Illinois @ Ohio State: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday in a rare ABC game with the Illini looking to see if they can miraculously continue their winning streak in the Horseshoe. IlliniBoard.com's Brad Leshyn breaks down the Ohio State Buckeyes in this game preview.

The good news for Illini fans: the basketball team takes the court for the first time on Thursday. The bad news: three more football games, including this week's trek to Columbus, Ohio. The Illini put up a valiant effort last week, but key mistakes, penalties, and a poor kicking game quashed any momentum they had established. I guess that's what happens to young teams, but keep that up this week, and ugliness will ensue. It may anyway, as the Buckeyes have a defense folks in these parts can only dream about, and have offensive weapons like Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes, talent that folks in these parts can only dream about. Considering the Illini are now officially out of bowl contention, Ron Zook's job now becomes two-fold: ensure the kids do not quit and allow youngsters to see more action. Burning redshirts this late is unwise, but it's time to see the future of Illinois football.

Head Coach
It's safe to say Jim Tressel was born to coach. His father, Lee, coached at Massillon High in Ohio before winning 155 games and a national championship at Division III Baldwin-Wallace College. Older brother Dick, now the running backs coach for the Buckeyes, won 124 games at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now comes the sweater-vested one, who has had plenty of success on his own. He's won 181 games in his career and five national titles. In 1985, after three seasons as quarterbacks and receivers coach for OSU, he left to take the top job at Youngstown State. Over the next 15 years, he won 135 games and four D-1AA national championships. He'll forever be etched in the memories of Buckeye fans as he added a fifth national title to his resume in 2002, which was the first consensus crown by a Big Ten school since 1968. His close to the vest style brings back the memories of the late Woody Hayes, and the national title didn't hurt either. He's coached 10 first-team All-Americans while at Ohio State, and has also added to his own legacy by defeating arch-rival Michigan three out of four times.

Offensive Preview
With only 385.6 yards per game on the campaign, Ohio State's offense appears pretty pedestrian. However, over the last three games it has exploded for 121 points and 437 yards per game. Last week's 45-point outburst in Minneapolis - a season-high - was the most points the Buckeyes have scored on the road since 1998. QB Troy Smith directs what, on paper, is the worst passing offense (204.6 ypg) in the Big Ten. With stalwarts like WRs Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn, Jr., that would seem unlikely, but Tressel has never been one to embrace the modern passing game. Of course, you can't exactly argue with his record, either. On the year Smith, who was not named the full-time starter until game three vs. San Diego State, has thrown for 1,265 yards and 10 TDs while completing 59.7% of his throws. He adds an extra dimension with his running ability, as his eight rushing TDs are the most by a Buckeye signal caller since the now-imprisoned Art Schlichter's nine in 1979.

Ginn has not made the impact offensively he made as a freshman, but he's still plenty dangerous. His 382 yards and 27 receptions are both second to Holmes, but he's averaging only 14.1 yard per catch and scored only twice. He has, however, been a terror as a kick returner. Against Minnesota, his 100-yard kickoff return for a score was the first for the Buckeyes in 105 games, and came on the heels of a 73-yarder the previous week vs. Indiana. With a 62-yard TD runback against the Hoosiers, Ginn tied Tim Dwight's league mark with his fifth career punt return for a TD. Smith's top target is senior Santonio Holmes. Holmes, with 94 yards last week, just missed his third straight 100-yard outing, and his 36 catches, 673 yards, and seven TDs all are team highs. His 18.7 yards per catch leads the Big Ten, and his 123 career receptions are sixth best in Buckeye history.

The running game, after years of searching, has finally found some stability in the name of sophomore Antonio Pittman. Last week against the Gophers, he topped the century mark for the third week in a row, with a career-high 186 yards. His career-long 67 yard TD scamper in the third quarter last week put the Buckeyes ahead for good. He's averaging a strong 5.5 yards per carry and has only lost 21 yards in 159 carries. Overall, he's averaging 110.2 yards per game, but has only two scores as Smith takes away a lot of his scoring chances near the goal line. Seniors Nick Mangold and Rob Sims are the leaders of the front line that helps OSU run for 181.0 ypg and has allowed only 15 sacks.

When All-World kicker Mike Nugent left, many figured the Buckeyes would suffer a huge drop in their kicking game. Not gonna happen. Sixth-year senior Josh Huston has picked up right where Nugent left off. He kicked off eight times vs. Minnesota and all eight sailed into the end zone, giving him 32 touchbacks out of 48 kickoffs on the season. He leads the Big Ten in converting 82.4% of his field goals (14-for-17) as well as kick scoring with 8.9 points per game.

Defensive Preview
Herein lies the strength of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Despite surrendering a season-high 578 yards (396 through the air) to the Gophers, the Buckeyes still lead the Big Ten in total defense allowing 295.2 yards per game. The run defense also paces the league with 77.6 ypg, and they surrender a meager 2.4 yards per carry. Minnesota ran for a season-high 182 yards last week, but OSU held them to merely 45 in the second half as they pulled away to a 45-31 victory. The leaders of this unit are the linebackers, and the headliner is senior All-American candidate A.J. Hawk. Last week Hawk had nine tackles, but for the first time all year that did not lead the team. He's averaging 10.5 tackles per game (fourth in conference) and has added 4 ½ sacks, 9.0 TFL, and an interception. Fellow senior Bobby Carpenter leads the Big Ten with 8.0 sacks, four of which came against Michigan State and tied a school single-game record. His 10 ½ TFL are third in the league. The third, and perhaps most unheralded linebacker, is Air Force transfer Anthony Schlegel. Schlegel, with 52, is the number two tackler, and is one of seven Buckeye defenders with at least 4.0 TFL.

Up front, DE Mike Kudla leads the charge. He is second on the team and tied for third in the league with 5 ½ sacks, and among his 23 tackles, 7.0 have been behind the line of scrimmage. DTs Quinn Pitcock and Marcus Green clog the middle and have started 35 games between them. Green's 25 stops leads the defensive line. Rounding out the fearsome foursome is DE David Patterson who has registered 3.0 sacks thus far.

The secondary is led by SS Donte Whitner, whose 10 tackles vs. Minnesota was a team high. His 47 stops are third on the team, and his two picks are a team high. He's also picked up 3.0 sacks and 6.0 TFL. CB Ashton Youboty became a household name in Big Ten circles after his return of a blocked field goal as the first half expired help spark the Buckeyes victory over Michigan State three weeks ago. His four interceptions paced the club in 2004. He has yet to enter that column in 2005, but his eight passes defended are a team best. FS Nate Salley is the big hitter along the back line and has started 28 games in his career. Freshman Malcolm Jenkins rounds out the unit with 26 stops and 2 passes broken up through the first eight games of his young career.

Final Analysis
This stands to be yet another rough week for our heroes in Orange and Blue. A trip to the Horseshoe is never easy, and when you've lost 19 of your last 20 conference games as the Illini have, it's not a trip that's eagerly awaited. Gone are the days where the Illini beat the Buckeyes six straight. Also gone are Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy, and John Holecek. Now, the hope is they keep it close. However, with OSU's brick wall of a defense, the Illini will need another Herculean effort by Tim Brasic and friends just to stay within shouting distance. Facing the league's worst run defense can only make Antonio Pittman giddy with anticipation, and that will be the difference in a 41-10 Ohio State victory.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • Regardless of how the games turn out, it's always fun to head back to Champaign I the fall. It's always a little sad when the home season is over, however. Yes, there is one more game, but I cannot attend, so another home season is in the books. I can't wait ‘til next year. I know - I'm a masochist.
  • Anyone catch Vince Young last week? Wow. That may have vaulted him to the top of the Heisman list. However, he's still not an NFL QB in my book. His throwing motion is scary bad.
  • Yet another reason why I love Pierre Thomas: on a Brasic scramble, he pancaked a 305-pound defensive tackle. The kid has all the heart you want. Now if only he'd get the ball more…
  • Ticker tape parades are cool.
  • I hate to revel in the misery of others, but the Minnesota Vikings free-fall has been incredibly enjoyable to watch.

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