COLUMBUS — Ohio State offensive lineman Jack Mewhort vividly recalls the last time the Buckeyes played at Illinois.
He remembers the swirling winds. He remembers the conservative game plan. But mostly he remembers that the Buckeyes only completed one pass and won the game.
“That’s crazy to me,” he said.
Now the third-ranked Buckeyes are headed back to Champaign, Ill. A lot has changed since they only attempted four passes while running the ball 51 times.
And, no, Woody Hayes was not the coach.
The game unfolded on Oct. 15, 2011, with Illinois unbeaten at the time — 6-0, 2-0 Big Ten — and the Buckeyes struggling through an awful year that would result in a 6-7 record — their most losses in a season since 1897.
My, how times have changed.
This year the Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) are leading their division of the Big Ten and are among the handful of teams in the midst of the talk about the national championship. They’ve won a nation’s best 21 games in a row and can tie the school record — belonging to the revered teams of 1967-69 — of 22 straight victories.
Illinois (3-6, 0-5) has fallen on hard times, having lost 19 consecutive Big Ten games.
But back on Oct. 15, 2011, the teams appeared to be headed in different directions. The Illini were coached by Ron Zook, a former Florida head coach and Ohio State assistant, who appeared to have turned the corner with the program.
They had won their first six games, were 2-0 in the Big Ten and had climbed to No. 16 in the nation. It was a promising start that could get kicked into high gear with a big win over the bedraggled Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes were struggling through a season of suspensions, NCAA investigations and innuendo. Jim Tressel had been pushed out of the head coaching job in May after it was revealed he knew that several of his top players had taken money and gifts from the focal point of a federal drug investigation but had not reported it.
More than a dozen Buckeyes would be suspended for portions of the 2011 season, a 12-1 mark the year before would be vacated, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor jumped to the pros and the Buckeyes (3-3, 1-2) were nearing rock bottom as they hit the field at Memorial Stadium. They had lost three of their last four.
Luke Fickell, the co-defensive coordinator filling in as interim head coach after Tressel’s ignominious departure, was trying anything to keep the Buckeyes relevant. As it played out, he reverted to old-school football to get it done.
In swirling winds, with erratic freshman Braxton Miller at quarterback, Fickell and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman decided to steal a page from Hayes, the legendary Ohio State coach who ranked the forward pass among the world’s worst inventions.
The Buckeyes didn’t throw their first pass until the 7:22 mark of the second quarter. The only completion was a 17-yard touchdown throw from Miller to tight end Jake Stoneburner — with just 13:06 left in the game. That gave Ohio State, which took advantage of three turnovers, a 17-0 lead that would end up being a 17-7 victory.
“The game plan was to win — that’s the ultimate, most important thing,” Fickell said afterward. “However way we had to do it, we were ready to do it.”
Zook’s team lost the rest of its games and he was fired. Fickell stayed on staff as defensive coordinator when Ohio State hired another former Florida coach, Urban Meyer, and the Buckeyes have not lost since.
The one-completion game still stands out.
“Our passing game has evolved so much now and so many guys score touchdowns for us now that (completing) one pass — that’s kind of unreal to think about,” Mewhort said.
Miller is still Ohio State’s quarterback and is now one of the best at the college level.
Meyer does not believe that we’ll see a repeat of 2011, at least not in the passing stats.
“I can assure you that we’re in a much different place than he was two years ago,” he said.
Even with a stout running game, the Buckeyes are averaging 20 completions and 230 passing yards a game.
The weather is supposed to be in the low 50s with a few showers and winds of under 10 mph for the game.
Almost no one expects Ohio State, which ran for 211 yards on 51 rushes, to dip back into its “three yards and cloud of dust” past.
Wide receiver Evan Spencer was asked how Meyer, a guru of the uptempo spread attack, would react to a game in which his quarterback only completed a single pass.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” he said. “He’d probably go crazy.”
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