Illini Trying To Knock Off Nation's Top Team

A college football team doesn't often receive the unique opportunity of playing the number one team in the country. Illinois has had this chance 17 previous times in its long and storied history, winning only three. So it is an extremely tough task that awaits the Fighting Illini Saturday in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes. A win would provide memories to last a lifetime.

But it won't be easy. The Ohio State Buckeyes have the best defense in the land, one that resembles a pro team. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley knows the Illini have their work cut out for them.

"They are a great team defense, and they always play with a lot of emotion," Locksley said. "The athleticism and speed they have is going to be a challenge for us. We have to find a way to get the ball to some of our playmakers and have them win the one-on-one battles.

"We're going to have a collection of one-on-one battles, and we're going to have to find ways where Rashard can win a one-on-one battle versus a linebacker or safety. We're going to have to throw accurate balls when one guy is covered, receivers are going to have to win on the outside, controlling their perimeter blocking. It's going to boil down to us winning our fair share of those battles."

The Buckeye offense is approaching juggernaut status with the running of Chris "Beanie" Wells, the passing of Todd Boeckman, and the receiving of Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. And they rely on their huge and athletic offensive line to pave the way. Illini defensive end Doug Pilcher is philosophical about his upcoming competition against 6'-8" tackle Alex Boone and 6'-8" guard Steve Rehring.

"Tackles in this conference are humongous every game," Pilcher said. "I'm used to it. Two weeks ago, I had Jake Long (Michigan), one of the best in the business. I'm ready for the challenge. Each year, you gain more experience, more knowledge of the game and more feel for the game. I think right now, I'm a little more confident, a little more experienced than last year, so I want to keep improving from that."

The Illini have had a great week of practice, possibly their best of the season. Unlike last year, when they struggled just to complete the season, the Illini are rejuvenated by their successes and excited about their future prospects.

"It's a great opportunity to see where we're at," reminds Pilcher. "This is the exact opposite from last season. We have two Big Ten games ahead of us, and we'd like to do well in both games. We secured our bowl spot last week, and that was definitely one of our main goals."

Illinois is also working under the assumption that you beat Ohio State by recruiting players from their state who want to beat the Buckeyes. The Illini presently boast 12 Ohioans, with more on the way. Chris Norwell, Antonio Steele, Antonio James, Sirod Williams, Joe Morgan, Jeff Cumberland, Brian Gamble, Ryan Palmer and Erique Robertson all expect to see playing time Saturday. Judging from their practices this week, they will be extremely fired up and ready for the task at hand.

For seniors Norwell and Steele, it is their last game against their home state team.

Also, Illinois is a "sandwich" game for tOSU, coming between important battles between Wisconsin and long-time rival Michigan. Maybe they will be looking forward to next week. Of course, as a counter thought they may want to erase the memory of the mediocre game they played last year in Champaign.

Regardless, Illinois is not intimidated by the prospect, showing the amazing growth they've made in just three short years under head coach Ron Zook. Win or lose, the game will be an important stepping stone for the Illini, who are well on their way to national prominence.

"We're excited about going there," promises Zook. "If you are a competitor, you want to go against the best, and Ohio State is the best. This is an opportunity to really see where we are at this point in the season."

Notes -- For the record, the last Illini victory over a number one was in 1956, 51 long years ago. The game versus the mighty Michigan State Spartans in Memorial Stadium was on national television. Red Grange was the color commentator. Those who saw the game remember it to this day.

One of those in attendance was radio announcer Sid Rotz, who broadcast the game back to his hometown of Decatur, Illinois. Now 88 and with memories that include attendance at the Memorial Stadium dedication game in 1924, Rotz remembers the Michigan State upset well.

"Illinois had a record of one win and three losses," says Rotz. "Michigan State came into the game 4-0. The week before, they had just walloped Michigan. A lot of people over in Decatur gave their tickets away because they didn't want to see the massacre.

"At halftime, it was 13-0 Michigan State. I don't know what Ray Eliot did at halftime. He evidently put some red hot ointment down inside their jock straps because they were a bunch of demons, completely dominating the game in the third quarter and scoring two touchdowns to tie them at 13-13.

"In the fourth quarter, Michigan State kicked the ball out of bounds at the Illinois 18 yard line. I'll never forget what happened. Backup quarterback Bill Offenbecker took the snap, dropped two or three steps back, and threw a screen pass to Abe Woodson. He stepped through a hole, started zig zagging, got some blocks, and pretty soon he was all alone and went all the way 82 yards to the goal line for the winning touchdown."

Rumor has it Ray Eliot bequeathed his "red hot ointment" to the UI, with the proviso it be used only under extreme circumstances. Perhaps it will be pulled out of mothballs Saturday, providing the extra impetus needed to produce an upset of national import.

If so, it will be a game for the ages for the Fighting Illini.

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