CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — 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 Saturday that conservative Buckeye legend Woody Hayes would have loved.
Keep the ball on the ground and out of freshman quarterback Braxton Miller's hands, lean hard on tailback Daniel Herron — playing his first game since January after serving a pair of NCAA suspensions — and count on the defense to stop No. 16 Illinois.
It worked, all of it, and the Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2) ground out a 17-7 upset over the Illini (6-1, 2-1).
"The game plan was to win — that's the ultimate, most important thing," Fickell said. "However way we had to do it, we were ready to do it."
The defense forced three turnovers — two of which set up the Buckeyes' touchdowns — while Miller threw just four passes. Herron carried the ball 23 times for 114 yards and the third-quarter score 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 loss ended Illinois' perfect start, and, in a game the Illini hoped would help them prove they were for real, raised questions about how good they really are.
"We have got to regroup, and we're still in a position to control our own destiny," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "I think our guys have to understand that and they do."
A week after Miller lost a fumble that gave Nebraska a way to get back into their game against Ohio State — which the Cornhuskers turned into an epic win — the Buckeyes kept it simple, real simple, and gave themselves a chance to win.
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.
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.