Ohio State knows quite well what awaits it in the near future, but understands it must remain focused on the present.
Though their biggest rival and a likely showdown for a conference championship looms a week from now, the top-ranked Buckeyes won’t look past their meeting with bowl-eligible Illinois on Saturday in a Big Ten matchup at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0) are tied with rival Michigan for the top spot in the Big Ten as the hype continues to build for their Nov. 17 meeting at Michigan Stadium. While that matchup likely will determine the conference champion, Ohio State has more to lose than the two-loss Wolverines in terms of the bigger picture.
Two victories and the Buckeyes will be again earn a spot in the BCS title game, Jan. 7 in New Orleans.
However, before Ohio State can start thinking that big, it must get by Illinois (7-3, 4-2), which is likely headed to a bowl for the first time since 2001, the same season it posted its last victory over Ohio State, 34-22 at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 17.
Most of the current Buckeyes also remember last season, when an Illinois team that finished 2-10 gave Ohio State all it could handle in a 17-10 loss in Champaign, Ill. on Nov. 4, 2006—two games before the Buckeyes beat Michigan in a matchup of the nation’s two top teams.
“The amount of respect we have for that team is just about as high as anybody else,” Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline said. “Being able to watch them do what they’ve done this year so far, we have a lot of respect for them. … It’ll be a different game this year.”
Ohio State also realizes that as the season winds down, the games continue to get tougher.
“This group really understands that we’ve got work to do,” said coach Jim Tressel, whose team will try for its 29th straight regular season win, while looking to extend its conference-record winning streak to 21 games.
The Buckeyes trailed by seven midway through the third quarter before scoring 28 straight points in a 38-17 home victory over Wisconsin last Saturday. That came two weeks after Ohio State allowed Michigan State to score 17 second-half points to make a 24-17 victory over the Spartans much closer than it should have been.
“It’s the first time all season where we faced adversity late,” defensive tackle Vernon Gholston said of the Wisconsin victory. “I’m happy with the way we handled it.”
Last Saturday, Gholston tied a school record with four sacks for the nation’s top defense, which is allowing 9.7 points per game.
Offensively, 235-pound sophomore running back Chris Wells rushed for 169 yards on 21 carries and three straight second-half touchdowns. Wells is averaging 116.5 rushing yards for the season—and 174.3 in his last three games.
Both Ohio State units, though, could be in for a challenge Saturday against Illinois, which ranks sixth in the nation in rushing, averaging 261.7 yards per game. Defensively, the Illini are allowing 19.1 points per game after giving up 26.7 last season.
“I think the mentality has changed,” Illinois fullback Russ Weil told the school’s official Web site. “We are definitely expecting to win a lot more games. Everyone is working ten times harder every week in practice.”
Rashard Mendenhall, the conference’s leading rusher with 1,314 yards, ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries in a 44-17 win at Minnesota last Saturday night.
Mendenhall, who has rushed for 390 yards and four TDs in his last two games, needs 17 yards to break the Illinois single-season record held by Antoineo Harris in 2002.
The Illini, who are 2-1 versus ranked teams this season, are looking to avoid a 12th straight loss when facing the nation’s top-ranked team dating to a 20-13 win over Michigan State on Oct. 27, 1956.