Thanks to an offensive performance that would have made Woody Hayes smile, Ohio State did just that with 30-20 victory over the fading Fighting Illini on a cold, breezy day in Champaign, Ill. The Buckeyes rushed for more than 300 yards for the first time since 2005 and rode a 143-yard performance from junior tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells to victory.
Wells' performance pushed him over the 3,000-yard career rushing mark as a Buckeye. He joined Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Tim Spencer, Keith Byars and Pepe Pearson as the only OSU rushers to crack the 3,000-yard mark. Wells also had the highlight of the game early in the third quarter when he leapt over strong safety Donsay Hardeman during a 25-yard gain.
"You knew that you were going to have a lot better chance of winning if you were going to be able to run today," said Tressel, whose team ran the ball on all but two offensive plays in the second half. "You could pass it some but you'd better not try to make a living on that.
"The other thing is that those two quarters you were against the wind really affected your special teams. You didn't want to be doing things that would stop the clock. ... You wanted everything you were doing to keep that clock rolling."
Freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor also got in on the running act, finishing with a season-high 110 yards on 13 carries with one touchdown. It was the first time two Ohio State players ended with more than 100 yards since 2005 when Antonio Pittman (171) and Troy Smith (127) did so in a 31-6 win against Iowa.
Wells said the cold weather at Memorial Stadium "was a running back's dream. Cold and wet – what more could you ask for?"
The defensive effort probably wouldn't have made Woody smile. The Fighting Illini piled up 455 yards of offense, most the defense had allowed at that time. (Texas would put up 468 yards of offense in the Fiesta Bowl.) The Buckeye defense made up for that fact by forcing a pair of first-half turnovers that resulted in Ohio State touchdowns. Senior safety Malcolm Jenkins also blocked an Illinois punt for a safety in the first quarter.
While Illinois did finish with plenty of yardage, Illini quarterback Juice Williams was unable to repeat his impressive performance in his team's 2007 upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State. Williams committed both of Illinois' first-half turnovers when he fumbled at his own 19-yard line and later threw an interception in the red zone.
"We had a lot of mistakes and sometimes we were on different pages out there," said Williams, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 192 yards, two touchdowns and the interception. "We've got to take advantage of the opportunities we have. When we get in the red zone, we've got to put up points – at the very least a field goal."
Ohio State also did a good job of limiting Illinois star receiver Arrelious Benn. He caught only three passes for 65 yards, returned two punts for a net of zero yards and returned a kickoff for 17 yards. Benn's all-purpose total of 82 yards was well below his average of 149.6 per game, which ranked third in the Big Ten coming into the game.
Pryor opened the scoring after Williams' fumble, reaching the end zone on a 1-yard run. Illinois answered the TD, but Ohio State then scored 16 unanswered points to pull ahead for good. The Buckeyes moved ahead on the special teams safety, and Ohio State added a pair of touchdowns on a 3-yard Wells run and a 20-yard reception by sophomore receiver Dane Sanzenbacher.
Illinois field goal kicker Matt Eller added a pair of field goals before halftime to cut the deficit to 23-13 at halftime, but Ohio State used its ground attack to control play. Redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron scored on a 12-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter.
Illinois capped the scoring with a Chris Duvalt 24-yard touchdown reception from Williams with 42 seconds remaining in the game.
Junior safety Kurt Coleman led the defensive effort with 11 tackles and an interception. Senior middle linebacker James Laurinaitis had eight tackles and forced a fumble. Sophomore Tyler Moeller made his first start in the linebacker/safety "Star" hybrid position in place of injury Jermale Hines. Moeller made the most of his opportunity, forcing a fumble and adding a career-high seven tackles – including two for a loss.
The victory kept Ohio State in the race for a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship. With one game remaining, Ohio State (9-2, 6-1) was in a three-way tie with Penn State (10-1, 6-1) and Michigan State (9-2, 6-1). Ohio State needed a win to earn a share of the conference crown, and if the Spartans could beat the Nittany Lions in their season finale, Ohio State would win the title outright.
But as soon as the game with the Illini had finished, thoughts immediately turned to the annual showdown with Michigan.
"What's important about next week is that it's the Ohio State-Michigan game," Tressel said. "It's important to both teams. BCS stuff and bowl stuff and Big Ten stuff is really second compared to the Ohio State-Michigan game. Usually at the end of that game, you all find out what you've earned for the season."