The search for something positive at the Horseshoe began with Terry Hawthorne’s uplifting kickoff returns — he had a 45-yarder — and ended with Illinois capitalizing on a pair of Ohio State fumbles.
In between, ace linebacker Jonathan Brown was injured, the UI defense gave up 567 yards and it was all Buckeyes, 52-22 ... what you’d expect when the Big Ten’s best team plays the worst.
We are again struck by the inability of Tim Beckman’s offense to produce anything resembling a vertical passing game.
Whether it’s spread or pro style, no system can be effective if defenses bravely press the line of scrimmage. And that’s what is happening as the Illini lost their sixth consecutive game, these coming by margins of 28, 28, 17, 45, 14 and 30 points.
In Columbus, Ohio, where the Illini had won seven of the previous 11, they didn’t even attempt to go deep. In the first half, when it was still competitive for a while, Nathan Scheelhaase’s first completion went for minus-7, and the next 12 strikes gained 7, 9, 5, 7, 9, 12, 6, 7, 7, 10, 4 and 1 yard. Some were little more than glorified handoffs.
By contrast, five of Braxton Miller’s first six completions went for 24, 31, 32, 51 and 14 yards. They were like electric shocks to the Illini defense, and he left the game after three quarters with 237 yards on 13 strikes.
Scheelhaase’s 19-for-33 completion rate was impressive but accounted for 97 yards.
Buckeyes build momentum
This isn’t meant to infer that pitching the ball downfield would have changed the outcome Saturday.
Ohio State, which had a battle on its hands with Beckman’s Toledo team and the Illini last year, has grown this season in terms of talent and execution. The Buckeyes now boast huge advantages over Illinois up front, and they’re unleashing a sophomore quarterback who’ll rank among the school’s all-time greats if he stays healthy and completes his eligibility.
Ohio State is building momentum with an unbeaten season in sight and will have a week off to prepare for showdowns against Wisconsin and Michigan.
Illinois was last seen slipping over the edge. If you’re looking ahead to the Dad’s Day game against Minnesota, don’t be fooled by the Gophers’ 35-13 loss to Michigan. Jerry Kill’s gang outdowned Michigan 21-18, but the game got away from them for three critical reasons: (1) Michigan got some major breaks, (2) the Gophers couldn’t finish impressive drives and (3) the Wolverines struck through the air with three stunning, game-turning completions ... you know, the ones that go downfield.
Turning to basketball
The players know. So when Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin was voted one of the Illini basketball captains, it reveals how much respect he earned in a short period.
“He’s mature and accepted his role right away,” UI senior Brandon Paul said. “He’s shown us that he wants to win just like we do.”
McLaurin (6-foot-8) expects to split time with sophomore Nnanna Egwu (6-11) at center, while also playing alongside him at times.
“Going against Nnanna in practice has helped me with my post moves,” McLaurin said. “His length gives me a better idea of how high I have to go to avoid getting it blocked. Then on some nights, coach (John Groce) lets us play together. Nnanna defends the center, and I defend the 4. Offensively, we are interchangeable.”
Actually, McLaurin is better with his back to the basket, Egwu excelling on 15-foot jumpers.
“I’m still learning the system. Defensively, we need to avoid fouls. That has plagued me in the past,” McLaurin said.
They’ll trade off with each other this afternoon against West Chester in the final exhibition.
— In addition to Assembly Hall naming rights that might bring $60 million (possibly $2 million for 30 years), UI athletic director Mike Thomas is overseeing a funding model that could provide naming-rights opportunities for 20 to 24 areas of the building.
— For all their difficulties this season, the Illini volleyballers still rank No. 6 in attendance. And five of the top six are from the Big Ten.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.