The Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead, but were outplayed in the game's final two quarters by the lowly Illini (2-8, 1-5).
OSU had won its first nine games of the year by margins of 17 points and higher, matching the school record to open the year set in 1973. That's why this final score was cause for raised eyebrows around the country.
Still, the Buckeyes stayed unbeaten heading into this Saturday's game at Northwestern and are still primed for what would be an unprecedented 1 vs. 2 showdown with Michigan on Nov. 18 at Ohio Stadium.
If the Buckeyes can defeat Northwestern and UM can negotiate a win at Indiana Saturday, the 103rd rendition of The Game would be for the outright Big Ten championship as well as a guaranteed spot in the BCS national championship game set for Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.
At Illinois, the Buckeyes were a four-touchdown favorite. OSU coach Jim Tressel was asked if being such a heavy favorite in a conference game is a help or a hindrance.
"I don't know what overwhelming favorite does for us," said Tressel, whose team opened as a 22-point favorite over host Northwestern. "It doesn't spot us any points or first downs. You've got to go in and win every battle."
Tressel believes the Illinois experience will only help his team as it prepares for its last two regular season games.
"I think every time you're tested and battered and bruised that is always good for you, whether it's in life or in football," he said. "I think you learn more in your suffering than in your glorious moments."
Ohio State's offense bears inspection following the win at Illinois. The Buckeyes were held to a season-low 224 yards. OSU had two turnovers and gave up 11 negative plays – including three sacks – against the Illini.
"We have guys who are more than willing to look at themselves with our coaching staff to find ways to get better and go from there," Tressel said.
But Tressel has lived through tough scrapes before and lived to tell about it. His 2002 national championship game won seven of its 14 games by a touchdown or less, including a 23-16 overtime decision at Illinois.
"We always talk about the idea that championships are won with tough wins on the road when you play in a conference like ours," Tressel said. "Obviously, we've got to get better, but we said the same thing when the score was 44-3 (Oct. 21 against Indiana). They need to keep their heads up. They're undefeated in the Big Ten. That's pretty good."
The Players' Take
The win at Illinois increased Ohio State's nation's best winning streak to 17 games. That streak dates to a 17-10 loss at Penn State on Oct. 8, 2005.
The Buckeyes have won 15 of those games by double digits. (Aside from the Illinois game, the other game decided by single digits was OSU's 25-21 win at Michigan last November.)
Ohio State was the nation's clear No. 1 team and was bidding to become the first Division I-A team since Army in 1945 to go through an entire season with each win being 14 points or more.
But, while a milestone like that is no longer possible, the Buckeyes know their top goals – claiming the outright Big Ten title and winning a national championship – are still in front of them.
"We felt like we were good enough to be No. 1 and we deserve to be No. 1," said cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. "But we haven't gotten away from that grinding period and knowing we have to go out there every week and grind it out harder than everybody else. We have to come out and try to defend that No. 1 ranking.
"This game took us off cloud nine. I'm not saying we were looking past anybody, but I think this brings us back down to earth. We know we can be beat. You have to execute for four quarters because in the Big Ten anybody can beat anybody.
Jenkins said the bottom line was Ohio State came out of Illinois with the win.
"It was good for us that we were able to pull it out at the end to keep our win streak alive," he said. "As a unit, we need to get back and put the hard hat on and get ready for next week."
Tailback Antonio Pittman, held to just 58 yards on a career-high 32 carries by Illinois' stingy run defense, said there was plenty to study after this performance.
"The positive thing is we won," Pittman said. "And we have a lot of film to watch and a lot of things to learn from. We got a W. Not all of the games are going to be blowouts. Sometimes you have to fight hard for the whole four quarters to get it."
Wide receiver Brian Robiskie, who made a pair of clutch catches to help set up OSU touchdowns at Illinois, said the Buckeyes played through adversity against the Illini.
"Obviously, we were frustrated but we couldn't let it get away from us," Robiskie said. "Every team in the Big Ten is going to be a good opponent. We will learn from it and fortunately we were able to come out with a win."
As noted, the 2002 national championship team had its struggles. That team needed to stage late comebacks to defeat the likes of Cincinnati, Purdue and Michigan and had to go overtime to get past Illinois and Miami (Fla.) in the national title game at the Fiesta Bowl.
"I think it's good for us to face a little adversity, like we might have to face over the next couple of games," said cornerback Antonio Smith. "We knew coming in this would be a tough game. It was Illinois in the Big Ten. It was their last shot at glory. With their record, they can't make a bowl game. We knew they would bring their A game against us."
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said this game shows that the Buckeyes have the patience to stay with it – even when things aren't going their way.
"If you get frustrated and lose confidence, you are just going to make more trouble," Ginn said. "You are going to bring more things on you, so you just have to play hard.
"Everybody's been saying all year we shouldn't be up there. We've just got to keep our heads tight and just keep playing as a team and moving forward. You just concentrate on the ball game. We've shown it every week that we can be the No. 1 team. We just came out and had a dog fight. We will just come back next week and play hard."
Defensive tackle David Patterson, a co-captain, was asked if perhaps some of the younger players took Illinois, just 2-7 coming in, for granted.
"We have some great young guys, guys with a lot of confidence and they believe in their abilities," Patterson said. "They believe in this football team. I look at a guy like Malcolm Jenkins. He is on the sidelines getting guys fired up.
"The fact is they really gave us a great challenge. Sometimes, your character is going to be tested and you will face some adversity. But we did a good job as a football team of digging down deep and fighting to the end."
Quarterback Troy Smith, also a co-captain, endured a rough day at Illinois. He threw for a season-low 108 yards and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time all year. He was sacked three times and threw just his third interception of the season.
But if anybody had earned the right to have an uneven day it was probably Smith, who is still seen by most national pundits as the front runner in the Heisman Trophy race.
"In any situation, I am a realist," Smith said. "I understand that everything is not always as good as it seems and everything is not always as bad as it seems. So that performance, offensively and defensively, was one where we have to work on things. But we got through the game. We won and we will continue to grow."
The Road That's Left
Ohio State has reached 10-0 for the eighth time in school history. This is also OSU's 16th 10-win season. But the Buckeyes can become the fifth team in school history to open 11-0 with a win Saturday at Northwestern.
Here is a look at OSU's last two regular season games:
* Nov. 11, at Northwestern (3-7), 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional telecast) -- Following the tragedy of Randy Walker's death over the summer, it has been an agonizing first year for new coach (and former NU star) Pat Fitzgerald. The season included a 34-17 loss to Division I-AA New Hampshire, a 31-21 loss at Nevada and a devastating come-from-ahead 41-38 loss to Michigan State. In that game, MSU set a new Division I-A record for the largest comeback after rallying from a 38-3 third-quarter deficit.
But Northwestern got off the mat last week to stun heavily favored Iowa 21-7 in Iowa City, giving Fitzgerald his first Big Ten win. That win shows the Wildcats are finding themselves and putting a few things together. And, although OSU blistered Northwestern 48-7 last year in Columbus, the memory of NU's 33-27 overtime upset of then-No. 7 Ohio State in 2004 still lingers.
* Nov. 18, Michigan (10-0), 3:30 p.m. (ABC national telecast) -- Michigan is coming off a scare of its own as the Wolverines got past upstart Ball State, just 3-7, with a 34-26 decision Saturday in Ann Arbor. Michigan has been solid but perhaps not spectacular down the stretch with similar wins over Penn State (17-10), Iowa (20-6) and Northwestern (17-3).
Still, all of the Lloyd Carr-to-retire talk has subsided. UM holds a wide lead over Louisville for the No. 2 spot in the national rankings and harbors dreams of knocking off its rival – in Columbus, no less – so it can play for its first national title since 1997.
Michigan has offensive firepower with QB Chad Henne, TB Mike Hart and WRs A.J. Arrington, Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham, who returned Saturday after missing the three previous games with a knee injury.
UM also boasts the Big Ten's top-rated defense (241.5 ypg). Michigan has allowed its first 10 foes a paltry average of 30.3 yards per game on the ground. That average leads the nation and has to give OSU some pause after the way it ran the ball so ineffectively against Illinois (47 attempts, 116 yards, 2.5 average).