Well that was easy. With their conference title hopes on the line, the No. 9 Ohio State Buckeyes showed up in a big way, dispatching Michigan State with ease. Now the Illinois Fighting Illini come calling with a certain wooden trophy on the line.
Ohio State leads the all-time series with Illinois 67-30-4. The Buckeyes have won seven straight games in the series (not counting 2010’s vacated 24-13 victory) and ten of the past eleven. The Illini famously defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus in 2007 to spoil the Bucks’ quest for a perfect regular season, their most recent win over the Buckeyes and most recent road win over a ranked opponent.
Lovie Smith’s second year in Champaign is not going as he had hoped. He inherited a flawed roster last season which limited him to a 3-9 record with only two conference wins. This season, the Illini opened the season with wins over Ball State and Western Kentucky and a loss to South Florida. The Big Ten slate has proven to be a house of horrors for Smith’s team; Illinois has lost seven straight conference games with only one defeat coming by seven points or less. The Illini appear overmatched and undermanned at every turn. Considering this weekend’s 41 point line favoring the home team, it doesn’t look like a good chance for Illinois’ first conference win.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. slings the ball for Illinois. The Indianapolis native has thrown 94-of-181 passing for 1,273 yards, seven touchdowns, and ten interceptions. Multiple tailbacks have taken carries for the Blue and Orange. True freshman Mike Epstein has 346 yards and three scores, redshirt senior Kendrick Foster tallies 253 yards and a TD, and frosh Ra’Von Bonner has 202 yards along with four touchdowns. Freshman receiver Ricky Smalling has pulled down 28 catches for 488 yards and a pair of TD’s. The Illini’s abundance of young players costs them victories short term, but Smith is depending on many of these young men to grow in the system and quickly elevate Illinois in the Big Ten West.
Do y’all remember Mike Weber? In case you had, the young man from Detroit reminded everyone how good he can be last weekend. Against the Spartans, Weber took nine carries for 162 yards and two touchdowns including a gorgeous 82-yard scamper. It can sometimes be hard to tell when the box is full of bodies, but Weber is a true burner who can leave defenders in his dust when given space. On the year Weber has 69 carries for 437 yards and seven scores. Paired with the sensational freshman J.K. Dobbins (137 attempts, 1,038 yards, 5 scores) the Ohio State running game feels as potent as it has since its “Boom and Zoom” days. Weber, a redshirt sophomore, has a decision to make after the season ends. If he chooses to come back and partner with Dobbins again there is a chance both players could gain over one thousand yards next year. The second highest rusher on the team is quarterback J.T. Barrett (110 carries, 572 yards, seven touchdowns). With Barrett gone next year and the less mobile Dwayne Haskins/Joe Burrow waiting in the wings, Weber would almost assuredly see an expanded role in 2018.
While Illinois may not excite the crowd like Michigan State, the stakes are real for the Buckeyes. If Ohio State defeats the Illini and Wisconsin bests Michigan in Madison then OSU will clinch the Big Ten East. Wisconsin clinched the West with their victory over Iowa. They figure to be a formidable opponent, but that analysis is for another day. Wisconsin benefits from playing at home against Michigan as evidence by the Badger’s 7.5 point favoritism. College Gameday will be on campus as well which always makes the game a little more fun. UW-UM will kick off at noon so by the end of the first quarter in Columbus everyone should know if the Bucks can clinch by the end of their game. Technically, the Wolverines still have a path to the East Division title with wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State so they will be playing a kitchen sink game.
Despite their 127 years of history, Ohio State only plays one trophy game – The Illibuck. Ohio State and Illinois have long tradition of exchanging a live turtle (briefly) later replaced with a replica wooden tortoise. Ohio State has held the trophy since 2008’s 30-20 victory and figure to keep it for a few more years. Ohio State and Illinois are not scheduled to meet again until November 21, 2020. The Bucks lead the trophy series 63-23-2.
It’s cliché, but Saturday could be a giant trap game for Ohio State. A potential division-deciding showdown with Michigan looms after Thanksgiving. Most of Buckeye Nation has already declared victory over the Illini which will almost certainly happen. Then again, no one expected Illinois to win in 2007 either. To be clear, I expect OSU to win by five touchdowns on Senior Day, but it’s always good to give a conference foe at least a little credit. Don’t forget, as soon as the final gun sounds it’ll be Beat Michigan Week.