COLUMBUS – Ohio State can match the school record for consecutive wins Saturday against Illinois, a team which appears to offer genuine field wiping possibilities.
A 22nd consecutive win probably shouldn’t be in doubt, but maybe a more interesting streak to watch will be to see if OSU’s pass defense can deliver a third straight good game.
In the last two weeks, No. 3 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) has done a 180-degree turnaround in defending the pass after struggling earlier in the season.
But those games – a 63-14 win over Penn State and a 56-0 win over Purdue – came against two true freshmen, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and Purdue’s Danny Etling.
Illinois (3-6, 0-5 Big Ten) has lost 19 Big Ten games in a row. The Illini don’t have a lot going for them, but they do have a four-year starter, Nathan Scheelhaase, at quarterback.
Scheelhaase has completed 65 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,420 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. In his career, he has 7,716 yards passing.
Last week in a 52-35 loss to Indiana, Scheelhaase was 38 of 57 for 450 yards and two touchdowns and the week before in a 24-17 overtime loss to Penn State he hit 33 of 52 for 321 yards and a touchdown.
If the Illinois senior does present a major challenge, it will be different than his three previous games against the Buckeyes. In those three starts, all OSU wins, he threw for 96 yards, 169 yards and 109 yards. He had one touchdown pass and four interceptions.
“You want to see how much we have improved. The last few weeks have been night and day from what it was earlier in the season. This will be a great test for us,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs admits Ohio State’s defense wasn’t doing very well when tested by opposing passers earlier in the season.
“Obviously, I think our improvement over the last couple weeks has been dramatic. I think we would like to continue to improve. I think our kids have taken that personally, and they should,” he said.
Safety Corey Brown, who became a starter after Christian Bryant suffered a broken ankle in the Wisconsin game, said the defense did take it that way.
“It was definitely personal. I feel like we’ve been hitting it real hard the last couple weeks to get where we wanted to be,” Brown said.
Coombs said Ohio State recognized the problem and put more emphasis on pass defense after giving up 295 yards, 343 yards and 245 yards passing in its first three Big Ten games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa.
“We found ourselves in a situation where it was obvious we have to get better at this (pass defense). So it was a huge area of emphasis on the part of everybody. You change a little bit of your practice habits, you change a little bit of your scheme, you change a little bit of how you’re doing your business, and you get better,” Coombs said.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier said, “We’ve been working on our passing game (pass defense) a lot more lately because earlier in the year we were kind of rough on the passing game. We’re trying to get better week in and week out.
“We were supposed to be one of the top defenses in the nation and we weren’t playing like it,” he said.