CHAMPAIGN — The icy stare at times.
The stoic demeanor he seems to cue up on the sideline.
Along with the intensity.
The critics. The number of player arrests.
The two national championship rings. The wins.
Admire Urban Meyer or despise him, sports fans have come to expect one thing when the coach has his headset on, his school’s colors on and a football game in front of him: a win.
Many will expect the same Saturday when he makes his first trip to Memorial Stadium as a head coach. His Buckeyes are 33-point favorites against a struggling Illinois team playing for its fading bowl hopes.
Riding a 21-game winning streak. Three wins from creating one heck of a BCS controversy.
All of which started when the 48-year-old Meyer became coach.
His year away from coaching after guiding Florida to BCS titles in 2007 and 2009 is well-documented. He spent the 2011 season working as an analyst for ESPN. It’s where former Ohio State linebacker and current ESPN analyst Chris Spielman saw a different side of Meyer. One that has translated well at the fourth head coaching stop of a decorated and successful career.
“I think he has a better perspective on life as a whole,” Spielman said. “Where it’s not so much a grind and it doesn’t physically eat him from the inside out. He still wants to win and is still a great competitor, though. That hasn’t gone away.”
Neither has the fact Illinois isn’t favored to win. Or even come close. But the oddsmakers — and they’ve been right — haven’t picked Illinois to win a Big Ten game this season.
“Really, our backs have been against the wall since the start of the Big Ten,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “There’s no question that (wins against) Penn State and Indiana would make us feel a little better now.”
Ohio State has regained the swagger it lost in the wake of the NCAA sanctions handed down with the scandal that blew up in 2011 and cost Jim Tressel his job. And, after a one-year bowl ban, the Buckeyes again have a chance to play on New Year’s Day. Possibly a bit later, too, considering that the BCS title game takes place Jan. 6.
Of course, Ohio State can’t stumble against weaker teams on its schedule — which it faces in its final three games — and has to have Alabama or Florida State lose.
“They’re as talented as anybody in the country,” Spielman said. “I don’t think they took care of business in the first couple weeks when they struggled against Buffalo and against Cal. The defense was very young in the beginning.”
Blowout wins against Penn State and Purdue in Ohio State’s last two games — the Buckeyes beat those two foes by a combined score of 119-14 — have helped Ohio State’s national perception the last three weeks. Don’t think Meyer will take it easy on Beckman, a former assistant of his at Bowling Green, either.
“The environment of college football is style points,” Spielman said. “What happened to Ohio State when they beat Penn State and Purdue is that people that don’t follow the Big Ten regularly started thinking, ‘Wow, these guys are finally clicking.’ It’s almost like their reputation grew where they belonged there and questions of ‘Why were they the preseason No. 2 team?’ finally started to go away.”
What won’t go away for Illinois, until it finally gets a chance to sing the school song again after a victory, is its Big Ten woes. The conference losing streak has reached 19 games — or half of the worst Big Ten skid in conference history when Northwestern lost 38 straight league games from 1978 to ’82 — and shows no signs of stopping Saturday. On paper, it’s a true mismatch. A team with the nation’s longest winning streak, period, against a team with the second-longest conference losing streak in the country.
“A lot of guys don’t give the Big Ten much credit, but I think it’s because the Big Ten is so good that we just beat up on each other to where (teams) are getting losses,” Illinois right tackle Corey Lewis said. “The Big Ten is more of a conference where the teams are equal. It’s good for us because if we get this one, I think it will erase about four losses (in people’s minds) from this season.”
The perception of Illinois will change, drastically, if the Illini are able to pull off the shocking upset. And vice versa for the Buckeyes if they leave Champaign with a loss.
Alex Golesh graduated from Ohio State in 2006, and the 29-year-old Illinois recruiting coordinator worked as a student assistant coach for two seasons under Tressel while in Columbus. Golesh moved to Dublin, Ohio, a 15-minute drive from Columbus, before his freshman year of high school. He knows firsthand the expectations Ohioans have for their Buckeyes.
“I remember growing up and wanting to be like Andy Katzenmoyer,” Golesh said with a laugh about the former All-America middle linebacker for the Buckeyes. “My wife is from Arkansas. You’re either a Razorback fan or you don’t live in Arkansas. It’s kind of like that in Ohio. Most kids grow up there as Ohio State fans. You have your fair share of Notre Dame fans, but for the most part, it’s kind of crazy.”
Which is what makes Meyer’s start at the school all the more impressive. It’s easy for pundits to sit back and say they knew a resurgence like this would happen with Meyer at the helm. Spielman isn’t one of them.
“No, I didn’t think they’d win every game he’s coached there so far,” he said. “I thought he showed last year how good of a coach he is by taking a team that struggled the year before, and, with basically the same players, elevated them. This year, they’re improving on that, and he’s getting his great players to play great again. What he’s done and what he’s continuing to do is pretty special.”
Illinois never has beaten a team ranked as high as No. 3 at home. Ohio State fits that bill, so the Block I probably won’t rush the Memorial Stadium field this afternoon. Here’s a look at how Illinois has done in its last 10 home games against Top 10 opponents:
Date Opponent Outcome What happened
Oct. 2, 2010 No. 2 Ohio State L 24-13 “Boom” Herron helped Buckeyes overcome early deficit, Terrelle Pryor injury
Nov. 15, 2008 No. 10 Ohio State L 30-20 Buckeyes threw for just 49 yards but had two players run for more than 100
Oct. 6, 2007 No. 5 Wisconsin W 31-26 Second straight Top 25 win by Rose Bowl-bound Illini followed home victory vs. Penn State
Nov. 11, 2006 No. 1 Ohio State L 17-10 Illini outgained Troy Smith and pals 233-224 and outscored Buckeyes 10-0 in second half
Nov. 16, 2002 No. 2 Ohio State L 23-16 (OT) John Gockman’s 48-yard field goal with no time left in regulation sent the game to overtime
Sept. 23, 2000 No. 10 Michigan L 35-31 Kurt Kittner threw for 352 yards, but game is remembered more for two blown fumble calls
Oct. 30, 1999 No. 2 Penn State L 27-7 Week after stunning comeback against Michigan, Illini outscored 27-0 the final three quarters
Oct. 17, 1998 No. 9 Wisconsin L 37-3 Future Heisman winner Ron Dayne had his usual great game against Illini, running for 190
Oct. 10, 1998 No. 1 Ohio State L 41-0 Quarterback Joe Germaine threw for 307 and three touchdowns in the romp
Oct. 4, 1997 No. 2 Penn State L 41-6 Visitors were rude in Ron Turner’s first game against Joe Paterno