COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Until a couple of weeks ago, even hardcore Illinois fans probably thought Reilly O’Toole was the proprietor of a new Irish pub near campus.
O’Toole was a cypher on the Illini roster for 3 1/2 years, coming in late in the occasional game. But then starting quarterback Wes Lunt was lost for six weeks with a broken leg and O’Toole was thrust into action.
Not a thrower like Lunt and not all that fast, he nonetheless is smart and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He led the downtrodden Illini (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) to a huge upset of Minnesota a week ago.
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”It was nice to see the coaches getting excited,” the senior said. ”You want to win for them, for their kids, their families.”
Now he’ll really dip his toes into the fire when the Illini play at No. 13 Ohio State (6-1, 3-0) on Saturday night.
The Buckeyes, winners of five in a row this season and 19 consecutive Big Ten games (one off the conference record), are still making plans for big games to come.
For O’Toole, however, the focus is much, much simpler.
”A bowl game is obviously still in the picture,” he said. ”The goal is still there.”
Here are several things to watch when O’Toole and the Illini duel the Buckeyes in primetime:
THE OTHER GUY: A lot of eyeballs will be on Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes barely escaped a night game at Penn State last Saturday, 31-24 in double-overtime, with Barrett playing the second half with a sprained left knee.
Still, he ran for both Ohio State TDs after regulation ended.
He’s wearing a brace this week and was asked if he intends to play.
”That is correct,” he said emphatically.
COLOR COORDINATED: Illinois head coach Tim Beckman used to be an assistant at Ohio State under Jim Tressel and also was an assistant to current Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer at Bowling Green.
He grew up in a superstitious household.
When his football-coach father’s team scored, his mother gave the Beckman kids Lifesavers.
”If it was a color that was the other team, we had to crush it in the stands,” Beckman said.
That means wasting some treats this week.
”There’s definitely no red Lifesavers in the house,” he said.
CLOSE-CALL HELPER: The Buckeyes say that the white-knuckler at Beaver Stadium really helped them.
They led 17-0 at the half and were poised to run up some big numbers on the Nittany Lions. Instead, Penn State roared back to force OT and then scored on the first possession to put the Buckeyes in a seven-point, match-it-or-lose hole.
”It was real good,” safety Von Bell said. ”It really made us pull as one. We all kept strong.”
CLOSE TO THE VEST: Meyer said after Barrett threw an interception that was returned for a TD early in the second half, the staff decided to take no more cances. For the most part, the Buckeyes relied on QB runs, draws and scrambles the rest of the way.
”We threw the pick six and I saw a rattled quarterback, so we kind of got conservative,” Meyer said.
The Illini, however, have been gushing points on defense. Maybe the Buckeyes, who averaged 56 points in their previous four games before tightening things up against Penn State, might explode.
But Beckman said his defense is rounding into shape.
”Our team tackled extremely well (against Minnesota),” he said. ”We gang-tackled. It wasn’t just up to any guy.”
WAITING IN WINGS: An Ohio State win would set the table for the game of the year in the Big Ten next Saturday: the Buckeyes at No. 8 Michigan State.
The winner will have the inside track to the East Division title and will remain in the playoff hunt. The loser will be destined to playing out the season and hoping for a lot of help.
Meyer says he doesn’t expect his team to be looking past Illinois.
”I don’t feel that this is an entitled (team) or a group that thinks that we have (all the) answers,” he said. ”I know there’s a big one coming up. And our players know it. But this is a big one as well. That one (against Michigan State) loses a little luster if we don’t take care of business.”
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