Fighting Illini Try To Win At Horseshoe

The Fighting Illini football team opens its Big 10 Conference slate at Ohio State Saturday. The heavily favored Buckeyes are a formidable opening foe. But the Illini upset them two years ago, and a number of prominent performers from that team return to the scene of their greatest triumph. This would be a good time to regain some respect.

Illinois must put out a 60 minute effort at a level of efficiency far beyond what they've shown their first two games to knock off Ohio State Saturday. The Buckeyes have more depth of talent across the board, and they will be playing in front of 105,000 loyal fans. Add in the fact the Illini lost their defensive general Martez Wilson for the year with neck surgery, and their chances of success appear slim.

However, the Illini may also have some good fortune on their side. For instance, it is far better to play the Buckeyes this week than last. After stumbling against national power USC at home two weeks ago, the Buckeyes took their frustrations out on a decent Toledo team, shutting them out. In the process, they appeased their fans by diversifying their offense. Hopefully, they will be playing with less intensity this week.

In addition, the Illini have had two weeks to prepare and heal their wounds. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn are the two mainstays of the UI offense, and both have been hurt. Getting them back to full health will help. And the extra preparation time gives them an advantage also.

Illini players had to endure the skepticism of fans and students for an extra week, but most used the extra time to forget the mistakes of the past and move on with renewed enthusiasm toward the future. They may be more mentally prepared to give a top performance this week than last. At the least, they have had time to remind themselves of season goals and refocus on why they worked so hard in the off season.

In some ways, the Buckeyes and Illini are similar. Both have great athletes running their offenses, Terrelle Pryor and Juice Williams respectively. Pryor and Williams can hurt teams with their legs. While they can also pass well, inconsistencies in the pass game limit their effectiveness at times.

Both put extreme pressure on opposing defenses, but both are better playing with leads than coming from behind. Defenses for both teams will want to stop the running game first, keep the quarterback in the pocket and force him to throw downfield for first downs. Whomever gets the early lead will have a definite advantage.

The Ohio State defense is much stronger than the Illini defense, at least on paper. But the Illinois run defense is relatively unknown since it has played two spread teams that pass more than run. If the Illini can limit the Buckeye run game and force third and long situations, their pass defense might be more efficient as well.

There is a strong likelihood of rain Saturday. With state-of-the-art field turf and quality drainage, the field will be playable. However, both coaching staffs may become more conservative to prevent turnovers. If the score remains low, there is a good chance the game will go down to the wire. If Illinois is close at the end, anything is possible.

Illini players and coaches provided plenty of food for thought this week. The following are some of their thoughts on OSU and the upcoming game.

* Williams on Pryor: "Any quarterback who's able to spread the ball around with his arm and make plays with his legs is always tough. He's one of those guys. If he gets run out of the pocket, he's gonna be looking to make plays. He can't handle the situation any better than he's done. He's mature for his age, and he's done a lot of great things. He has a bright future."

* Cornerback Dere Hicks on Pryor: "Terrelle has thrown a couple picks since we've been watching film. We really want to slow down his running game. He likes to put the ball down and scramble out of the pocket. That's a big part of his game. We've got to stop it."

* Coach Ron Zook on preparing for Pryor: "The thing about Terrelle is that he's a hard guy to simulate. First of all, he runs really fast and he's really strong and he's big. Nathan Scheelhaase is the guy that provides that a little bit. It's really hard to prepare for a guy like him because you don't want to beat your guys up by trying.

"He'd probably take an offensive lineman (to simulate Pryor) if you really wanted to get the guy to the ground. Then you'd try to put him in Justin Green's body speed-wise. You're not going to go stop him. What we have to do is understand that he's going to get his, and we have to contain the best that we can and give up as few big plays as we can."

* On the Ohio State Defense:

Center Eric Block: "They've got a lot of speed. The guys up front are big strong guys, and they really do a good job of letting their linebackers make plays. It will be a huge challenge to get off those defensive linemen and get to their linebackers as fast as we can so they can't fill the gaps. Their defense causes a lot of problems for us."

Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert: "They've got some good players on the defensive line. Our guys have to come ready to play. They play hard, our guys play hard, so I think it's going to be a good battle."

Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz: "The Ohio State defense is a good defense, there's no doubt. They're very well coached and have a good scheme. They have a lot of good players. They can run to the ball real fast, and they're very good tacklers."

Williams: "Defensively, they had a shutout last week. The coaching looked good, the personnel looked good. You've got to attribute that to the coaching staff. You get a lot of seniors with a lot of experience leave for the NFL, but you have another group of guys that step in perfectly. Their coaching staff is doing a great job with those guys.

"So it's gonna be tough. It's kind of a headache knowing you've got to play a good team. That's what this week is usually like."

Zook: "Obviously their defensive ends are bulldogs. They run around, they make plays. I think probably the biggest difference between this year's defense and last year's defense is that there may be some names you don't recognize. But I think in terms of what they do and how they play, I think they are second in the league in defense. They are pretty good. Two of the captains are on the defensive side, so there is a lot of leadership over there."

* Zook on the OSU offense: "They are typical Ohio State. They are going to line up, play smash mouth, knock you off the ball and try to run it down your throat. They are going to play two backs, one back and no backs. There are going to be times, obviously more than in the past two games, where we are going to want to be in a three linebacker defense."

*On Illini confidence level and degree of preparedness:

Williams: "Mentally, I think our confidence is where it needs to be. We haven't lost faith in what we can do. I think last week's win has really helped us out confidence-wise. Obviously, we let our bodies heal, and we're looking forward to Saturday. A lot of guys are anticipating it. It should be a great experience for everybody, especially the sophomores and those who haven't been there yet."

Block: "I've played there in a big situation, and that gives me a good amount of confidence. It's a great place to play, and it intimidates a lot of their opponents. But once you get into the game, all the outside noise kind of fades away. It's just you and the football field.

"It's gonna be nice that we're healthy right now. We've finally got all our pieces back together. Hopefully, that makes a big difference for us. Nobody has seen our offense at full force yet."

* On the challenge that lies ahead:

Linebacker Russell Ellington: "I've been told it's a big sea of red, and it's exciting to play there. I'm looking forward to the challenge. 2007 was an entirely different team. We have to go out there and try to prove ourselves."

Defensive tackle Josh Brent: "It's what you look forward towards, really. You want to play the best week in and week out. You don't want to play what some people call 'cupcakes' because that's when you wind up getting upset, when you take something for granted. When you're playing talent that's supposed to be better than you week in and week out, it makes you better.

"We just need to play like we're capable of. Play to our potential. Looking at our first loss, we did a lot of things to beat ourselves that we've been working on to correct. We're looking forward to putting some of those corrections to work in the upcoming games.

"You can't win them all. You're gonna win some, you're gonna lose some. We've got a lot of games to play, a lot of games to show improvement. I don't think any one game makes or breaks our season."

Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui: "It's our job as older guys, guys who have been there, to let these young guys know what type of environment we're going into. Obviously, anything can happen. As long as we play our game, we should have a good shot.

"Last time, it (crowd noise) wasn't too tough because we kept them quiet for most of the game. It's a great environment with all those people, great fans. The atmosphere is just what you look for as a college football player.

"After they scored on the second play (in 2007), they probably thought they had it. They were going for the W right then and there. But after we came back on them and took the lead, they got a little worried.

"I think we're 3-0 when I score the first touchdown for us. The Ohio State and Indiana games, and then the Indiana game last year. So maybe I should tell Coach Schultz about that."

Safety Donsay Hardeman: "This is my first time going to the Horseshoe. But Coach Zook always compares this to going to Penn State. It's always loud. You can't really worry about the crowd. If you make big plays, you can take the crowd out of the game. We just need to stay focused and believe, and we'll be successful."

Hicks: "We really want to go out and make a statement in this game. We gave up a lot of yards, and that doesn't sit easy with me or anybody in the secondary. We want to show everybody that the Illini secondary is here.

"Anytime you go into an atmosphere like that, if you're not ready there's no reason to be out there. All the eyes are against us, so we have nothing to lose. We need to go out there and play with emotion, man. Play with a lot of energy and play together as a team like we did in 2007."

Gilbert: "When our guys get into conference play, they know what's at stake. They understand they've got to put a little extra into this week and the seven weeks coming up. Winning the Big 10 Championship is one of our team goals. So hopefully we can reach our goals starting off this weekend."

Most Illini and Buckeye players will be fired up for this game. Big games usually increase adrenalin levels. However, Illinois offensive coordinator Schultz says it is important as play caller to keep an even keel.

"It's a routine, and all routines are the same. I believe in being very structured, methodical and very thorough."


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