- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It says a lot about the place Ohio State finds itself that a 25-point conference road victory, in which it scored 60 points, provides fodder for critics and detractors.
But that's the nature of college football in late November for an undefeated team. Politicking and nit-picking all play into a sport that chooses its championship game largely by way of popular opinion, creating a week-to-week beauty pageant.
Urban Meyer admitted after Saturday's 60-35 victory at Illinois that he and his team got a little too caught up in all the national title talk recently. Following a performance filled with warts, if not outright worry, Meyer wants the No. 3 Buckeyes to hop off that carousel.
"We need to make sure our focus is on just getting better each week instead of all the national stuff," Meyer said. "I think I'm learning a lesson. Just shut your mouth and quit worrying about this, quit worrying about that."
Meyer even suggested that he will restrict media access to his players in the next few weeks. Issues such as style points and schedule strength have dominated the discussion in recent weeks for Ohio State, and wide receiver Evan Spencer made waves last week by saying, albeit somewhat jokingly, that his team would "wipe the floor" with Alabama and Florida State. Linebacker Ryan Shazier said Saturday that "everybody was up in our heads" about the national title race during the Buckeyes' bye week.
Any distractions that might have caused didn't surface until well into Saturday's game. Ohio State, as it does just about every week, seized immediate control of the game, racing out to a 28-0 lead with 10:20 left in the first half. The Buckeyes have outscored opponents 63-0 in the first quarter in their past three games.
But the Illini -- who now own the nation's longest conference losing streak at 20 games, the second-worst streak in Big Ten history -- found a hole in the Buckeyes' most airtight unit this season: punt coverage. V'Angelo Bentley scored on a 67-yard punt return in the second quarter to give his team some life. Led by a gutsy effort from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois sliced the lead to 14 early in the second half and trailed by only 12 with less than five minutes to play.
"When we got up big, everybody just kind of mellowed," Ohio State receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "We thought they would give up and they didn't. ...
"It was a big-time wake-up call."
Unlike the previous two games, the Buckeyes had to play their starters the whole way. Meyer had hoped to rest left tackle Jack Mewhort, who tweaked his knee in practice Wednesday, but he was forced to put Mewhort back in during the second half.
Ohio State couldn't exhale until Carlos Hyde ripped off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs in the final 4:03, and on a windy day that made passing a challenge, Meyer rode the running skills of quarterback Braxton Miller harder than he had all season. Miller finished with 184 yards on 16 carries.
But it was the defensive effort that proponents of teams such as Baylor and Stanford will harp on, as Ohio State gave up 420 yards and its highest point total of the season. Few will give the Buckeyes a pass for missing starting linebackers Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant or for losing starting defensive lineman Joey Bosa to a neck injury after he had rung up 2.5 sacks. Meyer called the defensive performance simply "not good enough."
"That is unacceptable from us," safety C.J. Barnett said. "Illinois is a good team with some great athletes, but at the same time, we expect more from ourselves."
Only in college football would a team that secured its 22nd consecutive victory with a 25-point road win be scrutinized and criticized. And make no mistake: The Buckeyes were not satisfied with their showing. The truth is that they're not going to the BCS title game unless Alabama or Florida State lose, and their best argument remains the long winning streak.
Just don't expect to hear much about that subject from the Ohio State camp in the coming days.
"There will be a lot more focus on Indiana this week," Barnett said, "instead of worrying about the big picture or what's in the future. We need to worry about the right here and now."
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