Urban Meyer hasn’t always been quick to dish out praise during his first season at Ohio State, which isn’t completely unexpected given his constant demand for perfection.
Not every win has been pretty, but the standings show the Buckeyes have given their coach exactly what he expects.
Sixth-ranked Ohio State seeks its first 10-0 start in five years while dealing visiting Illinois a sixth straight defeat Saturday.
Meyer has been critical of the Buckeyes at times as they’ve managed to survive close calls to maintain a perfect record. But after last week’s 35-23 win over Penn State to improve to a Big Ten-best 5-0 in conference play, he lauded his squad for its effort.
“This is a special team. They’re fighting for each other. It’s a refuse-to-lose type atmosphere,” Meyer said. “Some of us have seen teams that play really well, and they’re blowing teams out all the time. We’re not that type of team, and I can give you 150 reasons why. However, we are a bunch of guys that work really hard, a blue-collar approach, that show up every (week) and want to get better.
“You don’t want anything else as a coach.”
Ohio State hasn’t won its first 10 games since 2007, and the first nine victories this season haven’t exactly drawn rave reviews. The Buckeyes have won four games by seven points or fewer, but they also scored 63 points against a ranked Nebraska team Oct. 6.
“We haven’t played perfect, and we haven’t really played good at times,” receiver Evan Spencer said. “But at the end of the day, we’d give our right arm for the guy next to us and that’s what’s making us win.”
Braxton Miller has had a hand in that, too, throwing for 143 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 134 more and a pair of scores against Penn State. He’s averaging a Big Ten-best 121.4 rushing yards, which also ranks 11th in the FBS, and his 12 rushing TDs are tied for 12th in the nation.
The Buckeyes won’t get a chance to play in the conference title game or have a shot at the BCS national championship because of the terms of their probation, but that hasn’t stopped them from thinking big.
“We feel that if we go 12-0, we’re the best team in the country because no one beat us,” defensive back Adam Griffin said. “Who’s to say we aren’t?”
Certainly not Illinois (2-6, 0-4), which joins Purdue as the only Big Ten teams without a conference win after falling 31-17 at home to Indiana last Saturday.
The Fighting Illini, who have lost by an average of 26.4 points during their skid, will focus on stopping Miller in hopes of pulling off an unlikely upset.
“We’re going to need to know what Braxton is doing at all times. He’s very important to their offense,” said first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman, whose Toledo team gave Ohio State fits before falling 27-22 on Sept. 10, 2011. “We’re going to need to have awareness of where he’s at and be able to put some pressure on him, because he can beat you with his feet and his arm.”
The Illini appear to be completely outmatched, as they’re averaging a conference-worst 317.4 total yards. Nathan Scheelhaase was sacked seven times against the Hoosiers, though he threw for 176 yards and a touchdown while also running for a score.
“We’ve probably got to get off the ball a little bit quicker and do some more movement-type passing,” Beckman said. “With protection-wise, we’ve kept backs in, we’ve kept tight ends in to chip and help protect, but we’ve got to continue to strive to do better.”
Illinois has lost four straight in the series since a 28-21 upset of No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 10, 2007. Miller attempted four passes with his only completion going for a touchdown in a 17-7 victory in last season’s matchup.