Oct. 15, 2011

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) – After riding a 6-0 record to a spot atop the Big Ten Leaders division, all No. 16 Illinois lacked was a win over an elite program to get some national buzz going.

Against Ohio State – Big Ten royalty even in a year when the Buckeyes have more NCAA player suspensions than wins – everything seemed set.

Daniel Herron and the Buckeye defense had other ideas.

Herron ran for 114 yards in his first game back from NCAA suspensions and the Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) forced three turnovers – two of them setting up the Buckeyes’ only touchdowns – in a 17-7 upset of the Illini (6-1, 2-1).

“We beat ourselves,” said defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who had nine tackles and 1.5 sacks, giving him 10 for the season. “We made a few too many mistakes, which they capitalized on.”

Still stuck under the NCAA cloud hanging over Ohio State and desperate for a way to end a two-game losing streak, interim coach Luke Fickell drew up a game plan that was about as conservative as it gets.

True freshman quarterback Braxton Miller threw just four passes, while Herron carried the ball 23 times and punched in the third-quarter touchdown that was the game winner.

“It was hard staying at home and watching the games,” said Herron, who missed the season’s first six games. “Now that I’m back out here, I’m doing everything I can to help this team, be a leader and get some more wins.”

The Buckeyes didn’t throw their first pass until the 7:22 mark of the second quarter. Miller, in fact, didn’t complete a pass until he hit tight end Jake Stoneburner on a 17-yard TD pass with 13:06 left in the game for a 17-0 lead.

“Up 10-0, we were on the sideline saying, ‘Man, we haven’t made a pass yet,”‘ Stoneburner said. “It was kind of funny, but we were all saying, ‘Who cares?’ We’re up, and if we complete one pass, I’ll take the catch.”

No Ohio State team had gone through a game with just one completion since 1976, a 22-21 loss to Missouri with Rod Gerald under center.

That Ohio State team was ranked No. 2, while this one was just trying to get its head above water, end the two-game losing streak and chalk up its first Big Ten win.

Enter Herron, who had to sit out six games as a result of his role in a cash-for-memorablia scandal – the mess that cost ex-coach Jim Tressel his job – and then for taking too much money for a summer job.

Fickell said during the week he wasn’t sure how much the senior tailback would play and he wasn’t listed as the starter.

But Herron was in the backfield from the beginning, and carried the bulk of the load on the opening drive, one that on a day of gusty 20-plus mph winds delivered a 45-yard Drew Basil field goal. It was the only score of the half.

“They have a pretty good offensive line, a pretty good running back and I think one of the things they were excited about was having (Herron) back,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said.

The Ohio State defense, meanwhile, played big, holding an Illini offense that was averaging almost 450 yards and 34.7 points a game to 285 yards and, until the 6:22 mark of the fourth quarter, no points.

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was 20 of 34 for 169 yards, with two interceptions and a late 3-yard touchdown pass to Evan Wilson that finally put the Illini on the board.

Illinois hasn’t been shutout since losing 30-0 two seasons ago at Ohio State.

“The biggest thing when you look at this is the turnovers,” Zook said. “In the past we’ve held teams to field goals instead of touchdowns and they were able to get two touchdowns off of the turnovers.”

Stoneburner’s touchdown was set up by an A.J. Jenkins fumble at the Illinois 37 while Herron’s 12-yard touchdown run – which gave the Buckeyes a 10-0 lead – followed an interception by Bradley Roby that he returned to the Illinois 12. Scheelhaase threw to Jenkins and the receiver appeared to ruin a shorter route than Scheelhaase anticipated. The ball flew 10 yards past Jenkins and right at Roby.

“It was key,” Roby said of his interception, “because we were coming out of halftime and we needed a big play. I was in a cover three, and I was backing up when I saw (Jenkins) on the curl, and then I saw the ball come right at me.”

In addition to stifling Scheelhaase, the Buckeyes also held Illinois other big weapon in check.

Roby said during the week that Jenkins, who was averaging 135.8 yards a game, was “nothing special, a product of Illinois’ system.” Jenkins, often covered by Roby, had 80 yards Saturday, but his eight catches didn’t amount to much.

Illinois senior tailback Jason Ford left the game in the third quarter with an injured left shoulder after a big hit on a first-down carry. He finished with 30 yards on six carries.

Scheelhaase was Illinois’ leading rusher with 16 carries for 49 yards.