Wake Up Early For Illini-Buckeye Matchup

Ready or not, here they come. The mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, flying high in the national standings again this year, visit Memorial Stadium Saturday morning looking to continue their Big 10 dominance. The Illini hope to pull an upset against long odds. They hope their fans will wake up early and arrive in time to be a strong 12th man to even the odds.

The Illinois football team traveled to Columbus and upset Ohio State in 2007. It is hoping to do the same to the visiting Buckeyes Saturday. Coach Ron Zook says the Illini are looking forward to playing a nationally ranked team.

"Ohio State is a big week. We are playing a great football team and arguably the best player in the country. It is going to be a great challenge. Our guys have the ultimate respect for Ohio State.

"In the time that I have been here, they always enjoy playing this game. They have the ultimate respect for Ohio State. They are excited and looking forward to the challenge. I think that is why you want to play in the Big Ten. You want the opportunity to play against great football teams, and obviously this is one of them."

The Buckeyes are loaded with super talent throughout their lineup. But their marquee name is quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The 6'-6", 233 pound junior has continued to evolve his game, and he presents tremendous challenges both with his passing and running according to Zook.

"The biggest thing I would say is the way he's throwing the football. He's throwing the football 20 percent more. He can throw deep, he can throw short, he can throw touch, he can stick it in there, and I think they're allowing him to do that."

Pryor used to flush the pocket at the first sign of pressure. He has great speed and is a threat to go all the way on every play. But maturity has given him a more complete game.

"He's gonna sit in there. He's gonna take off and run if he has to. They're getting five out, which presents some issues when you've got five receivers out. If you give him any seams he will run up in there. If you run up to him he's gonna dump it off.

"He's continued to get better, and he's got much more poise. Whenever you've got a guy that can run like him, you have to be concerned. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense with the pass, and then you've got to worry about him taking off and running. Do you rush three, rush four, do you try to spy the guy? I don't know if anybody can spy the guy. It presents issues."

If the Illini do decide to put a spy on Pryor, it will likely be inside linebacker Martez Wilson. He's willing if needed.

"I definitely would want to try it. I wouldn't mind. I'm up for the challenge, so if Coach wants me to do it I'm gonna do it. I'm a team player."

Defensive tackle Corey Liuget knows how to play Pryor. Of course, knowing and doing are two different things.

"You've got to play every snap. You've got to hit him in the mouth a couple times, maybe all game. You've just got to keep going after him. You've got to tackle him. You have to wrap him up, gang tackle him and make sure he's on the ground. And most of all try to get turnovers once we get there."

Pryor is far from their only offensive weapon. But the running backs and receivers become more effective when Pryor is on his game according to safety Tavon Wilson.

"He's a great player, you've got to give him his credit. He's done a lot of great things since he's been in college. You've got to make sure he's taken care of. He's gonna make some plays, but we just can't let him beat us.

"He's got great receivers, but he's probably a bigger threat running the football. He's a big guy. You've got to get to him, wrap him and make sure he goes to the ground. We've just got make sure we tackle well and don't give up big plays. I feel we've got a good chance."

Defensive end Clay Nurse tracked Pryor down a couple times in Columbus last year. But the senior leader believes Illinois must respect the entire offense and not place too much emphasis on any one individual.

"I look forward to the O-State team. There's not one person you can single out and say, 'Okay, he's the greatest thing ever.' They all have something they do well.

"The o-line is big and strong, the quarterback is improved, the running backs are better, the wide receivers are better. You've got to prepare for them all. I'm not just looking at Pryor. We've got to come together and prepare for the whole team."

Last week against Bowling Green, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher caught 9 passes. Tavon Wilson explained how he can get open so often.

"He's a pretty quick guy. He plays an inside receiver, so they do a lot of things to get him open. He and DeVier Posey will probably end up on the same side, and Posey will probably see a lot of double teams. So that's probably how Dane Sanzenbacher can get open a little more than some of the other receivers they have on the team."

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning says he hasn't found a key to unlocking the mystery of defending OSU, except perhaps in the long term.

"I think like a lot of teams, the key is just to recruit. If you can out recruit them, then you have a chance to beat them on a regular basis. Obviously, they've done a really fine job of recruiting. Terrelle Pryor was the #1 player coming out of high school, and he's every bit that. He's gonna be a very rich man someday.

"He's really good, but they have a lot of really good players around them. All their line is back except for one guy. The receivers are talented, the running backs are talented.

"We're preparing our guys as well as we can, and we're gonna do the best we can do. Nobody thinks they don't have a chance. Our guys will go on the field believing in themselves."

Zook reminds the OSU defense is as good as the offense.

"They're very, very talented up front. They'll do an awful lot of things, blitz maybe 30 percent of the time. The defensive front, I don't know if you can say that's the strength of their defense, but the defensive front is pretty strong.

"The MIKE linebacker, you can tell he's the leader. I think the secondary is very sound, and they swarm the football. They're very athletic and have a lot of experience. They have a freshman, I think, that's a backup defensive back and maybe a redshirt freshman that's playing, but for the most part they're a very experienced defensive group."

Illini offensive line coach Joe Gilbert knows his linemen have an important role to play in blocking the Buckeyes.

"There's no doubt. You look at their front seven, and they're as good as anybody in the country. With (Cameron) Haywood, (Dexter) Larimore and (John) Simon they're physical, they're strong. So we have our work cut out for us, not only in the run game but pass protection-wise. They play hard, they've got great motors. It's gonna be a 60 minute battle."

Zook knows the Buckeyes will stack the box to nullify the Illini's potent running attack. But he also knows you can't abandon it at the first sign of trouble.

"I'd like to see about 450 yards, but the strength of their defense is probably their front. They're going to pack the box just like everyone we play is going to. The running game, you can't get away from it too soon. You have to have confidence that you're going to be able to make some things happen down the road."

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase agrees the Buckeye defense is overshadowed by their offense but deserves as much praise.

"It definitely does. I think that's played a big part in their wins this season. They're offense has got a lot more possessions than normal because (the defense) caused a whole bunch of turnovers and gave them great field position.

"That's what hurt Miami, turning the ball over at critical times and in critical areas of the field. Ohio State's offense was able to capitalize off that. Their defense has been doing an excellent job and has been kind of a propeller for their offense.

"They just do a lot of things right. They're real sound, they run to the football, they hit hard from start to finish. If you don't turn the ball over, you give yourself a chance. That will be a big part of this weekend, not giving them easy opportunities to score."

Running back Mikel Leshoure realizes his play will be more effective if the Illini can mount a passing game to compliment the run.

"We'll have to be more balanced I think. We're gonna have to get some plays downfield and open the field up because I'm sure they're gonna be trying to stop the running game. That's what we've been good at so far this year. We'll just have to open it up a little bit more and hit guys downfield to keep them honest."

Scheelhaase is young and still learning, but offensive coordinator Paul Petrino believes the bye week has given the Illini offense an advantage.

"We've had two weeks to prepare, so perhaps we have a little more in. And we should understand the game plan a little better than we have. That should help."

It may also help that Illinois has given opponents much to think about given how many styles of play they have incorporated in their first three games.

"I think they have a lot to prepare for us. We do a lot of different personnel groups, a lot of different schemes in our running game. And there's still a lot in our passing game we just have to go out and execute. That's kind of the unknown for them. Hopefully some of those will show up on Saturday."

OSU has strong cornerback play. Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins looks forward to his personal competition.

"Honestly man, I'm a pretty good receiver. It's gonna be a battle. It's gonna be a good test. They don't play a lot of man-to-man coverage. But with the game plan they do have, we should be successful in the passing game. I don't look at it as much different than us playing Northern Illinois or Missouri. I'm just gonna get myself ready to play."

A number of Illinois players were on hand in Columbus in 2007 when the Illini came away with the upset. Many others were recruited in the wake of that success. There are similarities in the two situations.

"Like back then, it's the number one team against a team that is definitely the underdogs going into the game," Leshoure reminds. "But those guys showed up and made it happen, executed their assignments and won the game. We feel like we can go out and do the same thing, make history repeat twice."

Like Leshoure, Scheelhaase was still in high school but also uses that game as motivation.

"With the team doing it three years ago, it's still fresh. Every Illinois fan you talk to remembers that win and what that win did for the season. It's definitely something we look forward to, getting that chance.

"It's kind of set up the same as it was that year. Them being one of the top 1 or 2 teams in the country and us being in the shadows. We're definitely looking forward to the chance to knock off that top team. I couldn't even imagine what it could do for our season."

Outside linebacker Nathan Bussey is looking forward to the game.

"I think everybody feels great about the game. Everybody's coming to practice well motivated and well rested. The team is feeling pumped up and getting ready for a big game. Everybody's excited to go out and show what Illinois can really do."

So is Scheelhaase.

"You always know what you're gonna get with Ohio State. You know they're gonna be one of the top ranked teams every year. I know they're looking forward to starting the Big 10 season. We're looking forward to the opportunity."

Tavon Wilson talks along similar lines.

"We feel like it's a great opportunity. Everyone's counting us out. We wouldn't want it any other way. We're looking forward to it. We're just gonna try to go out and take advantage of our opportunity. We have nothing to lose, but we want to prove we can play with big-time schools also."

Martez Wilson knows what is needed.

"You want to have the mentality of playing 60 minutes going into Ohio State. We're gonna do the best we can."

While it may be premature to consider the ramifications of an Illini victory, Jenkins knows it would be beneficial.

"We just need to go out there and play football, do our everyday things. A victory would mean a lot of confidence for us and our coaches going into Penn State and Michigan State. It would do a lot for our program. We have a lot of potential. A lot. We have to focus and be ready to play."

Petrino admits the challenges and rewards for the coaches is as great as for the players.

"You want to play against the best. That's why you're in this profession. There's definitely a little bit more adrenalin, a little more fire. You just do the best you can to prepare. Our guys have had a great week of practice, and they're looking forward to going out there and getting after them."

There is no doubt it will be an emotional game for the Illini. But Zook reminds that emotion without preparation and quality play falls short of expectations.

"I don't think many games are won on emotion. I think it's got something to do with it no question, but after the first five minutes or so of the quarter or the half it's what you line up and do because that emotion kind of goes."

What Zook does hope is that the Illini Nation will arise early, get fired up and in their seats well before 11:00am. The Illini need every ticket holder backing their play throughout four tough quarters.

"I hope and I pray that our crowd gets there. I got a comment from someone from my home town yesterday, and he said that he would be one of the few people in my home town rooting for us. He said, 'I hope your crowd understands that this will take the whole state of Illinois.' I think there's some truth to that. It's very important that our fans are ready to go also."

Given their long-shot role, keeping the game close might be considered a moral victory for the Illini. But don't tell that to Illinois players and coaches. They want to win.

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