Ohio State @ Illinois: Preview

The Fighting Illini football team challenges the formidable Ohio State Buckeyes Saturday in Champaign. Despite being major underdogs, Illinois is excited about the opportunity. And as Illinisports reminds, the Illini have nothing to lose and much to gain.

The Illinois football team has a glorious opportunity this Saturday as it hosts the Ohio State Buckeyes in Memorial Stadium. Ohio State is number one in all the national polls and favored to win the National Championship. It isn't often a team gets an opportunity to play and possibly defeat the top team, but that is Illinois' opportunity.

The Illini are prohibitive underdogs in this contest, but the game is in fact a win-win scenario for them. If they lose, even by a big score, few will be overly distraught since they were supposed to lose. If they come close and give the Buckeyes a battle, it will demonstrate further their slow but steady rise to prominence in the Big Ten. And if they should find a way to win, the game will go down as one of the greatest games in Illini history. No matter what happens, the Illini cannot lose.

The Buckeyes arrive in Champaign with a perfect record and a roster filled with high school All-Americans. Their starting defense is tremendously impressive and difficult to score upon, even though they sent nine defensive starters from last year to the NFL. In other words, their second team from a year ago is dominating this year. The depth on the Ohio State team makes one wonder why great high school athletes eager for early playing time would consider signing on with the Buckeyes. But they do anyway.

Others will wax romantic about all the great playmakers on the Ohio State team. Quarterback Troy Smith and receiver/returner Ted Ginn are both given consideration for the Heisman Trophy, and they are far from alone. But this Buckeye team appears to be playing together as a unit and not a bunch of pampered individuals, so Coach Jim Tressel and his coaching staff must receive some praise as well.

Obviously, it will take a Herculean effort by the Illini to pull the upset. But anything is possible in this topsy-turvy world where the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with the worst record in the history of playoff teams in Major League Baseball, wins the World Series. The polarity extremes found throughout the world at this time can produce some strange reversals of fortune, and this game might just be one such situation.

No, this writer is not addicted to loco weed. We will not predict an Illini victory because our credibility and stability might be questioned. But there are reasons the Illini football players and coaches should remain optimistic in the face of such overwhelming odds. It is important for them to dwell on these factors even if their fans are betting against them.

The Illini defense is gaining momentum and confidence with each game. These players are beginning to make great plays, a sign they have worked hard in preparation and are competitive with the best players and teams in the Big Ten. No one has Ginn's 4.3 forty yard dash speed, so perhaps he will beat them deep or break free for a punt or kickoff return. But the Illini don't have to be perfect to be good.

Illini defenders should be looking forward to seeing how they match up. They have fought on equal terms with Joe Thomas and his Wisconsin offensive line mates, so there is every reason to believe they can perform similarly against Ohio State's offensive line. tOSU's brilliant running back stable will likely have to fight for every yard. And if the Illinois secondary can keep Ohio State's speedy receiver corps in front of them, they can minimize some of the Buckeyes' quick strike capability.

Corraling Troy Smith will be the biggest challenge. Smith has improved his passing efficiency over the years and now is as big a threat as a passer as a runner. Keeping him in the pocket is still preferable to letting him run free, but he is now burning opposing defenses with timely and accurate passes to his many outstanding receivers. The Illini will likely need to incorporate a number of blitzes and stunts to keep pressure on Smith. Of course, the Buckeyes are so balanced on offense that too much emphasis on Smith will backfire as easily as ignoring him. It will be quite a juggling act by Coaches Zook and Okruch to make the right calls at the right times.

Offensively, the Illini must be ready to battle for every yard. Probably, the Buckeyes will start the game in their basic defense and assume their strong and fast front four can put sufficient pressure on the Illini's quarterback Juice Williams to keep his passing efficiency low and his escapability to a minimum. Coach Locksley will need extreme creativity in his game plan to keep the Buckeyes off balance.

The offensive line will need its best blocking day despite the possible absence of right tackle Charles Myles to an ankle injury. The receivers will need to catch everything thrown their way. The running backs will need to run as if possessed by the Spirit of Red Grange. They must be prepared to fight for every inch while holding tightly to the ball. And Juice will need to remain poised and confident regardless of the odds against him and no matter what circumstances transpire. He must make accurate but catchable throws and not allow his strong will and deep feelings to trick him into overthrows.

We are reluctant to mention special teams because that aspect of the game has been the weakest for the Illini this year and one of the strongest for the Buckeyes. But the Illini must face up to their deficiencies and find a way to make needed improvements. Kickers will need to keep the ball away from Ginn, and returners will need to secure the ball and fight for yardage. The team that wins the turnover battle and maintains the best field position usually emerges victorious. May the Illini special teams find a way to play their best game.

The Illini have several Ohio products on their roster, with more on the way. These players have a special desire to beat the Buckeyes and probably think, "if you can't join them, beat them." If this attitude is pervasive throughout the team, Illini fans will see maximum effort against the Buckeyes. The main thing needed is a relaxed confidence that comes from knowing you are good regardless of the outcome.

This is easier said than done, especially with youngsters. But the Ohio State game offers the Illini a perfect opportunity to throw caution to the wind and fly around the football field unencumbered by tightness or fear of failure.

Our recommendation is to play each play like it is the only one and give maximum effort regardless of the situation or score. We encourage the Illini to forget the score entirely and not tense up should they find themselves with a chance to win deep into the second half. In this game in particular, they will play their best once they realize they cannot fail even if they lose the game. If they embrace this truism, anything is possible.

The last time Ohio State visited Champaign-Urbana in 2002, the Illini fought valiantly before succumbing in overtime to a team that went on to win the National Championship. In truth, Illini receiver Walter Young clearly caught the winning touchdown pass but was denied by an officiating call. Can the Illini get payback with an unexpected victory over the team appearing on its way to the 2006 championship?

Come out to Memorial Stadium Saturday and help the Illini try to do just that.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com

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