Undefeated, No. 3-ranked Buckeyes pay a visit to Champaign

Steve Hull and Jonathan Brown were watching film on Sunday of Illinois’ 52-35 loss to Indiana when they decided the team needed to meet without the coaches. Hull and Brown passed word to Miles Osei and Ryan Lankford. From there word spread.

The Illinois football team held a players-only meeting Sunday night. It was short, maybe 10 minutes.

“We know that it’s very easy for younger guys and guys that might be role players to kind of bag it up,” Hull said. “We talked about that and we made sure that everybody knew that this is a serious game.

“This is a game that we’re going to fight and compete just as much as the first game of the season.”

The Illini are going to need to fight hard if they want to compete. No. 3 Ohio State pays a visit to Memorial Stadium on Saturday to face an Illinois team in the midst of a five-game losing streak.

Illinois hasn’t won the Illibuck trophy since 2007, when Juice Williams’ Illini pulled off the upset of the No. 1 Buckeyes. It would be an even bigger upset if the Illini pulled it off in 2013.

But the Illini (3-6, 0-5 Big Ten) have a lot working against them. The young Illinois defense has surrendered 34.7 points per game this season. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) ranks fifth in the country with 48.2 points per game. And Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a large part of that.

So how can the defense stop him?

“Oh man, that’s a good question,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said.

“He’s dynamic,” Banks continued. “Everyone he’s played against, he’s made some plays. I told the defense: It’s going to take a collective effort, team defense. Everybody doing their job.”

Even with the mobile Miller moving around in the backfield, it has been the ground game that has propelled the Buckeyes. Running backs Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall have combined for more than 1,200 yards. Miller has added another 410 rushing yards. The trio has 17 rushing touchdowns.

“Ohio State doesn’t vary too much from an Indiana type of offense,” Brown said. “They have a lot of weapons, similar to Indiana, and they’re rolling right now. We’re a little extra fired up because we need this one. We’re in a must-win situation.”

The must-win situation is referring to the three wins Illinois needs in its final three games to reach a bowl game. A loss Saturday will take much of the meaning out of Illinois’ final two games.

If the Illini want to keep up with the Buckeyes, Illinois will likely need to put a lot of points on the board. Ohio State has impressed Illinois head coach Tim Beckman on the defensive side more than anywhere else.

“Some new faces have come in there,” Beckman said. “And Coach (Luke) Fickell and Coach Everett (Wilson) are doing a great job with that defense.”

Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes rank eighth in the nation in points allowed, at 17 per game.

Ohio State poses plenty of challenges for Illinois. But Hull, Brown and the seniors aren’t shying away from them. They know what this game means.

A win will make national headlines and means a potential for a bowl game for Illinois. A loss will mean a quiet exit from Champaign two weeks from now. 

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.