It is worth noting, as an unimpressive Illini team makes its way to Columbus this weekend, that Illinois has a good record against the Buckeyes in the Tressel era. Of six games, the Illini have won two — a record almost as good at Penn State (three wins in eight tries) and much better than Michigan (one win in eight tries). And both Illinois wins were in Columbus.
In addition, the three Illinois home games in the same time span all came down to the fourth quarter. In the 2002 game, the year Ohio State won the National Championship, Illinois took the Bucks to overtime. (And if the Big Ten had had the instant replay rule, Walter Young’s touchdown would have been called a touchdown. Because it was a touchdown.) The two latest OSU visits to Champaign have not been quite that close, but have certainly put scares into Ohio State — making them play to the final minutes.
What this means is that Illinois should have no fear going into the Horseshoe. In five of the six most recent games against Ohio State, they’ve acquitted themselves nicely.
For a template on how Illinois can legitimately win against Ohio State, look no further than Tennessee versus Florida this past Saturday. The discussion before that game was not if the Gators would win, but by how many touchdowns. The spread was 28 points and the biggest question was if Urban Meyer would take his foot off the gas before the end of the game.
In the end, Tennessee played exactly the type of game it had to if it was going to win. It kept Florida’s offense off the field by keeping its own on the field, and the clock running. It also made sure the Florida offense relied on its ground game instead of its passing game — also a clock eater. Of course, Tennessee lost. But not badly, and the issue was in doubt until the final minutes of the game.
The Illinois versus Ohio State matchup is not nearly so David versus Goliath. Illinois is better than Tennessee and Ohio State is not as good as Florida.
Illinois has exactly the running backs to keep getting first downs. And if the offense can’t rely on its senior quarterback to make short, accurate passes, then there’s really no chance, anyway. Ron Zook’s game plan should be this: keep, at all costs, the Illinois defense off the field. Run the ball nine out of ten plays if necessary, but keep the chains moving and the clock running.
It might seem strange to say given the Illinois receiving corps, but keeping the ball on the ground is the one true shot at winning.