COLUMBUS — To outside observers, it looks like a mismatch.
No. 6 Ohio State is 10-0, can clinch a share of the title in its Big Ten division and can keep alive any flickering hopes of being the last unbeaten standing when the final poll votes are cast.
Illinois (2-6) has lost its last five games and in conference play is 0-4 this year with a 10-game losing skid. With problems on both sides of the ball, the Illini are four-touchdown underdogs.
For both teams, the opponent isn’t as important as how each team plays.
The Buckeyes’ Urban Meyer doesn’t want any letup as his team cruises into its bye week before two last, pivotal games to end the season.
“Here’s the thing: How good are we?” Meyer said. “That’s the question to ask ourselves.”
The Buckeyes, despite their flawless record, have been less than stellar at times. They’ve played sporadically all year on both offense and defense, surrendering big points and yardage (a 42-39 win over Indiana) and at other times gutting out a low-scoring struggle (17-16 at Michigan State).
As the wins have added up, the Buckeyes say they don’t feel any weight of the expectations.
“No pressure, no pressure. We felt we could win every game, we said it at the beginning of the season. So why not? Why give up? Why stop right now?” cornerback Bradley Roby said. “There’s no pressure. We’re putting pressure on ourselves, but there’s no pressure from the outside.”
It’s a different kind of pressure at Illinois. Coach Tim Beckman, a former Meyer assistant, is seeking a sign of hope in an otherwise dreary season.
“We understand Ohio State is a good football team,” he said. “The only thing we can control is what we do. Those are the things that we talk about every day that we step there on the practice field or in the meeting rooms — how can you improve yourself today? That’s what we ask our players to do.”
The Illini figure if they can put things together for a change it just might be enough. After all, Illinois has won seven of the last 11 meetings at Ohio Stadium.
“They’re undefeated so we’re going to have to go up there and play our best game,” Illini defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “We can’t make stupid penalties, we can’t turn the ball over and we can’t give up big plays. I think if we do that, we can slow them down.”
All week, Ohio State’s coaches have been showing clips of Illinois highlights, stressing how talented the Illini are rather than how poorly they have been playing. They are last in the Big Ten in most offensive and return categories.
The point? Make sure the Buckeyes do not look past the Illini to the bye week and do not look ahead of them to the upcoming battles at Wisconsin and at home against rival Michigan to close out the season.
“That’s everybody’s mindset, that we can’t be complacent or bad things will happen,” Ohio State left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “I think everybody knows that.”
Ohio State, led by run-first quarterback Braxton Miller, is averaging roughly 100 yards more per game on the ground (248) than the Illini are giving up (153). So expect the first punches to be thrown up front on the line.
Miller is one of the first few names mentioned among the favorites in the Heisman Trophy race. He admits he’s getting excited by all the talk.
“With the offensive style that we’ve got … you win awards off of things that you do in this offense,” he said. “It’s supposed to make big plays.”
His counterpart at Illinois, Nathan Scheelhaase, has struggled through a season of injuries and mistakes. The Illini rank near the bottom in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks allowed (almost four a game), scoring (18 points per game) and total offense (just 317 yards a game).
He’s got an idea of what lies ahead today.
“It’s a tough test. They’re playing as well as anyone in the country right now,” Scheelhaase said. “For sure you’re not always going to be favored in those games, but that’s why they play (them).”
Beckman was the head coach at Toledo a year ago and nearly pulled off a stunner in the Horseshoe. His Rockets had the ball late in the fourth quarter, trailing by five points, but were unable to pull off the upset.
After much success as a head coach and an assistant — he coached defensive backs on the Ohio State team in 2006 that was unbeaten and No. 1 before being walloped 41-14 in the BCS title game by Meyer’s Florida team — for the first time he is dealing with losing.
“You learn how to take defeats. I hate losing, but it’s just how to react to the players after continued defeats, I think is very important,” he said. “I guess (I’ve learned) how to continue to motivate and continue to push your football players to be the best they can be.”
That’s the goal for both sides, regardless of each team’s record.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap.
• WHO: No. 6 Ohio State vs. Illinois
• TIME: 3:30 p.m.
• WHERE: Ohio Stadium, Columbus
• TV/RADIO: ESPN; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM