The Buckeyes are back.
After its second and final bye week of the season, Ohio State returned to work this week to continue its quest toward what it hopes is a Big Ten Championship and an eventual trip to Pasadena for the BCS National Championship Game.
While the Buckeyes admitted they watched a lot of football during their week away from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the focus still lies on themselves and taking care of their own business. Because anything else wouldn't be acceptable to head coach Urban Meyer, who has Ohio State sitting at 9-0 and ranked third in all three major polls.
"I got to watch everybody this last week," Meyer said. "There's some very good teams in the country, and I believe we're a very good team."
The Buckeyes quest continues on the road again this week as they trek to Champaign for a noon kick against struggling Illinois, which is 3-6 overall and winless in five conference games.
A prohibitive favorite, the Buckeyes know they must continue to take care of their business in impressive fashion if they hope to move up in the rankings.
"It's win the game, but the message is you have to play great," Meyer said. "All I've mentioned to our team is that you must practice and play at a certain level. I thought we practiced at a high level and I expect them to play at a high level because they're in the same breath with some very, very good teams."
Unfortunately, for Ohio State, Illinois and the bulk of the Big Ten hasn't been in that breath of very, very good teams. That's hampering Ohio State's national perception and case to be listed with the likes of Alabama, Florida State and now even Baylor or once-defeated Stanford.
However, for Meyer, it's just part of the process.
"I just told the guys I've been in this situation before and you have nothing to do with nothing, other than getting ready to go play because there's so much football still to be played this season," Meyer said.
The last time the Buckeyes were on the field, they certainly sent a message that was heard loud and clear in Purdue. Ohio State thumped the Boilermakers, 56-0.
The Buckeyes practiced up until Friday last week before Meyer sent the team home to rest, relax, get their minds right and heal up for the stretch run, which includes next week's home finale against Indiana and then trip to dreaded rival Michigan.
"We talked about the nation and had our state of the union like we do every week," Meyer said. "Now, our job is to play again. We just have to continue to play great or we'll no longer be mentioned in the same breath with those other teams."
Don't think for a minute that Ohio State is taking the Illini lightly. Illinois, which hasn't tasted victory since it beat winless Miami of Ohio on Sept. 28, is coming off a 52-35 setback to Indiana.
"This is a very invested team," Meyer said of his Buckeyes. "I'm watching our approach and there's been no issue whatsoever. We've really gotten after it all week and if I see anything but that, a bomb will go off."
The Illini offense hasn't been too bad, averaging 425.3 yards a game, which ranks 56th nationally. The trouble Illinois has had is on the defensive side where it allows 482.7 yards and nearly 35 points a game.
"They're still trying defensively and going through some growing pains, I guess would be the appropriate way to say it," Meyer said. "They do have an explosive offense and they're pretty good on special teams."
The Buckeyes have simply made a living at exploiting poor or below average defenses with an offense that's been clicking on all cylinders both through and the air on the ground. Ohio State is averaging a conference-leading 48 points and 530 yards a game.
"We're playing a lot of young players and through maturity and through reptition, they'll get better as it goes," said Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, who was an assistant under Meyer at Bowling Green and also worked at Ohio State under Jim Tressel. "The more we play them, the better off we'll become."
The Buckeyes ground game has been imposing with the talented offensive line and senior Carlos Hyde simply mowing people down. Hyde has yet to be caught for a negative gain. He's also still on pace to become the first running back in a Meyer system to surpass the 1,000-yard mark and that's despite missing the first three games of the season with a suspension.
All told, he's gained 701 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Jordan Hall has had a solid season and freshman Ezekiel Elliott is developing into a solid option.
Quarterback Braxton Miller has continued to play an exceptionally high level ever since Meyer ordered back-up QB Kenny Guiton to begin to warm up at Northwestern about a month ago. Miller has thrown for 1,316 yards and 15 touchdowns. He's also ran for 495 yards and two touchdowns.
"What Braxton's doing and been able to do doesn't surprise me," Beckman said. "That young manhas been around winning programs his whole life. What they're able to do with him enabling him as a passer and as a runner just makes his game even more."
The Buckeyes' receiving corps has played exceptionaly well, too. Corey "Philly" Brown leads the way with 41 catches for 547 yards and eight touchdowns. Devin Smith has 38 receptions for 542 yards and six touchdowns. Evan Spencer has hauled in 21 passes for three touchdowns.
Jeff Heuerman, the OSU tight end, emerged against Purdue as a threat. He's caught 20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Plus, frosh Dontre Wilson is a weapon.
"We're a better team than we were last year," Meyer said. "We're a better functioning team. I don't want to disrespect our seniors (from last season) because they were such an incredible group of players. We're just more functional on offense."
On the defensive side, the Buckeyes will have to deal with senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhase, who currently leads the conference in passing yards. He's thrown for 2,420 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"We've got to be ready for Illinois' best shot," Meyer said. "They've played some pretty good football as of late, especially offensively. They took Penn State to overtime and put up a lot of points and yards last week."
Josh Ferguson is the Illini leading rusher and receiver. He's gained 485 yards and scored four touchdowns on the ground. He's also caught 37 passes for 483 yards and four touchdowns. Spencer Harris and Steve Hull have caught 34 and 28 passes, respectively.
The Buckeyes defense has made steady improvement. It's allowing just 17 points a game, which ranks eighth in America. They're ranked third against the run, permitting just 88.2 yards a week.
"They're athletic and have great speed, especially on the defensive front," Beckman said.
"A lot of their linebacker and secondary faces are familiar. They're good players who play aggressively."
Ryan Shazier leads the defense with 72 tackles. He's been named a semifinalist for the Bednarik, Butkus and Lott IMPACT Awards.
Curtis Grant, who was slowed early in the week due to injury, is expected to play. He's had a solid campaign with 49 tackles. Noah Spence has emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten and freshman Joey Bossa has played well.
In the secondary, Doran Grant had a pick six against Purdue. Pitt Brown has played well since taking over for injured Christian Bryant. Bradley Roby has also been solid.