|Ohio State senior tailback Dan Herron (1) runs by Illinois defenders during the Buckeyes 17-7 victory over the 16th-Ranked Illini on Saturday in Champaign. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)|
Ohio State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) avoided suffering their first three-game losing streak since 2004 on Saturday afternoon by wearing down 16th-ranked Illinois (6-1, 2-1) with a Woody-style power running game and an attacking, relentless defensive effort, to win their first Big Ten contest of the season, 17-7, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
It was the Illini's first loss of the year.
"Going into the game, we knew it was going to be about turnovers, it was going to be about the rushing battle and it was going to be about field position," OSU interim head coach Luke Fickell said following the win.
The Buckeyes ran the football 51 times for 211 yards in the victory Saturday, powered by the return of senior tailback Dan "Boom" Herron, who accounted for 114 yards and a touchdown in his first appearance of the season after serving a six-game suspension for receiving improper benefits.
"I was definitely happy to be back on the field," Herron said. "Missing my teammates and missing the first six games was definitely hard on me. I was very anxious to back out there today."
It was apparent from the opening gun that the Buckeyes were going to ride the legs of Herron, as they didn't attempt a pass until the midway point of the second quarter. The senior runner wouldn't display any signs of rust following his 10-month layoff, looking quick, decisive and powerful, while toting the rock 23 times for an average of five yards per carry.
Herron would score the game's first touchdown with 14:06 to play in the third quarter on a run from 12 yards out. It's the 13th consecutive game in which Herron has scored at least one touchdown.
"We had a plan going in," Fickell said. "I don't think they had seen as much running through the first six games. We knew it was going to be a big key to stopping the run as well as running the football, and then the big field position battle."
After suffering a sprained ankle in the third quarter of last Saturday's loss at Nebraska — which forced his exit from the contest — true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller was limited by the coaching staff for most of the game Saturday, throwing just four passes total in the win.
His only completed pass of the game wouldn't come until the 13:06 mark of the fourth quarter, when he connected with tight end Jake Stoneburner on a 17-yard scoring strike to go ahead 17-0.
Stoneburner said although the passing game generated just one completed pass in the game, at least they made it count.
"I was so pumped," Stoneburner said. "I knew we hadn't completed a pass yet, so if we're going to complete one it might as well be for a touchdown. Some situations you can't call it and they decided to call it and Braxton made a great throw."
Miller, managed just 51 total yards in the victory, as he improved his record as a starter to 2-2.
The Buckeyes defense bounced back from their poor performance a week ago in Lincoln, where they surrendered 34 points and 423 total yards (232 rushing) to Nebraska, by holding the Illini to just seven points in the win — scoreless through the first three quarters — with only 116 yards coming on the ground (3.3 avg.).
The Illini didn't fare much better through the air Saturday, as sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase finished 20-of-34 passing for just 169 yards and a touchdown, with two costly interceptions.
The first pick thrown by Scheelhaase was perhaps the biggest momentum shift of the game. On the second offensive play of the second half for Illinois, Scheelhaase would be intercepted by red-shirt freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, who returned the football all the way to the Illini 12. Herron would run it in for the score on the next play from scrimmage to give the Buckeyes a 10-0 advantage.
"This was a game of momentum," Fickell said. "I think that's probably the biggest thing about it. And one thing we've lacked a little bit on defense is making some plays. To have a play start right there (to begin second half) and then answer with the offense, that's what this game's all about.
"If you can get some momentum, it's quite an asset."
Scheelhaase and the offense did get some momentum going in the fourth quarter, when they drove 80 yards on 16 plays, eating up more than six minutes off the clock in the process. The long series would be capped off by a three-yard touchdown pass from Scheelhaase to tight end Evan Wilson with 6:22 to play in the game, cutting the Buckeyes' lead to 17-7.
The Illini defense would keep the momentum wearing orange and blue as they forced the Buckeyes' offense to a three-and-out on the ensuing series following the Scheelhaase to Wilson score.
However, the hosts would not cash in on the huge momentum swing on their next offensive possession.
On the first play for the Illini offense from their own 47, Scheelhaase tried to hit on a pass deep down the right sideline, only to be intercepted by cornerback Travis Howard at the OSU 20, essentially killing any hopes of an Illini comeback victory.
The Buckeyes forced the Illini offense into three turnovers in the defeat.
Scheelhaase took credit for both of the big second half interceptions.
"That was all me," Scheelhaase said. "(The first) was a missed throw, no doubt about it. He ran a good route, he was open, and it just sailed over his head. You can't have those plays.
"He was wide open on the second play, so when you have that you have to connect."
Junior John Simon was the catalyst for the Buckeyes' defensive attack Saturday, registering two sacks in the win, including a career-high eight tackles (four for losses). Sophomore defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins led the team with nine tackles in the victory.
Ohio State will have the next week off before returning home to take on unbeaten Wisconsin.