When the Buckeyes lookback on week 5, they’ll feel very lucky indeed. There were many tense moments as the Fighting Illini lived up to their name, but none moreso than when the team watched Terrelle Pryor go down awkwardly in the third quarter. He didn’t take a hit– his leg just seemed to lock up during a 10-yard run, and it appeared for all the world that Ohio State’s BCS dreams were over.
But after limping into the lockerroom, Pryor jogged back out onto the field and ultimately returned later in the second half with what was dubbed a mild quad strain.
The relief on the OSU sideline was palpable.
Once I recovered from the near-heart attack suffered during that sequence, I was able to reflect on what this 24-13 victory taught me about this team. I don’t much care for what I learned.
1. Ohio State is Terrelle Pryor.
Ok, we all knew this to be true, but it really hit home when we watched the Heisman candidate pull up lame. Joe Bauserman is not a serviceable backup. Not in any way. Despite being part of the program for several years now, he’s simply not capable of handling things if Pryor goes down. The Buckeyes might be better off throwing freshman Ken Guiton into the fire should such a tragedy occur, but frankly it wouldn’t matter very much.
2. The team needs a punter.
No offense to Ben Buchanan, but Ohio State is far to reliant on its special teams to be able to weather short, ineffective punts. Buchanan had plenty of practice on Saturday during a game that saw the offense sputter badly. Kicks of 29 and 32 yards were among the lowlights; this was a week when the team really needed their punter to win the battle of field position.
They got away with it against an Illinois team that was mostly held in check by the defense, but against tougher opponents, that kind of lackluster special teams performance could be real trouble.
3. The running game continues to be an unimpressive committee.
If all you saw was the final box score, you might disagree with me here. The Buckeyes did tote the rock 42 times for 213 yards, and a 5.1 yards per carry average isn’t bad at all. But Pryor had 104 of those yards, with 66 coming on one rush. If you disregard his 9.5 YPC, the rest of rushing attack looks far more anemic. Dan Herron was the workhorse because Brandon Saine was so completely ineffective– 8 carries for 14 yards is an ugly stat line. Other than a 7-yard rush, Saine carried the ball 7 times for an average of 1 yard per touch.
The only reason that the team’s total got so high (other than Pryor’s breakaway) was persistence. The Buckeyes called 14 running plays in the third quarter, including 7 consecutive by Herron at one point. Collectively they came to 55 yards. Another 13 rushes for 51 yards in the fourth quarter doesn’t sound all that bad, but 24 of those yards came on 2 carries. In total, the second half included 27 carries, and 4 of them accounted for 43 of the 106 yards.
Ohio State just kept pounding and pounding, but found only sporadic success. Again, they got away with it against a weaker opponent. But the sledding will only get tougher as conference play continues.
4. The offensive line is still struggling with run blocking.
Part of the blame for the unimpressive ground game goes to the o-line. With so many carries, the big eaters should have been able to wear the Illini down up front, but that really didn’t happen until Herron broke off a pair of crucial runs very late. Ohio State doesn’t have a Beanie Wells or an Eddie George in the backfield, and for whatever reason, Jim Tressel seems determined to keep feeding the Saine-Herron tandem rather than turning to Jaamal Berry or Jordan Hall.
The backs aren’t great, which means the line has to be. Right now, it’s not.
5. The offense has some work to do before the big conference games arrive.
I give due credit to Illinois. The Illini defense was obviously pumped and played very well. But I found it inexplicable that Tressel went so run-heavy in his game plan. The 42 rushes far outweighed the 18 passes; Pryor completed 9 of 16 throws for only 76 yards. That’s 4.8 yards per attempt, if you’re keeping track. He did connect with Saine on a big third down touchdown play, and with Dane Sanzenbacher just before the half. But the pair of scores was tempered by a bad interception in OSU territory.
Granted, things might have been a bit more lopsided had Pryor not missed some of the third quarter. After sleepwalking through some of the first half, the Buckeyes scored a go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds remaining before the break, and they had some rhythm, along with a first-and-ten on their 30, when Pryor had to leave the game.
But 78 total passing yards and 2 picks simply won’t cut it.
After forcing a 3-and-out to start the game, one that included a rare Pryor sack, the Illinois offense punched the Buckeyes’ D right in the mouth. QB Nathan Scheelhaase and tailback Mikel LeShoure engineered a 4 and a half minute drive that marched the team into the endzone. It was the first time this year that Ohio State didn’t score first. The drive even featured a trick play, a throwback to Scheelhaase by wideout Jarred Fayson that went for 23 yards.
The Buckeyes defense had to be in a bit of shock; the strength of the team isn’t accustomed to giving up early touchdowns. Luckily Pryor led the offense on an answering drive by breaking off his 66-yard gallop on the first play. After a handoff to Saine and a short pass to DeVier Posey, Pryor found Saine on third and goal from the 8 and tied the game at 7.
The teams exchanged punts, and Illinois won some critical field position by pinning OSU at its own 1. Buchanan then booted his 32-yarder that set the Illini offense up in Buckeye territory. Illinois then suffered some poor kicking of its own as Derek Dimke missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Still the #2 Buckeyes couldn’t mount any consistent offense, the teams traded 4 more punts before Trulon Henry picked off a Pryor pass at the OSU 39. He returned the interception to the 24, but Scheelhaase could get no closer. The Illini converted the turnover into 3 points as Dimke connected from 27 yards out.
Down 10-7, Pryor came up big again. When the Buckeyes needed to answer the opening score, he peeled off a 66-yard run. This time is was a 35-yarder that sparked the touchdown drive. 4 more plays and 22 yards later he found Sanzenbacher crossing the endzone and put the Bucks up 14-10.
That score held throughout the third quarter as both offenses failed to find any momentum. Jim Tressel seemed content to nurse his slim advantage, reverting to his typically conservative play-calling. Finally, as the fourth quarter opened, the Buckeyes were able to add to their lead with a painfully methodical 13-play, 59-yard drive. Devin Barclay’s 32-yard field goal made it 17-10, and best of all the possession ate up nearly 8 minutes.
Illinois needed fewer than 4 to answer with a field goal of their own. A 26-yard rush by LeShoure and a 29-yard pass from Scheelhaase to Fayson made possible Dimke’s 30-yarder.
But when they needed it the most, the Buckeyes were finally able to get a couple of good runs. Dan Herron accounted for all 6 plays as Ohio State punched in an insurance touchdown. The 24-13 score would hold up as the final.
The Buckeyes got a helping hand from the Illini in the form of 74 penalty yards. Illinois committed 9 fouls including a couple of very costly facemask calls.
All in all, it was a real struggle for Ohio State. But it proves that winning a conference game on the road is never a given. Ohio State clearly has some work to do before it faces the Big Ten’s better teams. However, the team’s ability to control the ball and clock in the second half was a real positive. The running game performed when it needed to, and the Buckeyes were able to win despite playing less than their best.
Every season has a game that must be “survived”. Let’s hope this was OSU’s.
2010 Schedule (all times Eastern)
10/2 — 12:00pm — Ohio State @ Illinois – W 24-13
10/9 — 12:00pm — Indiana @ Ohio State –
10/16 — 7:00pm — Ohio State @ Wisconsin –
10/23 — 12:00pm — Purdue @ Ohio State –
10/30 — 8:00pm — Ohio State @ Minnesota –
11/6 — BYE
11/13 — Time TBD — Penn State @ Ohio State –
11/20 — Time TBD — Ohio State @ Iowa –
11/27 — Time TBD — Michigan @ Ohio State –