CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — It’s double trouble for Illinois this weekend.
J.T. Barrett is back at quarterback for No. 2 Ohio State after serving a one-game suspension for a drunken-driving incident. Cardale Jones presents his own set of problems for Buckeyes’ opponents, but Barrett gives interim Illini coach Bill Cubit something extra to think about.
“I think they’re both really, really good players,” Cubit said. “But J.T., he’s dangerous.”
When Barrett runs, he’s hard to stop. He averages 7.8 yards a carry for the Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten), and seven of those carries have gone for touchdowns.
Illinois had even more off-field turmoil this week. Athletic director Mike Thomas was fired Monday, about three months after football coach Tim Beckman was let go. Reports on allegations of athlete mistreatment in football and women’s basketball that have weighed on Illinois since May essentially cleared Thomas, but school leaders decided his departure would help the school move past those problems.
Through all of that, the Illini (5-4, 2-3) still find themselves playing for a shot at a bowl.
Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt said the team has grown wearily accustomed to bad news this season, and learned to deal with it.
“Wow, another thing thrown at us,” he said, describing the way he and other Illinois players felt after Thomas was fired. “It’s too bad, but it’s life.”
Things to watch for when the teams meet Saturday:
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer made it sound this week like there was never much doubt that Barrett would start after sitting out last week’s 28-14 win over Minnesota. As long as Barrett practiced well, Meyer said, he would start at Illinois.
“It’s a mistake made, a serious mistake by a kid that’s really lived most of his life mistake free,” Meyer said. “He’s a kid that’s human and I still have these conversations with him.”
While Illinois has a winning record, Ohio State’s schedule still includes bigger games against Michigan State and Michigan. Can the Buckeyes realistically not look ahead to those games against ranked opposition?
“Coach Meyer’s mentality, the whole coaching staff’s mentality and even the team’s mentality is it’s one game at a time,” linebacker Raekwon McMillan said. “We really don’t worry about what’s down the road two week from now. We have to worry about what’s right now.”
The return of senior running back Josh Ferguson against Purdue last week signaled the return of Illinois’ run game. Ferguson had missed three-plus games with a shoulder injury, and Illinois had struggled to run without him. But with Ferguson back, the Illini torched the Boilermakers for 382 rushing yards in a 48-14 win. Ferguson had 134 yards on 12 carries, but backup Ke’Shawn Vaughn was even better. The freshmen ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
LUNT AND THE RUSH
Lunt can’t run well and has a history of injuries, but Illinois has done a god job of protecting him this fall. The Illini have given up 13 sacks in nine games, an average of 1.4 a game, 31st in the country. Ohio State’s defense could challenge that. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis leads the team with five sacks and the guy on the other end of the line, Joey Bosa, has three and a half, plus 11 quarterback hurries. Bosa’s sack numbers aren’t what they have been in past years, McMillan said, “but he’s more disruptive this year.”
The Buckeyes could help give Illinois its biggest home crowd of the season. Illinois has three games left on its schedule but Saturday is the final game in Champaign. The biggest crowd at Memorial Stadium so far this season was 45,438 for the Wisconsin game. The smallest road crowd Ohio State has drawn this season was 52,929 at Rutgers.