Preview: #1 OSU v. Illinois

By Jason Priestas on November 8, 2007 at 1:00 pm
Ohio State Buckeyes#1 Ohio State 10-0, 6-0 Big Ten Roster | Schedule 3:30 PM ET ------ Ohio Stadium Columbus, OH IllinoisIllinois 7-3, 4-2 Big Ten Roster | Schedule

The Fighting Illini roll into town this weekend to take on the top-ranked Buckeyes in what would normally be the perfect setup for a trap game.

They are a talented squad powered by a stud running back and a game-breaking wide receiver. The Buckeyes are 10-0 and gaining respect, and that chip on their shoulder is getting smaller by the day. Oh, and the game that the kids come to Ohio State to play in is next weekend.

Then, Tuesday night happened.

I was honestly a little worried about this game until Matta's boys went down the other night. That shocking loss gave Matta and Tressel a teaching point and all but assured that the football Buckeyes will be in good shape this weekend.

That's not to say that Illinois won't be a game opponent, because they will be. They're bowl-bound, have good wins over Penn State and Wisconsin and nearly beat a fine Missouri team to open the season. They would no doubt be a top 20 team if they played their home games South of the Mason Dixon Line.

Tale of the Tape
34.9 (25th) SCORING 27.6 (58th)
415.0 (39th) TOTAL OFFENSE 413.9 (41st)
200.6 (22nd) RUSHING 261.3 (5th)
214.4 (69th) PASSING 152.6 (113th)
9.7 (1st) SCORING 19.1 (21st)
221.2 (1st) TOTAL DEFENSE 355.0 (45th)
65.0 (3rd) RUSHING 112.5 (22nd)
156.2 (2nd) PASSING 242.5 (81st)

The quick turnaround job Ron Zook has done at Illinois is seen by some as an indictment of the Big Ten, but to us, that's just part of the ebb and flow of life, full of so many variables. Regardless, in only three short years, Ron Zook has restored hope in Champaign.

The Illini enter the game ranked 5th in the nation in rushing and with games in hand, have already broken the school record for total offense in a season. That record had only been around for 36 years.

Illinois boasts All-Americans on both sides of the ball and look as good as they have since their Big Ten championship season of 2001. They enter this game believing that they can upset the Buckeyes and that's a good thing if you're an Illini fan.

Unfortunately, this Buckeye team appears to be on a mission. The few seniors that will be playing their final home game will get a proper sendoff from the faithful and don't underestimate the freshness of Illibuck -- property of the state of Ohio since 2002.

I was accused of drinking the Windy City Kool Aid after talking up the Illini as a darkhorse contender and threat to finish in the top four in the Big Ten. I pointed out that 5 of their 6 road games were very winnable and aside from the Iowa loss, they won the other four that I thought they'd win.

The season-opening loss to Mizzou was a heartbreaker. Illinois, down to their 2nd string quarterback, was up by 3 with less than 10 minutes remaining, but the Tigers found a way to get a touchdown late before holding on to the victory. These days, Missouri is a top 10 team and if there is such a thing as a "good" loss, that is one.

Their lone home loss came at the hands of Michigan 3 weeks ago. The two teams were tied entering the fourth quarter before the Wolverines scored the last 10 - 7 coming via trickery - to put the game away.

Break This Fool InChampaign City Ballers. Biotch!

Illinois is a handful of plays from being unbeaten, though they've had their share of close victories as well. A seven point home win over Penn State and a five point home win over P.J. Hill-powered Wisconsin give Buckeye fans a little bit of something to measure the two squads.

If there's anything this Illinois team does well, it's run the rock. The two-headed rushing monster of quarterback Juice Williams (#7) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (#5) present headaches to even the best of rush defenses.

If you've read this space over the past couple of months, you'd know that we love to hype opposing running backs. From Sutton to Ringer to Hill, we've sung the sweet praises of them all. Mendenhall may be the best of the bunch (at least until Hart next week). He's the real deal.

The junior is 8th in the nation in rushing with 1314 yards through 10. Only 17 yards away from breaking the school record for rushing yards in a season, it's likely he'll get at least that Saturday. Especially considering the fact that he has an astonishing 390 yards and 4 touchdowns in his last two games.

All is not lost as good teams have had success limiting his damage. Missouri, Penn State, Michigan and Iowa (?!?) have all held him under the century mark. Not surprisingly, the Illini are 1-3 in those games.

Williams enters this game on a bit of a rushing roll of his own. He ran for 133 on Minnesota last weekend and 99 against Ball State the week before. His 568 yards on the ground are only 9 yards from breaking his school mark for rushing yards out of a quarterback.

Juice has improved upon his national-worst 39.5% completion percentage last year as a freshman, but he's still good for an interception for every touchdown pass he throws, just like last season. He's been so erratic this year, that backup Eddie McGee (#10) has seen considerable playing time.

When Williams is passing, he's looking for one guy -- super frosh Arrelious "Regis" Benn (#9). You pretty much have to be a badass to take on "Regis" as a nickname and the former Parade All-American would have much, much more to show for this season beyond his 573 yards and 1 touchdown if anyone but Juice Williams was tasked with getting him the ball.

Mendenhall will catch some balls out of the backfield, but beyond that, only senior wide receiver Jacob Willis (#83), with 16, has more than 9 receptions on the year.

The offensive line, lead by senior guard Martin O'Donnell (#64) is not only a huge reason the Illini have had so much success running the ball this season, but have also improved in the pass protection category. Just ask Juice -- he's on pace to hit the turf less than half as many times as he did last year.

J. LemanLeman forced a Pitt fumble last year

The Illini defense has been doing its part as well, coming in allowing only 19 points per game. After Mizzou put up 40 on them in the opener, they've yet to give up more than 27 in a game. In their loss at Iowa, they held the Hawkeyes to 10 points and still came away with the "L".

It all starts with stud senior backer J Leman (#47). Nobody knows his first name. He skinned and impaled the last guy that asked him what it was and none have tried since.

Let's be honest, if Leman played for one of the blue bloods, he'd be regarded as the best linebacker in the history of college football. He'll be coming in angry as this is the first week in the past 18 that he hasn't been the conference leader in tackles. That's nuts.

Last season, Leman notched 19 tackles, 3.5 TFLs and a forced fumble in the narrow 17-10 Buckeye road victory. He'll be a factor again this year, but luckily this will be the last time the Buckeyes have to face him as he's already graduated.

This will be the 3rd time in the last month that the Buckeye offensive line will be going against an excellent defensive front. The Illini are 10th in the nation averaging 3.3 sacks per game. Junior end Will Davis (#81) is pacing the unit with 7.5 sacks on the season and will try to use his speed to get into the Buckeye backfield. Football Rule of Thumb #41: If a defensive lineman is wearing a receiver's number, he's got wheels.

True sophomore Vontae Davis (#1), is currently 3rd in the conference in interceptions and is the only sophomore (and the only other Big Ten player aside from Malcom Jenkins) named as a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. He's also blocked two punts this season and is a difference-maker.

Illinois has a solid kicking game and Benn is a threat on returns, already having taken one to the house in the Penn State game. Special teams are an area in which team athleticism can really shine and Zook's infusion of talent is already showing.

Notes: Illinois is 3-14 against No. 1 opponents as it heads into its 18th appearance against the top-ranked. The last win over a No. 1 opponent was in 1956 when the Illini defeated Michigan State, 20-13... With seven more quarterback sacks in the final three games, the Illini could break the school record of 40, which was posted by the 2001 squad... Illinois’ 44 points scored at Minnesota are the most in the Ron Zook era... The Illini are 1-8 against Ohio State when OSU is ranked #1... Illinois is 7-0 when leading at halftime this season... is still rocking out on the internet.

Buckeye Breakdown The Buckeyes are rolling. You don't need me to tell you that. After an initial scare last weekend against Wisconsin, the team turned it on to record its 10th impressive victory of the season.

Saying that, aside from the 40-2 drubbing in 2005, the Illini have played the Buckeyes tough in the Tressel era. The 2001 team that went on to win the Big Ten championship beat a ranked Buckeye team by double digits in Columbus. In 2002, OSU squeaked out an overtime victory over Illinois on the way to winning the national championship and last season in Champaign, the Illini actually outgained the Buckeyes before holding the team to its lowest point output of the regular season.

Nice shadesMy shades. You like?

The best part about the job Zook has done at Illinois is that now the school has guys that the Buckeyes can seriously prepare for and relish the chance to go against. Mendenhall will serve as a great tune-up for H20-3 next weekend and Juice will give the team a limited look at some of the skills Oregon's Dennis Dixon brings to the table should OSU meet the Ducks in New Orleans.

Cordle and the fullbacks will have a challenge dealing with Leman all afternoon and the tackles will be tested by Will Davis. Don't think Robo isn't looking forward to his matchup with Vontae Davis, either.

If you're putting the Buckeye defensive plan together, it's really kind of simple. The Illini, as good as they are running the ball, are a one dimensional team on offense. Much like the previous three games, if Ohio State can jump out to any type of early lead, it can force Illinois into throwing the ball earlier than they'd like to.

Having scored on their opening drive the last 6 games and with Todd, Beanie and the receivers rolling, there's no reason to believe the Bucks won't be able to establish that early lead. Beanie may have a tougher time going because I expect this to be a hard-hitting affair and Leman will be a factor, but Boeckman's touch and efficiency will open things up for Wells.

There's some concern over the terrible kick coverage the Buckeyes have shown so far this season and that's warranted. They absolutely have to figure this out, but seeing as we're heading into game #11 and they still don't have a handle on it, I'm not optimistic. I just hope it doesn't bite the team in the ass sometime in the last three games which figure to be against progressively better competition.

Kick coverage isn't the only aspect the team needs to work on -- what's up with all of these field goal blocks? Pretorius is 17 of 21 on field goal attempts on the season with 3 blocks. So he's really 17/18 on kicks that actually clear the line. Not bad at all and definitely in line with what you'd expect out of a Vest kicker. The blocks haven't hurt the team yet, but are another bugaboo out there lurking.

Illinois will show up, but I can't see them having enough to pull off a shocker at the Shoe especially when you consider just how stingy the Buckeye defense has played at home this season.

Notes: The Buckeyes will be looking to build on their conference record with their 21st straight Big Ten victory... Ohio State has scored on their opening drive in 8 of their 10 games this season... The OSU defense has given up only two touchdowns at home this season... Ohio State has an all-time record of 67-9-1 when ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team... Ohio State leads the Illinois series 60-29-4 and has a 26-17-4 edge in Columbus.

Jason: OSU 23, Illinois 9
Chris: OSU 30, Illinois 13