game in total offense – a total that ranked 15th nationally and second in the Big Ten.

But the Illini held OSU to a season-low 224 yards. The previous low was 253 yards in the win over Penn State. That is the only other game this year where the Buckeyes have been under 348 yards total offense.

Center Doug Datish talked about what the Illini were doing to confound the Buckeyes.

"They were stunting around and doing some stuff," Datish said. "They showed us something like seven different alignments and some different blitz looks. Those are good players. We saw most of what they did on film."

For the game, the Buckeyes netted 116 yards rushing on 47 attempts for a dismal 2.5 average.

The chilling part of this is Illinois came into the game as the Big Ten's third-best rushing defense in its six games of conference play. In those Big Ten games, Illinois had allowed 104.8 yards per game on the ground.

Prior to this game, Ohio State boasted the league's No. 2 rushing defense in Big Ten games at 69.2 yards allowed per game.

As you already know, Michigan is tops in league action against the run at a miniscule 32.3 yards allowed per game. This showing illustrates how Ohio State could struggle running the ball against the even tougher Wolverines in their end-of-the-world showdown Nov. 18 and how the Buckeyes may need to (successfully) diversify their attack to try and open up some running lanes in that critical game.

* OSU coach Jim Tressel defended his decision to bench Wells after he lost a fumble for the fourth time this season.

"We decided at that point in time that was the best thing," Tressel said. "I don't know what happened. He was cutting back and it looked like he was going to gain a bunch of yards. I know no one is more disappointed than him. We know we will need Beanie for us to become the best team we are capable of becoming."

Wells had already logged a tough 2-yard touchdown run as well as a nifty 13-yard scamper around the left edge before he fumbled the ball trying to reposition it on a second-quarter run.

Pittman, who has been Wells' mentor, talked about the fumble.

"I think he just went to squeeze it and it popped out," he said. "That happens. There's nothing you can really do. As a running back, you don't want to ever fumble, and especially in his circumstances with him already fumbling this year, it can bring you down a little bit."

Linebacker Marcus Freeman said Wells' teammates have to rally around him.

"That can be very frustrating," Freeman said. "He is a great running back. He's going to be one of the greatest ones we've had. We just have to stay behind him and tell him to keep running hard and it will be all right."

* Illinois cut OSU's lead to 17-10 with Rashard Mendenhall's 3-yard touchdown run with 1:40 left. Zook had just two timeouts left and one could argue a better play might have been to kick deep, pin the Buckeyes back and try and get a quick defensive stop. After all, Illinois had stoned OSU throughout the entire half.

That scenario could have left the Illini with the ball on their own 40 or thereabouts with 40 seconds left.

Instead, the Illini went for the onside kick. Kicker Jason Reda's kick bounced high up in the air past OSU's Brandon Mitchell. Robiskie was the hero as he came out of the mad scramble with the ball.

"They were lining up to kick it onsides," Robiskie said. "Brandon (Mitchell) was right in front of me. I saw it bounce high. It bounced through his hands. It bounced off somebody to the left of me. I saw it out of the corner of my eye and I just reached out and grabbed it."

For a team that had not been in a tight game, Ohio State proved it was prepared for every scenario with the way it handled that onside kick.

"That's something we had not seen," Robiskie said. "But we prepare for it every week. We come out in practice and we see different looks. That helps us get ready for the game."

Tressel joked that he was tempted to recover the ball himself.

"I almost jumped off the sideline myself," he said. "It was there and it looked like it was available for too long. Brian Robiskie came up with it. It seemed to me he was like the umpteenth person to touch it."

* Punter A.J. Trapasso was a big factor in the win. He averaged 40.7 yards per punt. He had a 60-yard punt that changed field position in the second half. He dropped three punts inside the Illinois 20-yard line, including his 55-yard bomb against an 11-man rush that pinned the Illini back at their own 2-yard line with four seconds left.

"A couple of A.J.'s punts were huge for us," Tressel said. "I know one or two of them were not as good but sometimes the wind will do that to you. He knocked down two of them inside the 10. For our defense to go on the field and the other folks have to go 90-some yards, that's huge."

* Ohio State benefited from the new timing rules in college football. After recovering the onside kick with 1:36 left, the Buckeyes allowed the game clock to move inside 1:15 before snapping its first down play.

Illinois then used its timeouts, but the time that was melted away by the new timing rules allowed the Buckeyes to take it all the way down to four seconds before the Illini could regain possession.

"I guess we did benefit from that," Tressel said. "I didn't think about that."

One coach who was all over the new timing rules was Wisconsin's Bret Bielema. His team scored a touchdown and took a 10-3 lead over Penn State with 23 seconds left in the half. Under the new rules, the clock starts on the kickoff instead of on the return.

The Badgers twice ran offsides in kick coverage, allowing UW to take 19 seconds off the clock. Naturally, with his coverage team getting a head start, Bielema's Badgers were able to tackle the Lions kick returner inside the 15-yard line. Joe Paterno, fuming mad on the PSU sideline, had no choice but to accept the offsides penalty.

"Basically we wanted to put ourselves in position that we wanted to have the maximum coverage that we could," Bielema said. "We know they were going to try to return it for a touchdown, so we just did something that allowed us to have maximum coverage. They had the right to either accept or decline the penalty. When they accepted it, that means we're going to go back and do it all over again."

The 79-year-old Paterno had bigger problems later in the game when he was struck by one of his own players and suffered a gruesome broken leg. But PSU assistant Tom Bradley, who took over the reins in Paterno's absence, shared his boss' disgust with Bielema's ploy.

"I think he was upset that they were doing it deliberately, that it was intentional. When you're 10 yards offside … " Bradley said.

The Big Ten officials saw through the UW ploy and, on the third and final kick attempt, they strayed off the ranch and invented their own solution – they did not start the clock until the ball was touched in the field of play by a PSU player.

Rulesmakers will have to come up with a way to combat this loophole – and any others that have come up – this off-season.

Honestly, I do not mind covering shorter games. But I think there are ways to accomplish the same result without being so obtrusive to the game and its integrity (and the integrity of its coaches).

I suggested previously that they should use the new rules until the final two minutes of each half. At that point, the timing rules would revert back to the old rules (the clock starts on the snap of the first play of a series and the clock starts when a kick is touched in the field of play by the return team).

Through 10 games, OSU's average game time has been two hours, 58 minutes. The longest game was Iowa at 3:07, while the Minnesota game was over in 2:50. This year, OSU's games have featured an average of 123.9 plays.

In last year's 11-game regular season, OSU's average game time was 3:12. The longest regular season game was Indiana at 3:30, while the shortest game was Illinois at 2:55. (The Fiesta Bowl with Notre Dame lasted 3:41, but that game had a longer halftime show and also included more and longer commercial breaks.) Last year, OSU's games averaged 132.3 plays.

Now for headlines around the Big Ten:

* The Game of the Week in the Big Ten was the nonconference match-up between No. 2 Michigan and Ball State at The Big House. The Wolverines, a five-touchdown favorite, snuffed out a late threat at their own 7-yard line to hold on for a 34-26 win over the Cardinals, who dropped to 3-7.

Mike Hart ran for 154 yards and a touchdown and Brandon Minor rushed for 108 yards and a score for the Wolverines, who moved to 10-0 on the year. Michigan visits Indiana Saturday before traveling to No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 18.

"Coming into the game, people were reading too many press clippings," said Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, who threw for 155 yards and a TD and also had an interception returned for a score.

Ball State's Nate Davis, a Bellaire, Ohio, native, was 18-of-34 for 250 yards with a TD pass. Davis' pass on fourth down from the UM 7-yard line was wide of Love with 2:46 left. Then, Davis got a heave from near midfield on the final play, but UM's Ryan Mundy made the interception.

* No. 17 Wisconsin moved a step closer to a possible 11-1 season with a 13-3 win over Penn State. The game was marred by a second-half injury to the venerable Paterno, who suffered a broken tibia and ligament damage after freshman tight end Andrew Quarless rolled into him after catching a sideline pass. Paterno was carted to the locker room near the end of the third quarter.

Linebacker Paul Posluszny became the all-time leading tackler in Penn State history, surpassing the mark of 343 set by Greg Buttle from 1973-75.

UW tailback P.J. Hill had 148 yards, but quarterback John Stocco (172 yards, one TD) suffered an injury and could miss this week's game with Iowa.

* Indiana went to Minnesota looking to wrap up its sixth win and its first bowl bid since 1993. But, instead, Minnesota notched its long-awaited first Big Ten win of the year with a 63-26 rout of the visiting Hoosiers.

QB Bryan Cupito passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns. The 63 points were the most scored by the Gophers in a Big Ten contest since they had 67 against Iowa in 1916.

Long suffering Indiana can still get into a bowl with a home win over Michigan or a road win in its finale against rival Purdue.

* Michigan State announced last Wednesday that coach John L. Smith would not return in 2007. The Spartans then suffered one more tough loss with Purdue rallying for a 17-15 win in East Lansing.

Curtis Painter threw two touchdown passes and Casey Welch kicked an 18-yard field goal with 4:49 left for the win. Painter was 21-of-30 for 286 yards and connected for two TD passes to Dorien Bryant, who had seven receptions for 96 yards for Purdue. The Boilers improved to 6-4 overall, but still need one more win to qualify for a bowl because they will play a 13th game at Hawaii.

* Northwestern stunned Iowa 21-7, beating the Hawkeyes for the second consecutive year. C.J. Bacher threw for 218 yards and a touchdown, while Tyrell Sutton added 168 yards rushing and a score as NU picked up its first Big Ten win and ended a six-game losing streak. It was the first Big Ten win for first-year Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.

The loss was just Iowa's third in 30 games at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa QB Drew Tate threw for 147 yards and two interceptions for Iowa, which suffered its second major upset in four weeks. Indiana shocked visiting Iowa 31-28 on Oct. 14.

Now for headlines around the country:

* The national Game of the Week was in Louisville, where the fifth-ranked Cardinals stopped No. 3 West Virginia 44-34 Thursday in one of the biggest games in Big East history. The win was, obviously, one of the biggest in UL history as it positioned itself for a shot at the BCS national title game.

Brian Brohm threw for 354 yards and a touchdown for Louisville, which snapped WVU's 14-game winning streak. The Cardinals returned a fumble and a punt for a score.

The Cardinals won despite a courageous effort by WVU QB Pat White, who threw for 222 yards and also carried the ball 23 times for 125 yards and four scores.

The road gets no easier for Louisville, though, as the Cardinals still have games remaining at unbeaten Rutgers and Pittsburgh.

* No. 4 Texas also stayed on pace on the race for a shot at the national title with a 36-10 win over Oklahoma State. Colt McCoy continued his incredible year, throwing for 346 yards and three TDs. He broke UT's single-season touchdown mark with his 27th TD pass, one better than the mark of 26 shared by Vince Young (2005) and Chris Simms (2002). McCoy is two TD passes shy of the NCAA freshman season record of 29, set by Nevada's David Neill in 1998.

Texas needs a win over Kansas State or Texas A&M to clinch the Big 12 North title.

* No. 7 Florida downed Vanderbilt 25-19. Chris Leak ran for two touchdowns and threw for another as the Gators survived a fourth-quarter rally and beat Vanderbilt for the 16th straight time. With the win and Tennessee's loss to LSU, the Gators clinched the Eastern Division and a spot in the SEC championship game for the first time since 2000.

* No. 13 LSU went into Tennessee and knocked off the eighth-ranked Vols 28-24. JaMarcus Russell hit Early Doucet with a 4-yard touchdown pass with 9 seconds left to lift LSU to the win. Russell's third touchdown pass of the game gave the Tigers their first road win of the season.

* Despite LSU's win, No. 12 Arkansas remained in the driver's seat in the SEC West. The Razorbacks ventured to South Carolina and took a 26-20 win. Darren McFadden ran for a career-high 219 yards and two touchdowns and Marcus Monk had eight catches for a career-best 192 yards for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas has to win two of its last three games to win the Western Division and face Florida in the SEC title game.

* No. 9 Southern California rebounded from its first regular-season loss in more than three years with a 42-0 pasting of Stanford. John David Booty threw for 203 yards and three touchdowns, Dwayne Jarrett caught five passes for 118 yards and a score and Terrell Thomas returned a blocked field goal 71 yards for a touchdown. The Trojans' 32-game, regular-season winning streak, dating to Sept. 2003, was snapped in last week's 33-31 loss at Oregon State.

Stanford lost for a school-record 11th straight game.

* No. 10 California maintained its one-game lead in the Pac-10 race with its 38-24 victory over UCLA. The Golden Bears haven't lost at Memorial Stadium in six games this season and they moved closer to their first conference title since 1975.

* No. 11 Notre Dame blasted North Carolina 45-26 in South Bend. Brady Quinn passed for four touchdowns and a season-high 346 yards, while Jeff Samardzija broke a school record with his 23rd career touchdown catch. Samardzija finished with six catches for 177 yards and passed Derrick Mayes' mark for career TD receptions set in 1995.

The Tar Heels (1-8) fell to 1-16 all-time against the Irish and lost their second straight since coach John Bunting was fired.

* Allen Patrick had a career-high 173 yards rushing and a touchdown to lift No. 18 Oklahoma to a 17-16 win over No. 21 Texas A&M. Patrick has 440 yards in the three games since replacing Adrian Peterson, who is out with a broken collarbone.

* Hawaii's Colt Brennan threw for 413 yards and six touchdowns and set two school records in his team's 63-10 drubbing of Utah State. Brennan surpassed Timmy Chang's 2004 mark of 38 single-season TD passes with his sixth score of the game. He also made 182 pass attempts without an interception before being picked off in the third quarter. Chang held the previous record of 178, also set in 2004.

* No. 22 Wake Forest downed No. 16 Boston College 21-14 for its third straight win. The Demon Deacons are 8-1 for the first time since 1944 and are tied for first place with Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division. Wake and Maryland, who meet Nov. 25, are one game ahead of BC.

* The Atlantic winner will likely face No. 20 Georgia Tech, which needs just one more win over either North Carolina or Duke to clinch the ACC Coastal title after beating N.C. State 31-23.

Reggie Ball threw four touchdown passes, including two to Calvin Johnson. Tashard Choice had a career-high 164 yards rushing on 34 carries, Ball was 13-of-35 passing for 215 yards with two interceptions and Johnson had nine catches for a personal-best 168 yards.

* Dan Ennis kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired to lift Maryland to a 13-12 win over No. 19 Clemson, the Terps' fourth straight win.

* Ohio U. continued its march toward a possible MAC East crown. The Bobcats won their fifth straight game, downing Eastern Michigan 16-10. Kalvin McRae finished with 141 yards on 23 carries and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

OU, now 7-3 overall and 5-1 in conference play, needs a win over Akron or at Miami (Ohio) to wrap up the division title. The Bobcats could make their first bowl appearance since 1968 if they can continue their winning ways.

The MAC West title figures to go to the winner of Friday's game between Central Michigan and Western Michigan.

* Heisman Watch: OSU's Troy Smith (107 yards, 1 INT passing vs. Illinois; 2,005 yards, 22 TDs for the year) is still my top pick here. But Notre Dame's Brady Quinn is really coming up on the outside and will steal some votes as he continues to decimate ND's lackluster competiton. He threw for 346 yards and four TDs against North Carolina, giving him 2,579 yards and 25 TDs on the year.

West Virginia's Steve Slaton had 156 yards and a TD in the loss to Louisville. But he had a fumble and sat out a quarter with an injury in the defeat, certainly curtailing his Heisman hopes.

Rutgers' Ray Rice could move into the picture with a big game against Louisville. He has 1,203 yards and 13 TDs rushing this year. Michigan's Mike Hart had 154 yards and a TD in the win over Ball State, giving him 1,281 yards and 10 TDs rushing for the year.

* BCS Picture: Louisville's win over West Virginia positions the Cardinals to play the Ohio State-Michigan winner for the national championship. But UL must visit unbeaten Rutgers this Thursday and must close with three other wins to punch its ticket to the BCS title game Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

Following Louisville, six one-loss teams are lined up and just hoping for a chance. In order of the new standings, they are: Florida, Texas, Auburn, USC, California and Notre Dame. Of course, the OSU-Michigan loser would also fall into that group.

Should Louisville falter (or get voted down and fall to No. 3 or below in the final BCS rankings), it would be a mad scramble for the other spot opposite the OSU-Michigan winner. USC has the toughest road remaining with games against Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA. But if the Trojans can bring back four wins, they'd have the full support of the computer component.

* My New Top 15: By popular demand, I will change some things up. Notre Dame moves down, Tennessee moves out and Wisconsin moves in. Ohio State, Michigan, Louisville, Texas, Florida, California, Auburn, Notre Dame, USC, West Virginia, LSU, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Boise State.

* Games To Watch: This is a great week for college football with a ton of games that could go down to the wire. They include: Toledo-Northern Illinois (Tuesday), Louisville-Rutgers (Thursday), Michigan-Indiana, Ohio State-Northwestern, Texas-Kansas State, South Carolina-Florida, Georgia-Auburn, Oregon-USC, Cincinnati-West Virginia, Tennessee-Arkansas, Alabama-LSU, Wisconsin-Iowa, Wake Forest-Florida State, Nebraska-Texas A&M.

We will wrap up each week with a look at how OSU's opponents fared and check out who they face next week.

Date (Time, TV), Opponent (Record), This Week's Result, Next Week's Game

Sept. 2, Northern Illinois (5-4), idle, Nov. 4; vs. Toledo, Nov. 7.

Sept. 9, at Texas (9-1), beat Oklahoma State 36-10, Nov. 4; at Kansas State, Nov. 11.

Sept. 16, Cincinnati (5-4), idle, Nov. 4; at West Virginia, Nov. 11.

Sept. 23, Penn State (6-4), lost to Wisconsin 13-3, Nov. 4; vs. Temple, Nov. 11.

Sept. 30, at Iowa (6-4), lost to Northwestern 21-7, Nov. 4; vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 11.

Oct. 7, Bowling Green (4-6), lost to Akron 35-28, Nov. 4; vs. Miami (Ohio), Nov. 15.

Oct. 14, at Michigan State (4-6), lost to Purdue 17-15, Nov. 4; vs. Minnesota, Nov. 11.

Oct. 21, Indiana (5-5), lost to Minnesota 63-26, Nov. 4; vs. Michigan, Nov. 11.

Oct. 28, Minnesota (4-6), beat Indiana 63-26, Nov. 4; at Michigan State, Nov. 11.

Nov. 4, at Illinois (2-8), lost to Ohio State 17-10, Nov. 4; vs. Purdue, Nov. 11.

Nov. 11, (3:30 p.m., ABC) at Northwestern (3-7), beat Iowa 21-7, Nov. 4; vs. Ohio State, Nov. 11.

Nov. 18, (3:30 p.m., ABC) Michigan (9-0), Ball State, Nov. 4; at Indiana, Nov. 11.

Big Ten Standings

Team (Overall, Big Ten)

Michigan (10-0, 6-0)

Ohio State (10-0, 6-0)

Wisconsin (9-1, 6-1)

Penn State (6-4, 4-3)

Purdue (6-4, 3-3)

Indiana (5-5, 3-3)

Iowa (6-4, 2-4)

Michigan State (4-6, 1-5)

Minnesota (4-6, 1-5)

Illinois (2-8, 1-5)

Northwestern (3-7, 1-5)

Nov. 4 Results

Wisconsin 13, Penn State 3

Northwestern 21, Iowa 7

Michigan 34, Ball State 26

Minnesota 63, Indiana 26

Ohio State 17, Illinois 10

Purdue 17, Michigan State 15

Nov. 11 Games

Wisconsin at Iowa, noon (ESPN)

Purdue at Illinois, noon (ESPN-Plus Regional)

Minnesota at Michigan State, noon (ESPNU)

Ohio State at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Michigan at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Temple at Penn State, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN-Plus Local)

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