COLUMBUS, Ohio — This was supposed to be an Ohio State team that needed its offense to carry the burden until the defense was on its feet.
That couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, the reverse might be true.
The Buckeyes (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) are playing like they haven’t missed seven departing starters, including three-time All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Marcus Freeman.
“It starts with we’ve got great players,” coach Jim Tressel said. “Our defensive guys do a fabulous job preparing. They spend lots and lots of time. They take a lot of pride in making sure that they can uphold that tradition. They play hard.”
The defense never permitted Illinois — a team that scored 48 points on the Buckeyes the last two years with Juice Williams at quarterback — to get inside the Ohio State 29 in a 30-0 pasting on Saturday. It was the Buckeyes’ second shutout in a row, the first time that’s happened in 13 years.
Sure, it was raining hard for most of the game. But holding the Illini to just 2.7 yards per play and 170 total yards was impressive. The Buckeyes climbed four spots to No. 9 in the latest Associated Press Top 25.
The loss led to some serious introspection by the Illini, who mustered just nine points in a lopsided loss to Missouri to open the season before walloping Bowl Championship Series opponent Illinois State two weeks ago. Judging from their meager attack, it’s hard to imagine that the Illini had two weeks to prepare for Ohio State.
No wonder wide receiver Arrelious Benn was at a loss to explain his unit’s anemic effort.
“I’m just clueless. I don’t know what it is,” he said. “We chip and chip our way down the field and then (have) a costly penalty or interception. It’s really frustrating. We didn’t even put up a field goal.”
Tressel said everything starts up front with his defense, but the back seven are also playing exceedingly well.
“When you can control the trenches, which thus far we’ve done a pretty good job with that, you’ve got a very good chance,” he said. “(Then) you’ve got guys in the back end that are very disciplined and do what they’re supposed to do. They know that the other guys are going to be putting some pressure on the opposing quarterback.”