COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer doesn’t want his team to overlook Illinois, the Big Ten basement dweller visiting Ohio Stadium on Saturday. Meyer prohibited talk among players of the upcoming Michigan game or the Big Ten championship game that may follow.
And he definitely doesn’t want to hear any discussion of scenarios — as unlikely as they might be — that would have the Buckeyes sneaking back into the College Football Playoff hunt.
He declined to entertain questions from the media about any of the above.
Meyer thought the team patted itself on the back a little too long after beating Penn State on Oct. 28. The next week, Ohio State was inexplicably blown out by unranked Iowa.
“There will be zero conversation around here,” he said. “Especially when you guys talk to the players, there will be zero conversation about what happened before and what’s going to happen in the future. Zero.”
Here are some other things to watch for Saturday:
PLENTY OF MOTIVATION
The Buckeyes (8-2, 6-1, CFP No. 9) likely dropped out of the national championship race when they lost to Iowa. But last week’s 48-3 drubbing of Michigan State has led to suggestions that the Buckeyes could climb back into the final four at the end if they win out, even with two losses.
Ohio State can claim the Big Ten East title with a win over Illinois (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten), coupled with a Wisconsin victory over Michigan.
ANOTHER HARD SEASON
While Ohio State counts victories, second-year Illinois coach Lovie Smith is looking for slivers of hope in a tough season.
The Illini let their best chance of getting a conference win slip away last week. They pulled within three points of Indiana in the fourth quarter last week before falling 24-14. Last year they were 3-9.
“Too many times I’ve talked about us improving,” Smith said this week. “We are improving, but we haven’t been able to get the job done in a long period of time, as you know. When you’re in a situation like this, you have to look for some small steps that you’re taking. We want to take big steps, but you do have to look at some of the small steps.”
WATCH THE RUNNING BACKS
Either of Meyer’s top two running backs could be the premier player for just about any other team, gain more yards and get a lot more attention. Sophomore Mike Weber, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, ran for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week, and true freshman J.K. Dobbins added 124.
Since Weber rebounded from a hamstring injury that limited him early in the season, the two have split time. Both have made the most of it. Dobbins surpassed 1,000 yards last week.
“I think we’re as strong right now as we’ve ever had it as far as depth,” Meyer said. “They played fresh and they played fast and they played hard. So I liked the rotation we had.”
LAST HURRAH IN HORSESHOE
Ohio State has 19 seniors who will play their last game in Ohio Stadium on Saturday. Among them are seven who are in their fifth year of eligibility. That’s an unusual number for a program where the best players routinely leave early for the NFL.
The fifth-year guys club is exclusive: quarterback J.T. Barrett, defensive end Tyquan Lewis, center Billy Price, tight end Marcus Baugh, linebacker Chris Worley, and defensive tackles Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill. All except Hill are captains.
“We’re very close to this group of seniors,” Meyer said. “It’s very well documented the respect and love we have for these guys, because it’s the first time we’ve had a couple of fifth-year seniors who have decided to stay throughout their journey, and we’re going to treat them right. And the best way to treat them right is go win this game.”
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