CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The return of Dan Herron came at a much needed time for Luke Fickell and his beleaguered Buckeye squad. Going into this weekend the Bucks were losers of two straight and running the risk of potentially going winless in the month of October. But Herron's return helped spark the Buckeyes with a much needed shot in the arm as the senior running back came back from suspension with a 23 carry, 114 yard outing as the Buckeyes did it on the ground en route to a 17-7 win to knock off the previously unbeaten Illini.
The back-up quarterback controversy never was an issue on Saturday but for all intents and purposes the passing game was never really called into focus all that much with Braxton Miller completing only one of his four attempted passes. But that one completion was a pivotal one with it going to tight end Jake Stoneburner for a touchdown and a then 17-0 lead in the second half.
"We are not going to let this (win) define us," Ohio State head coach Luke Fickell said. "We've got a long way to go and it's about work. But this game is a lot more fun when you're winning and this game is a lot more fun when things are going your way a little bit."
More people will be focused with the offensive output (be it good or bad) of the Buckeyes but it was Ohio State's ability to turn the Illini over that made the biggest difference in this game. Ohio State picked off Illinois' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase two times and also recovered a fumble en route to stalling the Illini on nearly every possession.
"You can't have those plays," Scheelhaase said after the game about his first interception to Bradley Roby that subsequently led to an Ohio State touchdown only one play after. "I felt like we had a good plan coming out of halftime and we had a nice little chunk play on the first play. He was wide open on the second play, so when you have that you have to connect."
That touchdown extended Ohio State's 3-0 halftime lead to two scores and allowed Ohio State to continue running the ball. The weather in Champaign saw wind gusts that were approaching 30 miles per hour and it made passing dicey for the Buckeyes.
Herron had missed the first six games of the season due to a pair of suspensions from off-the-field issues and while those troubles were well documented, Herron admitted after the game it was just nice to be able to get out and return to the game that he loves and try and turn the page from some bad decisions that he made some time ago.
"(I learned) to think twice when making decisions," Herron said. "It really made me grow up as a man. Just looking at things a lot different and not taking anything for granted."
Miller returned to action in the Illinois game showing no ill-effects from an ankle injury that knocked him out of the game against Nebraska and Miller tested than ankle early in the game with four runs during Ohio State's first drive of the game. The game plan did not call for Miller to pass much and through the first three quarters it appeared that the Buckeyes might not complete a pass with the Ohio State freshman signal caller going 0-3 via the air.
But fortunes changed early in the 4th quarter. Ohio State took a timeout on a 3rd and five play at the Illinois 17 and drew up one more passing play, a passing play to Ohio State's leading receiver in Stoneburner who was wide open over the middle for the 17 yard touchdown strike.
Illinois has been tested in most of its games this season however and mounted a furious comeback and pulled within ten points after a 16 play, 80 yard drive that took close to seven minutes. But the Illini were stopped on their next drive with a Travis Howard interception and then again on a fourth down play when the Illini could have attempted to go for a field goal to try and draw within one score but opted to try and get a first down or more.
"We needed two scores and we felt like the best decision for us was at 4th and three to get the first down and go from there," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said after the game.
Ohio State's defense was able to do on Saturday what it couldn't a week before, close down the game and protect an ever fragile lead.
Now the Buckeyes will have an extra week to get healthy and get ready for a big game against an undefeated Wisconsin team coming into the Horseshoe. Ohio State would love nothing more than to return the favor that the Badgers paid them last season in knocking off the then No. 1 team in the country.
"Coming here to undefeated Illinois, we're starting to be a very good team at Ohio State and we have a lot of momentum going into Wisconsin," Stoneburner said.