Just call this a victory for Tressel Ball. With the Horseshoe pelted by a driving rain early on Saturday, the Vest surely had it in mind to keep it buttoned up tight against Illinois, if he could. He could, he did, and it paid off handsomely. Behind another shutout effort from the defense, handsome dividends in the kicking game and a mistake-free if typically stodgy effort from the offense, Ohio State rolled in its Big Ten opener, soaking a troubled Illinois, 30-0.
It was the kind of game that turned on one play and making that play was linebacker Brian Rolle. Taking advantage of a poor opening series and worse punt by Ohio State, Illinois had driven to the Buckeyes 24-yard line on its first possession. After an illegal substitution penalty on Illinois pushed it back to the 29, Rolle cut in front of a Juice Williams pass, picked it off and dashed 49 yards before he was pushed out at the Illini 46. Four plays later Aaron Pettrey kicked a 50-yard field goal through the rain, and Ohio State led, 3-0. Illinois never got that close to pay-dirt again, and from there, with the lead, field possession, home field, overpowering defense and conditions all working in his favor, Coach Tressel was free to play his kind of ball to his content.
He could afford to, with the way this defense played and continues to play. The Silver Bullets made it eight consecutive quarters without allowing a score, held the Illini to 170 total yards, and produced turnovers on spectacular interceptions by Rolle, Lawrence Wilson and Jermale Hines. Thad Gibson had his breakout game- or breakout series- as he single-handedly blew up Illinois's first possession of the second half with two chase-downs of Juice Williams- one of which resulted in a fumble- while his defensive line mates Cam Heyward, Dexter Larimore, Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, Rob Rose and Nathan Williams made life hard all afternoon for the Juice (95 total yards.) In recording their first back-to-back shutout since the 1996 season, Ohio State didn't allow a single play of over sixteen yards.
The lackluster effort Illinois put forth didn't hurt Ohio State's cause. The Illini spent six different possessions in Buckeye territory but were continually sabotaged by penalties, sacks, dropped passes- mainly two big bobbles by Florida transfer Jerred Fayson- and interceptions. They had a huge opportunity to change the tempo of the game late in the first half, when Ray Small muffed a point and Illinois recovered at the Ohio State 45. The Illini reached the thirty, where in rapid succession a pair of penalties and a Fayson drop shoved them back to the 45, where they'd started. It was that kind of day for Ron Zook's team, which is now 1-2 and has Penn State coming to Champaign next Saturday. I'm not sure what's wrong with Illinois, other than that right now they pretty much stink on both sides of the ball. So much for that Outback Bowl bid I prognosticated.
Woody Hayes must have smiled on Ohio State's offensive game plan. While the Vest put a blanket over the passing game, the Buckeyes built their lead on slashing runs by Dan Herron (14 carries, 75 yards, two touchdowns) and Brandon Saine (13 carries, 81 yards.) Ohio State rushed for 236 yards on an Illinois defense that, as always, failed to tackle effectively. Herron and Saine got much of their yards after contact, as the first Illini tackler continually came up empty and exposed the hollow shell of their defense. It wasn't exactly a balanced attack- at halftime the Buckeyes had 135 rushing yards and zero passing yards- but there was no need to balance things out on this afternoon.
With a relatively safe 13-0 halftime lead, the Vest did feel spry enough to unbutton the offense a tad in half number two, and after a lost first half, Terrelle Pryor found his feet a little bit. Pryor completed 8-of-11 passes in the second half for all 83 of his aerial yards and found Dane Sanzenbacher with a touchdown pass to complete the scoring late in the fourth quarter. He also ran for 59 yards on eleven carries, although he once again displayed a frustrating lack of willingness to just take the short, solid gain up the middle. The offense didn't look like much over the entirety of the game, but with Ohio State's defense in complete control, there was absolutely no need to open things up
Aaron Pettrey's howitzer of a leg got Ohio State going in the early stages. The senior drilled a 50-yarder through the rain to open the scoring, added a 46-yarder to make it 6-0 in the second period, and from there the Buckeyes were pretty much home free. After a shanked opening punt, Jon Thoma boomed a 52-yard beauty that pinned the Illini back at their six late in the first half. Truly, all the elements of Tressel Ball- hard-hitting defense, mistake-free, ground-based offense and superior kicking game- were in place on Saturday.
With their fifth consecutive win in the Big Ten opener securely in place, the Buckeyes now go on the road for the first time this season. They'll be playing a rare night game in Bloomington against a surprising Indiana team, which came perilously close to a 4-0 start before falling in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Ohio State hasn't lost to Indiana since 1988 and if this defense keeps doing what it's doing, the Buckeyes will walk out of Bloomington 2-0 in conference play.