No. 9 Ohio State ready for overmatched Illinois

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two weeks ago, it was almost inconceivable to even think that No. 9 Ohio State would be in the national conversation for the College Football Playoff after a devastating 55-24 battering at Iowa.

What a difference a week, some upsets and an impressive win can make.

After Ohio State's dominating rebound performance in a 48-3 victory over then-No. 12 Michigan State last Saturday, the Buckeyes have moved back up in the rankings. Analysts are now talking about the outside chance that Ohio State could wind up in the final four.

With struggling Illinois (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten) coming to town Saturday for Ohio State's final home game of the season, the playoffs are on people's minds more than the opponent this week.

But that's not the topic of conversation in the locker room at this point. Coach Urban Meyer is choosing to take the tunnel vision approach rather than look out the window at the big picture.

"There will be zero conversation around here, especially when you guys talk to the players, there will be zero conversation about what happened before and what's going to happen in the future," Meyer said. "Zero."

To end up in the playoff conversation next month, it's pretty simple what Ohio State has to accomplish. The Buckeyes have to beat Illinois soundly on senior day, win at rival Michigan the following week and then polish off potentially unbeaten Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

And then of course they'll need lots of help nationally with teams in front of them getting knocked down a peg or two. It's possible.

"Every year I've been involved in college football there's like what? What happened?" Meyer said. "And it's the nature of the beast."

Beating Michigan and Wisconsin is likely to be infinitely more difficult than disposing of Illinois.

The Fighting Illini are playing a ton of freshmen as second-year coach Lovie Smith, a former Ohio State assistant, attempts to rebuild the program. They've lost eight straight games, including a 24-14 setback at home last week to Indiana, after starting the season 2-0.

"I think the guys are looking for a great opportunity," Smith said of playing Ohio State at the Horseshoe. "Where we are in our season, two games left to go ... you're last road game is playing against a team like this?"

Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr., who became the starter in October, has thrown for 1,273 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games, and freshman safety DelShawn Phillips leads the Illini defense with two interceptions and has 52 tackles.

Ohio State's defense, which nearly shut out Michigan State last week, could be a tough nut to crack for the Illinois offense. Last week, Ohio State limited Michigan State to 195 total yards.

And that was without starting linebackers Jerome Baker and Dante Booker, who both sat out with what were believed to be concussions. Baker has received clearance to return this week and Booker is questionable.

In their absence, Tuf Borland stepped in to lead the Buckeyes in tackles and Malik Harrison and Chris Worley played well on the outside.

The Ohio State offense, which leads the Big Ten in scoring and total yards per game, found its groove again last week after the debacle at Iowa when J.T. Barrett threw four interceptions in one of his worst games in four years as a starter.

Barrett, who has set 29 school and five Big Ten records in his career, bounced back and threw for two touchdowns and passed for two last week. But the driving force for Ohio State was the running of Mike Weber (nine carries, 162 yards, two touchdowns) and J.K. Dobbins (18 carries, 124 yards).

Illinois is likely to get a strong dose of Ohio State's ground game. The Illini are next to last in stopping the run in the Big Ten, giving up 199.1 yards per game, while the Buckeyes are averaging a conference-best 245.3 yards.

"Offensively, what they do causes you a lot of problems and a mobile quarterback in Barrett that can do an awful lot -- a mobile quarterback that can throw I might add, good runners, an excellent offensive line," Smith said.

Ohio State has won eight straight meetings and 11 of the last 12. Illinois' last victory in the series came in 2007.
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