Illini Line Has Solid Anchor in McDonald

The Fighting Illini football team not only defeated a quality Penn State outfit, it gained 216 yards on the ground against one of the stingiest run defenses in the country. And the offensive line gave up zero sacks against a defense that was second in the nation in that statistic. A big reason is an impressive offensive line, anchored by junior center Ryan McDonald.

After the Penn State game, McDonald was tired but uplifted by the victory.

"We're ecstatic to win. This is a game where we wanted to make a statement about our program. Penn State gave us all we could handle. They did a pretty good job of shutting us down in the second half. We scrapped and clawed and held on just enough. The feeling is sheer joy."

There are still seven more games to play in the regular season, and Ryan knows there is much more work to do.

"We're thrilled, but we know we need to get back to work and make sure it happens again. We've known we are capable of this, and it's just a great thrill to finally get over a hill and get a win that we've been working so hard for such a long time."

Ryan McDonald has been an Illini all his life. His father Phil played center at Illinois from 1974-1976, and he has been a big factor in Ryan's development, both as a football player and a loyalist to the University of Illinois.

"He pokes fun of me here and there and tells me what he sees from the field. He's been a great support. My mom went to school here too. Everybody loves the university, and we're really pleased to be here. I've loved every minute I've been here."

Ryan graduated from West Ottawa High School in Holland, Michigan. He was listed as the 15th best player in Michigan by the Detroit Free Press, and he was nominated for the U. S. Army All-American Bowl.

He redshirted as an undersized center his freshman year at Illinois, but he has been a starter ever since. Now listed at 6'-5", 293, he is in his second year at center after playing right tackle in 2005, when he was named to the Sporting News' Freshman All-Big Ten team.

Offensive linemen rarely receive the recognition they deserve for helping their skill players make plays, and most are understandably humble and deferential. They are expected to make themselves strong and powerful while bonding as a cohesive unit and accepting their lives as unknowns.

Illini linemen take personal satisfaction when one of their skill position players receives rewards for his play, and they were especially proud when Rashard Mendenhall was named Big Ten Offensive Player Of The Week for racking up 214 rushing yards against Indiana. But they always know they need to keep improving.

"Yeah, we did (help Rashard against Indiana). It's something we try to do every game. The offensive line's mentality is to run the ball and pass the ball. It was a good display for us, and we played pretty well. But going back watching the film, there were numerous occasions where we could get better. That's how it always is. We've been getting better as an offense as a whole unit, and we have to continue to do so."

He minimizes the role he plays directing the offensive line, but the super smart McDonald calls offensive line blocking prior to each play. One can watch him looking around, pointing at defenders and calling out what his teammates need to do.

"I identify my man on the defense, and from there everybody can figure out who to block. If the defense aligns one way, I'll call it out. Then, I will put my head between my legs to look at the quarterback. I'll then get back up. If it changes, I'll reidentify the play and reidentify the defense, and we just go on from there. It's nothing earth shattering."

The Illini offensive line struggled last year, but new coach Eric Wolford has been the catalyst for much improvement since then. McDonald gives him considerable credit for the turnaround.

"As soon as he (Wolford) came in this spring he said, 'I don't know how things have been here in the past, but our offensive line needs to be a unit, cohesive. We need to hang out with each other so we know exactly what each other is thinking. We need to be the tough guys on the team. We need to come together. And the offense can only go as far as we can.'

"He's trying to instill the attitude of us being nasty, being physical, playing hard every play, finishing blocks. I think it's paying dividends. By no means are we where we need to be, but he's come in and set the tone. Now it's just up to us to follow his lead."

Offensive linemen toil in obscurity, but once in awhile they are singled out for special effort, especially when they are downfield making secondary blocks against people much faster than themselves. For instance, senior guard Martin O'Donnell made a beautiful downfield block at the five yard line to help Rashard Mendenhall score at Indiana. McDonald remembers it well.

"It was great. That's an offensive lineman's dream block right there. Coach Wolf calls that 'making money.' If you can get enough of those, maybe you can have a career at the next level. That's what we all hope for. As we continue to improve and become more cohesive, hopefully you will see more good plays like that."

McDonald himself has been getting downfield with some regularity as well. Besides bucking heads with massive and powerful defensive tackles, he also must try to reach the second level to take out a linebacker when possible. He is starting to receive some notice for his effort, so perhaps a pro career is not out of the question.

But Ryan may never have to worry about having something else to do should his playing career end after the 2008 season. After all, he has an almost straight "A" average in Aeronautical Engineering. McDonald has some plans for that difficult but prestigious degree.

"Ideally, I would like to work for someone like Boeing or NASA. I want to build something that flies."

The Illini are beginning to fly higher and higher, so perhaps McDonald has already helped build a flying machine with which to be proud.

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