Ohio State's two biggest games of the season are drawing closer, but the second-ranked Buckeyes still have another lower hurdle to clear.
They'll try to avoid a letdown Saturday when they visit Illinois ahead of two upcoming showdowns.
The Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) slipped from the top of the rankings for the first time this season after Clemson supplanted them with a 23-13 victory over then-No. 17 Florida State, but they're looking to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 23 games. They've already won a record 29 in a row in Big Ten play.
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It may be easy to look ahead to next week's matchup with No. 14 Michigan State or the finale against 15th-ranked Michigan. The Spartans and Wolverines are both 4-1 in league play, meaning those matchups will essentially decide who represents the East Division in next month's Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
But first, Ohio State must take care of Illinois (5-4, 2-3) with J.T. Barrett back under center directing the conference's highest-scoring offense. He was suspended for last Saturday's 28-14 win over Minnesota after being cited early Halloween morning when he was stopped at a police checkpoint.
He pleaded guilty Tuesday to a count of driving while impaired and was sentenced to a three-day driver-intervention program, fined $400 and had his license suspended for six months.
“(Barrett) will be the starter unless he does not have a good week of practice,” coach Urban Meyer said. “So that's (the policy) really every week.”
The Buckeyes offense underwhelmed at times against the Golden Gophers with Cardale Jones at the helm, amassing 376 yards of offense – its fewest in Big Ten play. Barrett impressed in his first start Oct. 24 at Rutgers, completing 14 of 18 passes for 223 yards and three TDs while rushing 13 times for 101 yards and two more scores.
“It's never an easy call because one guy had his 11th win, 250 all-purpose yards,” Meyer said of Jones against Minnesota. “(But) I think it's the right thing at this time.”
Regardless of who is at quarterback, Ezekiel Elliott remains consistent in the backfield. He ran for 114 yards and his 14th TD of the season against the Gophers and has run for 100-plus in 14 straight contests.
This tumultuous period for the Illinois athletic department continued Monday as the school fired athletic director Mike Thomas, citing the need for a fresh start. Football players complained of mistreatment by former coach Tim Beckman before the start of the season, ultimately leading to his dismissal.
Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson said no decision would be made on a permanent football coach until after the season, though interim coach Bill Cubit says he wants the job.
Cubit led the Illini to a 48-14 victory at Purdue last Saturday to snap a three-game losing streak. Illinois was able to finally uncork its rushing attack, racking up 382 yards after averaging 67.2 through its first four conference games.
Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn ran 16 times for a season-high 180 yards and two TDs, while Josh Ferguson had 133 yards on 12 carries in his first game since Oct. 3.
“You can tell the difference in our offense when Fergie is in there,” Cubit said of the back who had been sidelined with a shoulder injury. “It's a little bit different of an offense when he is in there. Ke'Shawn played really well, too.”
The Buckeyes are aiming for a 16th consecutive road victory, still having never lost away from home under Meyer. Ohio State has won seven straight meetings in the series since Illinois upset top-ranked Ohio State 28-21 in Columbus on Nov. 10, 2007, en route to a Rose Bowl appearance.