Ohio State's national championship dreams are in tatters in large part for a relatively surprising reason. The Buckeye defense had no answer for its opponent.
The Buckeyes allowed 400 total yards, the most this season, including 260 on the ground, the most of the Jim Tressel era. Beyond the distance traveled, the Fighting Illini possessed the ball for 33 minutes, including 13:46 in the fourth quarter and the final 8:09 of the game.
Afterwards, Ohio State's defenders were at a loss for explanations.
"They spread us out and you can't really explain what happened," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I don't know what happened."
Safety Anderson Russell called the experience frustrating and added that there were no surprises from a strategic standpoint.
"They did everything we were expecting," he said.
It seemed there was nothing the Buckeye defense could do to get off the field in the final quarter, when the Fighting Illini converted five of eight third downs.
To make matters worse, the visitors followed one of those failed third downs with a quarterback sneak to convert a fourth-and-inches, and another came when quarterback Juice Williams took a knee on the final play of the game.
"It's tough, man, because it seems like we had them in third-and-long situations or third-and-6, third-and-7, and they kept getting first downs," Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "We just wanted to give our offense just one chance to get on the field and they just kept converting those third downs. They kept getting 4 yards every time they ran the ball, and it's tough because you don't give the offense that chance to get a score."
Williams had other plans. While he was good for the first three-plus quarters, the sophomore was masterful on his team's final drive.
Mixing the read option and quarterback draws, Williams ran seven times for 29 yards, including three consecutive runs that converted third downs into first downs.
On the day Williams ran for 70 yards on 16 carries.
He was on target with many of his passes, as well, completing 12 of 22 throws for 140 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes.
"There weren't any plays that we hadn't seen before," Russell said. "I guess he was just on today."
Although the Illini's methods – spread offense, read option, speed option, etc. – are somewhat unconventional, the Buckeyes said nothing their opponents did caught them by surprise.
That included the no-huddle, hurry-up offense.
"We knew it was going to come at some point in the game, but it was some mistakes that we had that we need to fix up," linebacker Larry Grant said. "The no-huddle also had us jumping around a little bit. We were messing up some of our plays, but you know we're just going to have to learn from this."
While some teams deploy the no-huddle to prevent an opposing defense from being able to match up or rest personnel, Russell said that was not a problem for the Buckeyes.
The tactic did strain their communication, however.
"You have to get your calls in faster," he said. "And the crowd is out there yelling for the defense, so there's a lot of noise out there and we've got to get the call communicated to everybody, so it's tough."
What it came down to, however, was less the tactics than the players, in particular Williams.
"I think he's matured a lot and he's a heck of a competitor," Laurinaitis said of the same quarterback who ran for 13 yards on four carries and completed 8 of 18 passes for 77 yards last season as a freshman against Ohio State in Champaign.
"He made plays – that's what it comes down to," Laurinaitis said. "People don't always have the perfect call every time. We don't always have the perfect defense. It just comes down to making plays and they made more plays than us."