After their 8-0 start against the soft part of the schedule, I viewed the Ohio State season through the prism of a four-round tournament. The part of the season where they would be tested, and winning the "tournament" meant advancing to New Orleans. The Buckeyes have passed the first two rounds with flying colors, and from this point forward every win has a prize attached to it. Beat Illinois this week and they all but clinch a BCS bid, even if they lose the Big Ten crown (they may have it clinched already, but you never want to be at the mercy of the selectors with two straight losses). After that, it's Michigan for conference. And if you're still standing after that, Jim Tressel can go for his second national title on January 7.
Ohio State has homefield for this game and the matchup looks good for them. Illinois is going to need a huge day from Rashard Mendenhall just to make this a game. Not a good game, but a huge game. Mendenhall is capable--he's now a semi-finalist for the Maxwell Award (most outstanding player), and if he carries the Illini to an upset he becomes the favorite for conference MVP with a possible shot at an invite to New York City in December.
The problems for Mendenhall are twofold. The first is that he's going against one of the nation's stingiest defenses. When a good D decides it wants to take a good back out of the game, they can generally do so. Which brings us to the next problem. Juice Williams hasn't been consistent enough in making plays, either with his arm or his leg, at least against really good teams. That has to change if his team is to have a chance on Saturday.
Finally, there's the Ohio State offense. The Illini D gave up big days passing to both Anthony Morelli and Tyler Donovan, even as they won those games. With Todd Boeckman and the Buckeye passing attack hitting their stride, OSU shouldn't have a problem putting points on the board. Around The Oval opines that Boeckman deserves to be in the Heisman conversation. I think that's starting to push it, but there's no question that Troy Smith's replacement has stepped up to the plate with his performance this year.
Purdue hosts Michigan State in a game the Spartans desperately need. MSU has the recipe to match up with the Boilermakers. They rush the passer very well, and they can devastate people on the ground. But I wonder if a combination of homefield advantage and Mark Dantonio's team being on a downer after the near-miss against Michigan will be too much to overcome. Tom Kubat at The Journal & Courier reports that run defense is the concern for Joe Tiller's crew.
Indiana can seal the deal on a bowl invite with a win over Northwestern. The Wildcats, at 5-5, are also playing for their postseason lives. The Hoosiers should be able to move up and down the field, but a key to watch will be if they take care of the ball. Kellen Lewis has shown a propensity to put the ball on the ground when he's running. If he tucks it in, IU can await their holiday destination. As for Northwestern, Larry Watts of The Evanston Review writes that fourth quarter flops are killing the Cats.