Ohio State is down but certainly not out. Despite all the suspensions and loss of their head coach due to NCAA investigations, they are loaded at every position. Illinois wants to keep its unbeaten streak going, and it wants to prove its national ranking is no fluke. Illini head coach Ron Zook explains what they must do to reach their goals.
"Each game gets bigger and bigger as we go through a schedule like this and we're able to be where we are. As I told our football team, this is a team that's very dangerous. It's a very talented team, it's a very well-coached team. It's a team that's got their back against the wall. We understand that we're going to get everything that Ohio State has.
"I think health-wise we're probably about as good as we can be, but this will be a physical football game. And our guys are going to need to have their big-boy pads on and be ready to play. I think we will be."
A big key for the Buckeyes will be quarterback play. They are clearly a better team when freshman Braxton Miller is at the helm. He sprained his ankle last week against Nebraska, but he is expected to play Saturday. Zook has great respect for his abilities.
"Miller is a runner and can throw. He's an athletic guy that's hard to get a hold of. He's an exciting guy and plays with energy. He can cause the defense a lot of problems. All you have to look at is the first three quarters until he got hurt against Nebraska. He's good."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning echoes those sentiments while taking it one step further.
"If everybody is covered, he can run for 20, 30, 40 yards. Terrelle Pryorish. That's the thing the other kid (Joe Bauserman) maybe can't do as well."
Miller will have a simplified pass offense package to prevent turnovers while he learns the system. But Ohio State will bring out its strong running game and defy the Illini to stop them according to Koenning.
"It changes our approach somewhat. This isn't gonna be grass basketball, for sure. It's gonna be staying in your gap, making sure your fits are right, see who's tougher than the next guy.
"And then you still have to be able to split off from that and cover guys down the field. They have great speed, and they're gonna put guys on islands. Typically when you play running teams, your dbs get put on islands. That's how they have a successful passing game, by forcing you to play more guys in the run game."
The Buckeyes celebrate the return of last year's 1st team All-Big 10 running back Dan "Boom" Herron, giving them at least three experienced running backs. They also have one of the top two offensive lines in the conference (Koenning calls tackle Mike Adams "unbelievable," and center Mike Brewster may be tops in the country). The Illini expect a ball-control offense, with a proviso.
"We've got to go back and pull out our two-back packages. But you've got to watch out. You don't want to do too many things you've done in the past because then they'll game-plan against you.
"I know they're gonna be full stable at running back. If the quarterback is healthy, he has a dynamic that you can have everybody covered and every gap covered, and he can still outrun you at the edge. That's something you can't prepare for."
If you concentrate too much on the running game, the passing attack can bite you. Defensive backfield coach Mike Gillhamer is preparing his guys this week for a major challenge.
"We're gonna have a lot of one-on-ones because of the play-action and the runs. This is good. It's really a tougher game for us in a way because we're gonna be one-on-one a lot.
"We do a lot of one-on-one when we're blitzing, and even when we're not blitzing. So it won't be a lot different. It's just gonna be mano-a-mano this week. They have really good receivers."
Cornerback Tavon Wilson looks forward to the challenge.
"It's exciting for me. I like to get in there and tackle some. Somebody's gonna line up and go straight at us. We'll see how good we really are on defense Saturday."
As good as the OSU offense is, their strength is their defense. Among the nation's leaders in points allowed, the Buckeyes figure to give the normally potent Illinois offense a run for its money. But offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is not one to back off from a challenge.
"This is one of the weeks you don't have to worry about motivating them. You just have to worry about execution. Anytime you play a program that has a reputation as a great program, you get fired up. It gives you that little extra edge. It's exciting. I think we have a good plan.
"They're good on defense. They're well coached, they have a good scheme, they play hard. We've just got to get ready to play and get after them. (John) Simon's a great defensive lineman. Probably their defensive front is their strength."
The secondary is athletic as well. And they will be harder to predict than the last couple Illini opponents.
"They change their coverages up more than the last two teams. So they'll press man sometimes, and they'll play cover two and (other coverages). We just try to find their tendencies, try to see how they're doing it. Sometimes you don't know in the huddle, so you have to call the play after that."
Perhaps the main key for the Illini offense will be the play of its offensive line. Line coach Joe Gilbert has faith in his players but knows they must be ready to battle.
"Obviously, they're a strong group, they're talented, they're physical. You have to see what things have worked against them. It'll come down to an emotional game as far as us playing for 60 minutes. That's something we haven't done, but it's something we have to do."
Illinois has double-digit players from the state of Ohio, and all they hear about back home is how wonderful the state school is. They will be fired up for this game. Ohioan Justin Staples has more reason than most to hunger for the competition.
"It's a very important game, a personal game. One of my best friends is Nate Oliver for Ohio State. We played high school ball together. We always talk throughout the season, but this week we're not talking. He's playing me, and I'm playing him, so we won't talk until after the game.
"They've had a tough year, but their a tough team you can never underestimate. They're a championship-caliber team, so we've got to be ready to play."
Gilbert recruits Ohio and knows the caliber of player on the Buckeye roster.
"They're still a talented group. They're obviously battling things only they know about. We've just to take care of ourselves and execute, and we'll have a chance."
Koenning says the Illini must "play electric" to win. He expects them to get a "shot in the arm" by the return of some previously suspended players.
"We'll see if we can do it against the best in the country. Ohio State still recruits the best players in the country."
Wilson can't wait for opening kickoff.
"They're always gonna have a good team, no matter what their record is. Every game, they're gonna throw a pretty good team out there. They're gonna compete, and they're not gonna give in. We know we're gonna get their best game this week because they're gonna want to be the ones to knock us off."
Nebraska came from behind to overcome OSU last Saturday night, thanks in no small part to their loud, supportive crowd. Zook hopes the "Stripe The Stadium" promotion and the importance of the game will help push the Illini over the top.
"You know our crowd's got to be cranked up. I'm glad that we're doing stuff, striping the stadium and all those things because I told our football team we've got to light them on fire. We've got to light them, and they've got to carry it on for us. It's going to be important."