COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Looking at the critical areas and most important players as No. 3 Ohio State looks to stay unbeaten as it visits Illinois on Saturday (noon, ESPN).
Tune out the noise: The Buckeyes dialed up some of the conversation involving their BCS title chances with Evan Spencer's confident comments in reference to Alabama and Florida State early in the week, and Urban Meyer made it quite clear he didn't appreciate the potential distraction. The Ohio State coach has largely succeeded in his nearly two full seasons in avoiding the kind of public trash talk that can find its way on to bulletin boards of opponents, and Meyer has long emphasized the importance of not looking past any opponent and having his team evaluate itself only against the squad it faces on a given Saturday. It's understandable at this point why the Buckeyes might be looking around elsewhere, given their position in the BCS standings and the recent struggles of the Illini. But they also are well aware that they shouldn't be taking anything for granted on the road in the Big Ten.
Up in the air: Meyer made it no secret heading into the first bye week of the season last month that Ohio State's top priority was shoring up its soft pass defense. Coming out of the second off date, it appears he's seen the improvement, but a true barometer is on tap against the Illini, a team throwing for nearly 290 yards per game and certainly capable of exploiting any breakdowns in the secondary. The Buckeyes haven't had many breakdowns in the last two weeks, largely keeping Penn State from doing any significant damage until the outcome had long been decided and then following that up by dismantling Purdue in a shutout victory. Even when the yardage was coming relatively easily against Ohio State, the defense has shown a knack to come up with a timely interception to swing momentum -- the Buckeyes have at least one pick in every game this season.
Friendly skies: Braxton Miller was a bit banged up and the weather wasn't doing him any favors as a freshman visiting Illinois two years ago, but it's still remarkable to look back at a box score that included just one completion for him and compare it to the passing tear he's been on since returning from injury for the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin. The junior has been so ruthlessly efficient over the last two games -- completing 37 of his 47 attempts for nine touchdowns -- that he has barely been needed in the second half of those blowout victories. Those shortened outings and what amounted to almost three full games missed because of his knee sprain in September have limited his numbers, but he's playing like every bit the Heisman Trophy favorite he was projected to be before the season. He should be licking his chops to face an Illinois team ranked No. 114 in total defense.
Second level: Already low on depth at linebacker, two of the three starters are nursing at least a minor injury and could stretch the unit even thinner against the Illini. Curtis Grant has been limited in practice over the last two weeks with ankle and back issues and Joshua Perry had surgery on a finger during the off date, leaving star junior Ryan Shazier as the only sure thing for the first-team unit. Perry is likely to play, but Grant is a bit more questionable, which figures to put Ohio State in more nickel and dime packages against Illinois -- though that might have been the case either way against an offense that has a clear preference for passing.
Rested and ready: The streak of 100-yard rushing performances continued for Carlos Hyde, and it only took eight carries against Purdue to get there. That light workload should help the bruising senior running back be as fresh as possible for the closing stretch of three regular-season games and a likely Big Ten championship game berth, and the roll he's been on figures to also allow him to break the 1,000-yard barrier and finally give Meyer his first tailback to accomplish that feat. Since returning to a featured role against Wisconsin, Hyde has been a monster in the backfield and is averaging 132 yards per game in conference play. Like Miller, Hyde is also in line for another stats-stuffing performance against a defense that is allowing almost 240 yards per game on the ground.