- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they welcome visiting Illinois with a chance to tighten their grip on the division. The game will be televised live on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday from Ohio Stadium.
Task at hand: The opponent is struggling and there's a bye week looming -- two factors that would make it pretty tempting for Ohio State to overlook Illinois. But perfection requires constant attention, and just in case the Buckeyes were in danger of slipping into complacency, coach Urban Meyer put his team through two of the most intense practices it has had in a while, to reinforce the message.
Ohio State has been at its best this season when the opponent comes into the matchup with a bit more credibility. A few of the closer calls have come against teams it was heavily favored to beat -- squads like the Illini this weekend. If the Buckeyes are going to avoid late drama like they had against Purdue and Indiana, it will start by taking Illinois seriously and establishing themselves in the first quarter.
Air it out: Passing accuracy has yet to really show consistent signs of improvement from Braxton Miller, though his legs have more than made up for it and he has shown an uncanny ability to deliver perfect balls when they matter most. But the Buckeyes would like to see Miller put the football on the money for an entire game, and the coaches have gone back to stressing fundamentals with him, to help make the spread attack more dangerous.
There's not much doubt about his arm strength, and in flashes he has shown he can use his velocity and accuracy to help squeeze the ball into tight windows, as long as his feet are settled. That wasn't all that often last week against Penn State, as he completed 7 of his 19 throws, and the Buckeyes figure to make it an emphasis to get him rolling again through the air.
Man up: There's no sense messing with the formula now that the Buckeyes have found one that works defensively. With the line getting stronger, thanks to a healthy Nathan Williams and Michael Bennett, along with emerging Noah Spence and two shutdown cornerbacks in Bradley Roby and Travis Howard, the Buckeyes have been at their best in the last couple of weeks by playing more man coverage and dialing up the pressure packages.
Even banged up at linebacker, that approach has helped Ryan Shazier make a big impact both in the backfield and against the pass when other players get to the quarterback, like the Buckeyes did on his interception return for a touchdown at Penn State. The Illini have struggled to generate offense all season, and Ohio State has no reason to make it any easier for them this weekend.
Kicking the habit: The roller coaster on special teams hit another low point with a blocked punt that Penn State turned into a touchdown last week, and the problems have obviously been driving Meyer crazy. Injuries have taken a toll on essentially every unit on special teams, but there have also been simple breakdowns in communication and fundamentals that have plagued the Buckeyes.
So far this season, none of those issues have cost Ohio State a game. But against a team that will be overmatched on offense and defense, the Buckeyes can really take control by making it a clean sweep on special teams -- and cement themselves as the class of the Big Ten again in the process.
5hBrian Bennett and Austin Ward