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Sluggish Buckeyes pull away behind defense, Ezekiel Elliott

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Four years ago, a struggling Ohio State team with an interim coach came to windy Memorial Stadium, attempted four passes, completed one and beat Illinois 17-7.

Saturday's 28-3 victory was more watchable. Slightly.

Ohio State slogged through most of the first half, looked surprisingly inconsistent along the offensive line but found its footing behind a swarming defense and running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Heisman Trophy race might have filled its running back quota already, but there should be room for Elliott, the one constant for a Buckeyes offense searching for quarterback clarity. J.T. Barrett returned from his one-game suspension and was average, completing 15 of 23 passes for 150 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Elliott, meanwhile, gashed Illinois for 181 rushing yards -- his 15th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance -- and two touchdowns on 27 carries.

Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive end Joey Bosa sparked a defense that has become the team's bright spot. Ohio State bottled up the run and harassed Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt for most of the game.

It wasn't the complete performance the third-ranked Buckeyes hoped for before things finally get real next week with Michigan State visiting Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes may or may not remain in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings, but they need to polish things up to ensure a return to the national semifinals. The committee thinks Ohio State can play better than it has, and next week's game is a prime opportunity to show it can turn things up a notch or three.

Barrett still looks like the best option at quarterback, but the offensive line inconsistency and lack of explosiveness pose concerns going forward. And what was up with Braxton Miller not getting a touch until early in the fourth quarter?

Illinois had a few chances to put real heat on the Buckeyes but couldn't capitalize against a stout Buckeyes defense that controlled the line of scrimmage. Special-teams blunders also plagued the Illini all day.

What the win means for Ohio State: It ensures the Buckeyes will get through the season without a bad loss and keeps a return to the College Football Playoff alive. The Buckeyes aren't the dominant force many expected, but they're still in the position they want to be as the real season begins against Michigan State. Another strong defensive performance is encouraging as Michigan State's offense -- even without Connor Cook -- poses a significant challenge.

What the loss means for Illinois: The Illini are playing hard for interim coach Bill Cubit, and the improvement on defense is noticeable, especially up front. There were too many missed opportunities on offense and mistakes on special teams to beat an elite team Saturday, but Illinois can take some positives from the loss. It needs a win next week at Minnesota or Nov. 28 against Northwestern to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.

Unsung hero: McMillan. The sophomore was incredibly active all game, covering a ton of space and swarming Illinois ball carriers. Remember that Darron Lee came on strong late last season to spark Ohio State during its national championship run. Perhaps McMillan can do the same. He has played at an All-Big Ten level this season.

The game turned when: Barrett scrambled for 16 yards to the Illinois 22-yard line on fourth-and-11 late in the first half. Ohio State's offense had been sloppy, especially up front, and the Buckeyes were flagged for a false start to make a manageable fourth down less so. But coach Urban Meyer chose to go for it anyway, Barrett picked up the first down and it energized the offense. Three plays later, Barrett followed a brilliant Elliott block of Illinois' Eaton Spence into the end zone to put Ohio State up 13-3.