- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Ohio State players know many of you have been enjoying this.
After a decade of dominance in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes' backslide both on and off the field in recent months has brought delight to folks around the country. The suspensions, the departures, the NCAA issues and, most recently, the losses have created one giant Scarlet and Gray snowball, rolling down the mountain.
"A lot of people," cornerback Travis Howard said, "are waiting for us to fold."
They're still waiting.
Ohio State reached a crossroads Saturday at Memorial Stadium. After collapsing the week before at Nebraska, the Buckeyes were in danger of slipping to 0-3 in the Big Ten and below the .500 mark for the first time since 1999 (and this late in the year for the first time since 1988). Coach Luke Fickell took heat during the week. Backup quarterback Joe Bauserman took even more heat.
A loss to No. 16 Illinois might be the breaking point for Ohio State.
Instead, it could turn out to be the turning point.
Ohio State silenced Illinois in a 17-7 victory and, in the process, sent a loud-and-clear message to the rest of the Big Ten.
"Ohio State is going to be here," Howard said. "This is Ohio State football. This is what we do, and we're going to continue to keep fighting."
The Buckeyes' unconventional method for victory suited what has been an unconventional season in Columbus. Their three scoring drives totaled 79 yards.
They completed one pass -- one! -- and attempted just four. It marked the first time since a 1976 loss to Missouri that Ohio State finished with just one pass completion.
Ohio State's coach that day? Woody Hayes. He would have loved this one. The current coach, a former Buckeyes defensive lineman and defensive assistant, didn't mind it, either.
"The game plan was to win," Fickell said. "That was the ultimate, most important thing, and however we had to do it, we were ready to to do it."
The Buckeyes won with physical strength at the line of scrimmage, hard-hitting defense, opportunistic play and running -- lots of it, 51 carries for 211 yards.
Running back Dan "Boom" Herron, one of the infamous Tat-5, made his season debut after serving a six-game suspension and looked like the freshest player on the field. He repeatedly evaded an aggressive Illini defense, racking up 114 rush yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
Herron had spent the first six games watching at home, often with teammate DeVier Posey, who remains suspended until Nov. 19. Both men were suspended for multiple NCAA rules violations.
"I learned a lot," Herron said. "Just thinking twice before making decisions. It really made me grow up as a man. I'm just not taking anything for granted."
An Ohio State team that seemingly could take great seasons for granted no longer has that luxury. The suspensions of quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Herron, Posey and left tackle Mike Adams left the offense in a bind.
For the Buckeyes to succeed this fall, the defense would have to perform at a championship level. After falling apart at Nebraska, showing uncharacteristically poor tackling and an inability to stop big plays, Ohio State re-established its identity.
"We wanted to go out and prove something," said safety C.J. Barnett, who delivered several jarring hits. "We were kind of pissed off. ... Being at Ohio State, the people that came before us, they established a tradition of excellence. With the losses, we weren't really living up to that."
Ohio State received standout performances from linemen Johnathan Hankins and John Simon, the team's top two tacklers, who combined for six tackles for loss. Safety Tyler Moeller (5 tackles, forced fumble) and linebacker Storm Klein (forced fumble, fumble recovery, tackle for loss) helped the effort along with Howard and cornerback Bradley Roby, both of whom recorded interceptions.
With the offense struggling, the defense set up short fields with its first two takeaways, both of which led to touchdowns. Although Ohio State listed better tackling and limiting big plays as its top two priorities, the takeways proved to be huge.
"This is a game of momentum," Fickell said. "The one thing we've lacked on defense is making some plays."
Illinois had made plenty of play in its first six games, storming out to its best start since 1951. But Ohio State flustered quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and prevented star receiver A.J. Jenkins from going off again.
Although the Illini received a strong performance from their defense, the offense didn't show up until the closing minutes.
"You can't scrap the season," coach Ron Zook said. "We have a chance to be pretty good."
The Buckeyes think they do, too, although they haven't looked the part for much of the year. While Saturday's win was anything but pretty, Ohio State improved to 1-0 in Leaders division play. Remember, the Buckeyes face division leaders Wisconsin and Penn State at Ohio Stadium.
They now enter a much-needed bye week before Russell Wilson and the Badgers come to town.
As players and coaches ran to the southeast corner of the stadium to celebrate with their fans and sing "Carmen Ohio," a jubilant Herron shouted, "We're back!"
Maybe not all the way back, but they're not dead, either.
Far from it.
"We got momentum," Fickell said. "It's so huge, that feeling is so huge. That's what drives you to do this. Those guys haven't had that in a while."
4dDan Murphy and Austin Ward