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Buckeyes desperately want chance to show off ‘lock up’ defense at Illinois

Zach Harrison-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison has the ability to change games. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Buckeyes desperately want chance to show off ‘lock up’ defense at Illinois

COLUMBUS — It was late in the Ryan Day weekly radio show on 97.1 TheFan this week when co-hosts Paul Keels and Jim Lachey reminded the Ohio State coach of the great individual performances that have occurred over the years when the Buckeyes have played Illinois.

There was the then-school record 274-yard rushing effort by Keith Byars in a come-from-behind win in 1984, topped by the 314-yard effort by Eddie George against the Illini in 1995. And there was the then-NCAA record 621 yards passing that Illinois quarterback Dave Wilson accumulated in a losing cause against Ohio State in 1981.

Day listened, then said he likely would remind his Buckeyes of the first two of those remarkable feats this week as they prepared to play at Illinois on Saturday. Great things are possible any time in the structure of a team effort.

“But that 621, that’s a little too soon,” Day said.

He laughed a little, but he wasn’t joking. Unbeaten Ohio State, No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings released this week, is coming off a 42-35 win over Indiana in which it took a four-touchdown lead early in the third quarter only to hang on from there as Michael Penix Jr. wound up lighting up the defense with 491 overall passing yards and five touchdowns. And that was on just 27 completions of 51 attempts.

Shaun Wade-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes

Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade has had an up-and-down season. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Yeah, it’s probably too soon to bring up great moments in opponents’ passing past. It’s relevance to the game at lllinois on Saturday probably is minimal also, since through their first five games this season the Illini have passed for a mere 797 yards cumulative and four touchdowns, hitting just 59 of 115 throws, with three interceptions.

Except last week in the 41-23 win at Nebraska, Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters went 18 of 25 for 205 yards and a score. In a pinch, his primary receiver was Josh Imatorbhebhe, just as Ty Fryfogle was for Penix last week against Ohio State.

Rushing is what the Illini have hung their hat on for the most part, averaging 222 yards per game. But now the blueprint says throw the ball at Ohio State, which otherwise is holding teams to an average of 98.5 rushing so far.

Further, the plans say test Buckeyes defensive backs such as cornerback Shaun Wade in man-to-man coverage; present safety Marcus Hooker with conundrums, since against Indiana he played impulsively at times instead of guarding the back gate which is his responsibility in the one-high safety scheme; run pick plays underneath to clear receivers on crossing routes, since Big Ten officials might flag one or two a game but appear content to let most of them slide.

There was a lot to unpack for the Ohio State defense after that game, but as part of the process: “One thing you can’t do is point fingers,” middle linebacker and three-year captain Tuf Borland said.

Whether first-year defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, also the tutor of the secondary, planned any personnel changes, he was keeping it to himself. For example, one switch might be to play Josh Proctor more at the high safety spot or at the slot corner, except he has been effective as “Swiss Army knife” fifth defensive back on the field at several spots.

There are other younger defensive backs who could slide in, but their experience is limited. In fact, limited experience is the key phrase for almost all concerned since the defense featured eight new starters this season. Though it is late November, the Buckeyes still have played just four games.

Take the case of Hooker, for instance, in fighting impulse and sticking with your responsibility.

“That’s what experience teaches you,” Coombs said. “Experience is the greatest teacher. And we got a good dose of it on Saturday.”

It remains to be seen whether Illinois plans to go off script and just fling it at the Buckeyes, too. But, for example, the pick plays Indiana ran “showed a lot of issues, and we didn’t play and respond the way we should have, so yes, I definitely think we will see those again,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said.

“But the way that we practice this week, with the need to follow up on our issues that were given, I hope they give it to us again. I hope they do, because we’re going to have it locked up. … I just hope they give it to us, because it’s going to be a dead play for them.”

Tim May

Tim May brings decades of experience to his work on the Ohio State beat. The award-winning journalist retired from his post at the Columbus Dispatch after the 2018 season but remains a fixture around the Buckeyes and continues to loom as an authority on the program.