The Fighting Illini football team travels to Ohio State University for a showdown with the Buckeyes Saturday. Which Illini team will show up, the one that gave California and Wisconsin a battle or the one that collapsed against Michigan State and Penn State?
With a young team like the Illini, a Jekyl/Hyde persona is common. Sometimes, the excitement of playing against a highly-rated team, the thrill of appearing on national television, or the arrogance of innocence can undermine coaching efforts to instill an intense focus for the task at hand. It takes maturity to ignore the outside distractions and concentrate solely on beating the Buckeyes on each and every play.
Have the Illini learned from past mistakes? If they go to Columbus with thoughts riveted more on playing a powerhouse on television in their Horseshoe than winning the game, they will lose their TV audience after only a quarter. But if they can reach the proper emotional focus and play with confidence, then perhaps they can give the Buckeyes some trouble, especially if OSU looks past the cellar-dwelling Illini toward the Northwestern and Michigan games that follow.
The Buckeyes are loaded. They may not be atop the Big 10 at this moment, but the season is not yet finished. And with the exception of the quarterback controversy to begin the year, they might be undefeated right now. A team of OSU reserves could be coached up to be competitive in the Big 10, and Illinois would gladly trade for some of them if they could.
Perhaps their only weakness is the inconsistency of their quarterback Troy Smith. He is a great athlete, and he can beat you with his running ability alone. But he is sometimes inconsistent with his passing attack. If he is on his game, he has great receivers with whom he can play catch. No Illini player can catch Ted Ginn in the open field, and the same can probably be said for Santonio Holmes and some other of their wideouts.
Thus, the key to stopping Ohio State's offense is in limiting Troy Smith's planned and extemporaneous runs and pressuring him when he passes. This is much easier said than done because his offensive line is the envy of many teams. The state of Ohio mass-produces great offensive linemen like Detroit produces automobiles. The Buckeyes also recruit great linemen from other states, but they usually don't have to do so.
Thus, it will be difficult for our defensive linemen to pressure Smith on passing plays without help from linebacker and defensive back blitzes. But this type of gambling will most certainly backfire with some frequency. Not only is Smith capable of avoiding blitzes with his feet, but he has several excellent choices for dumpoffs. If he can read the hot receivers, he merely needs to lob the ball in the general direction of one of his options. That is, unless he is pressured into hurrying his throws.
The Buckeyes' running game is sturdy enough to provide balance to their attack. Running back Antonio Pittman was named Big Ten Player of the Week for his outstanding performance last Saturday against Minnesota. If Ohio State gets its running game working and mixes passes with it, the Illini will have difficulty preventing numerous scoring. We will need to play our best defensive game to keep the game close.
Offensively for the Illini, Ohio State poses a serious threat to Tim Brasic's plans. Their defense is outstanding. Led by super linebacker A. J. Hawk, Brasic will have more difficulty finding openings than against Wisconsin last week. We will need to pass on most downs as our running game probably cannot take on the Buckeyes one on one. We will need to complete many passes to open up opportunites for our running game.
Otherwise, Hawk and his explosive mates will stifle much of our plan. Brasic will have less room to maneuver on busted plays because the OSU linebackers will drop less deep in coverage than Wisconsin and will fill the gaps quickly once he begins to run. Illini fans must hope we can move the ball without needing Brasic to run frequently as he might just get his head knocked off (figuratively). OSU defenders will put a hurt on him if we don't protect him.
Brasic will need to develop several receiving options because the Buckeyes will simply not permit slender rookie Kyle Hudson much room to maneuver. Last week he looked almost exclusively for Hudson, with much success. But Hudson will either be double-covered or held up at the line by strong, aggressive cornerbacks bent on taking him out of the play. We might be wise to use Hudson more as a decoy since someone else might be open more frequently. If Brasic focuses primarily on one receiver, we will have little if any success.
It might be this writer's assignment to study ways Illinois can exploit the Buckeyes, but even our coaches are probably struggling to find weaknesses. At the least, we must develop our special teams to protect the kickers and prevent long runbacks by Ginn and other speedy Buckeyes. Our special teams will be competing against high school All-Americans waiting for opportunites to play offense and defense, so we must be especially alert to prevent turnovers and touchdowns in our kicking game. We simply cannot afford any more breakdowns in special teams.
Coach Ron Zook grew up in Ohio and even coached at Ohio State for awhile. He has strong incentive to play well in his home state. He also knows how the state of Ohio develops large numbers of great high school football players and is working to steal some good ones for the Illini. We have two commitments already from Ohio athletes, and we are working on several others. We do not have to win to impress the recruits, but we will have better recruiting success if we can show some competitive similarity to the Buckeyes. If we can recruit more Ohio athletes, we can someday return to Columbus with better players and a better chance for victories.
We all want Illinois to win, and on any given Saturday anything is possible. But the Buckeyes will be an overwhelming favorite. In the absense of victory, Illinois can gain a strong measure of self-respect if it can somehow ignore all the distractions and play Ohio State tough for four quarters. It is not an easy assignment, but the rewards are obvious for the team whose players are willing to lay their bodies on the line for the cause.
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