Unbeaten Illini Next Tough Challenge For OSU

Ohio State will try to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 2004 when it takes on Illinois on Saturday in Champaign. The unbeaten Illini have improved to No. 16 in the nation and will be a tough challenge. Read about UI's top players and get depth charts, fast facts and more in this team preview.

No. 16 Illinois (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten)
Saturday, Oct. 15
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC (ESPN mirror)
Memorial Stadium; Champaign, Ill.

The Fighting Illini
Head coach: Ron Zook, 34-45, seventh year (57-59, 10th year)
2010 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, tied for fourth place)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 62-30-4
School location: Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
Enrollment: 41,900
Colors: Orange and Blue
Stadium: Memorial Stadium
Fight song: "Oskee-Wow-Wow"

These are heady days on the plains of eastern Illinois when it comes to the local college football team, the likes of which haven't been seen for a full six decades.

Illinois has started the season at 6-0, posting its best start since the 1951 version of the Fighting Illini opened the campaign 7-0. That year, the Illini finished 9-0-1 and captured a share of the national championship.

Excitement, then, should be palpable in Champaign and Urbana as Ohio State heads there. A victory for Illinois would move the Illini to 3-0 in the league and keep the home team in the running to play in the first-ever Big Ten championship game, which will be staged about two hours away in Indianapolis.

"That is the ultimate prize," safety Supo Sanni said. "Every day, we talk about it. I don't think we would be here if we didn't talk about it. Hopefully, we can get to that stage."

Still, the Illini is taking nothing for granted. The team stumbled out of the gates Oct. 8 at Indiana, going down 10-0 in the first quarter before bouncing back for a 41-20 victory.

Illinois also has posted close home victories against an Arizona State team that was ranked at the time as well as Western Michigan and Northwestern.

"Games are hard to win," head coach Ron Zook said after the Indiana win. "I know a lot of times people don't understand that, but they're hard to win and when you get into the Big Ten they're harder and when you get on the road they're even harder.

"I'm happy for our guys. They came out and even though at times in the third quarter it looked like we're in control, you can't take your foot off the gas pedal. As I told them, we're a good team, but for us to be a great team, you got to do a lot more."

The Ohio State hurdle would be a big one for the Illini to clear. Though the Buckeyes have struggled on the road in the series in recent years, they haven't lost in Champaign since 1991. In all, Ohio State has won 11 of the last 14 contests in the series.

Illinois' last win came in 2007, an upset victory in Columbus against the top-ranked Buckeyes. Zook's team went on to play in the Rose Bowl that season, and the head coach sees similarities between this team and the one from four seasons ago.

"I think when you get guys where it's important to them to be successful, they listen to the coaching," Zook said. "The one thing I've been asked a couple of times, how I compare this team to the ‘07 team, and if there is one comparison, I think it's that the guys are letting the coaches coach them."

Offense In A Nutshell
Illinois is a predominantly rush-based offense. Coordinator Paul Petrino's game plan – which features pistol, under center and shotgun sets and does a little bit of everything – has helped the Illini become one of the top units in the Big Ten. The Illini have averaged 206.4 rushing yards per game since Zook was hired in 2005, the best in the Big Ten, and this year, 67.6 percent of the team's plays (290 of 428) have been runs.

Illinois sits fourth in the league with 34.7 points per game and is third with 447.7 yards per game. In addition, the team is tied for seventh in the nation in third-down efficiency, converting 54.7 percent (47 of 86) third downs.

Much of the offense stems from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. A mobile sophomore, Scheelhaase has completed 80 of 120 passes (66.7 percent) for 1,238 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions to rank fifth in the nation in passing efficiency. He has also run the ball 94 times for 347 yards and four touchdowns. In his past 13 games, Scheelhaase has 23 passing touchdowns against only four interceptions, and the Illini are 10-3.

"He's a quarterback who can run who doesn't immediately look to run," OSU linebacker coach Mike Vrabel said. "He's trying to throw the ball. He has good weapons. Last year I think he was more of a scrambler. This year he's looking to throw the football, and the few times they do run the option, he will run it, but he's a quarterback."

He has a good partner to hook up with in senior A.J. Jenkins. By far Scheelhaase's top target, Jenkins leads the Big Ten with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. A big play wideout, Jenkins has 450 receiving yards and five touchdowns in the first two Big Ten games and 13 plays of 20-plus yards on the year. Among other targets, Spencer Harris has 13 catches, Darius Millines had 10 and tight end Evan Wilson has five with two touchdowns.

The running game is led by senior bulldozer Jason Ford, who has 85 carries for 279 yards and five touchdowns. Troy Pollard is the big-play guy with 9.8 yards per carry on 37 tries while true freshman Donovonn Young has been solid with 47 rushes for 318 yards and four TDs. Sophomore Jay Prosch is also a strong fullback.

Up front the Illini return four starters led by senior weakside tackle Jeff Allen, a second-team All-Big Ten choice last year. Junior center Graham Pocic graded out second to Allen last year, while junior weakside guard Hugh Thornton and senior strongside guard Jack Cornell are also returning starters. The lone new starter on the line is redshirt freshman strongside tackle Michael Heitz.

Starters (12 listed):
QB 2 Nathan Scheelhaase, 6-3, 195
H-Back 21 Jason Ford, 6-0, 235/29 Troy Pollard, 5-8, 190/5 Donovonn Young, 6-0, 215
FB 35 Jay Prosch, 6-0, 250
WR 80 Spencer Harris, 6-3, 195
WR 8 A.J. Jenkins, 6-0, 190
WR 12 Ryan Lankford, 6-0, 175
TE 89 Evan Wilson, 6-6, 250
WT 71 Jeff Allen, 6-5, 315
WG 72 Hugh Thornton, 6-5, 310
C 76 Graham Pocic, 6-7, 305
SG 73 Jack Cornell, 6-6, 315
ST 74 Michael Heitz, 6-5, 295
PK 13 Derek Dimke, 6-0, 180
KR 28 Troy Pollard, 5-8, 180/16 Miles Osei, 6-0, 200

Defense In A Nutshell
Under second-year coordinator Vic Koenning, Illinois has gone from one of the worst defenses in the league to one of the best. The Illini was 96th in the nation scoring defense and 91st in total defense in 2009, but this year the squad is 17th in scoring (17.8 points) and 15th in yards allowed (296.7).

Illinois is ninth in the nation and second in the Big Ten in rushing defense with 79.7 yards allowed. In addition, the Illini leads the Big Ten in sacks per game (3.7) and tackles for loss per game (8.2), totals that both place in the top 10 in the country.

Much of that starts up front with a solid defensive line led by two of the Big Ten's best in getting to the quarterback in juniors Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan. Mercilus leads the nation with 8½ sacks and has four forced fumbles to go with 24 overall stops.

"He's doing exactly what we thought he was going to do," Zook said. "Whitney was our best defensive end at the end of the year last year and he's continued to improve and get better."

Buchanan has added 27 tackles, 4.5 sacks (tied for second in the Big Ten), seven TFL and a forced fumble. In the middle, sophomore Akeem Spence is a second-year starter with 27 tackles, while junior Glenn Foster adds 11 stops and has a pick.

Third-year starter Ian Thomas is the team's middle linebacker and has 200 career tackles, 34 of which have come this season. Sophomore Jonathan Brown was suspended last week but has 30 stops, six TFL, two sacks and an interception on the weak side, while senior Trulon Henry has moved from safety to Sam and has racked up 23 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he's returned for a touchdown.

The secondary has some solid talent, especially at cornerback. Senior Tavon Wilson leads the team with 41 tackles and has a sack and a fumble return TD, while Terry Hawthorne is athletic and has 28 stops to go with five pass breakups and nickelback Justin Green has 18 tackles. At safety, Supo Sanni is back from injury and has 22 stops, a forced fumble and a pick, while converted wideout Steve Hull has 33 stops.

Starters:
DE 85 Whitney Mercilus, 6-4, 265
DT 94 Akeem Spence, 6-1, 305
DT 47 Glenn Foster, 6-4, 260
Bandit 99 Michael Buchanan, 6-6, 240
WLB 45 Jonathan Brown, 6-1, 235
MLB 38 Ian Thomas, 6-1, 235
SLB 9 Trulon Henry, 6-1, 215
CB 1 Terry Hawthorne, 6-0, 190/26 Justin Green, 5-11, 195
FS 7 Supo Sanni, 6-3, 220
SS 5 Steve Hull, 6-2, 200
CB 3 Tavon Wilson, 6-0, 205
P 18 Justin DuVernois, 6-1, 190
PR 12 Ryan Lankford, 6-0, 175

Five Fast Facts
1. There are plenty of Ohio connections on the Illinois squad. Contributors Simon Cvijanovic (OT, Cleveland Benedictine), Hull (Cincinnati Sycamore), Tim Kynard (DE, Toledo St. John's), Mercilus (Akron Garfield), Justin Staples (Bandit, Lakewood St. Edward), Thornton (Oberlin) and Ashante Williams (LB, Mayfield) are from Ohio, while Zook is from Loudonville and went to Miami. In addition, Justin Green is the brother of former OSU DL Marcus Green and was once an Ohio State verbal commit.

2. Kicker Derek Dimke hasn't missed a placement all year and is 36 for 41 (87.8 percent) in his career, the best percentage among active Division I-AA kickers. On the other hand, the Illini return units are both last in the league.

3. Illinois will be attempting to "stripe" Memorial Stadium for the game. Illinois fans are being asked to wear either blue or orange to the game depending on which section they sit in an effort to create a stripe effect throughout the venue.

4. Trulon Henry is the brother of former Illinois wideout Arrelious Benn, who starred from 2007-09 in Champaign before moving on to the NFL. Benn has 12 catches with Tampa Bay this year for 160 yards and a touchdown.

5. The last time the teams met with Illinois ranked and OSU out of the polls was in 1989. The Illini captured that game by a 34-14 score in Champaign. Illinois is 9-4-1 overall vs. Ohio State when ranked.

Last Time Out
Second-ranked Ohio State survived a pair of scares last Oct. 2 in Champaign, losing quarterback Terrelle Pryor for a handful of third-quarter plays and dodging an upset challenge from Illinois before securing a 24-13 victory in front of 62,870 fans at wind-swept Memorial Stadium.

Pryor appeared to strain a quadriceps muscle in his left leg during a run early in the third quarter and it completely changed the Buckeyes' offensive game plan. Head coach Jim Tressel stuck almost exclusively to the ground once his quarterback returned and Ohio State was able to ground out the 11-point win.

After featuring 16 rushes in the first half against 12 passes, the Buckeyes buttoned things up in the second half with 27 running plays and only six passes.

Pryor still managed to run for 104 yards on 11 carries and completed 9 of 16 attempts for 76 yards and two touchdowns. All of his rushes came before the injury.

The Buckeyes' second-half change in strategy benefited junior tailback Dan "Boom" Herron, who carried 20 times for 89 yards and a touchdown after the break. Herron wound up his afternoon's work with a 95 yards on a 24 carries.

OSU wound up with only a slight 290-251 edge in total yardage.

Illinois was led by freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaasse, who had success early. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 109 yards and added 12 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Meanwhile, junior tailback Mikel Leshoure accounted for 80 yards on 19 carries, but his personal string of four straight 100-yard games was broken.

In addition to losing Pryor for a short time in the third quarter, Ohio State lost the services of safety Tyler Moeller in the first quarter with what appeared to be a shoulder injury.

Illinois began its first possession of the day at its own 45 and wasted little time scoring. Scheelhaase completed two passes to senior Jarred Fayson – who led all receivers in the game with eight catches for 83 yards – and then caught one from his wideout to set up things at the 8. Three plays later, Scheelhaasse executed an option read to perfection and scored on a 3-yard touchdown run. Kicker Derek Dimke added the extra point and Illinois enjoyed a 7-0 lead at the 8:29 mark of the first quarter.

It didn't take the Buckeyes long to answer. On the first play of their next possession, Pryor broke away on a called quarterback run and didn't stop until being pushed out of bounds 66 yards later. That gave Ohio State a first-and-goal at the 8, and two plays later Pryor found senior tailback Brandon Saine in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown. Devin Barclay's PAT tied the score at 7 with 6:17 left in the first.

Illinois broke the tie late in the second when free safety Trulon Henry intercepted Pryor at the OSU 35 with 4:40 left until halftime. Henry returned the pick 11 yards, and although the Illini drive later stalled, Dimke came on for a 27-yard field goal to give his team a 10-7 lead with 1:50 left until halftime.

But the wind played havoc with Dimke's kickoff and OSU sophomore Jordan Hall returned it 31 yards. A subsequent 5-yard illegal formation penalty on Illinois gave the Buckeyes the ball at their own 43, and then Pryor took off on first down for a 35-yard gain.

Two plays later, Pryor found senior co-captain Dane Sanzenbacher all alone in the left perimeter for a 16-yard gain to give OSU a first down at the Illinois 6. Pryor was sacked for a 5-yard loss on the next play, but then the junior quarterback found Sanzenbacher again and the senior co-captain made a diving catch in the end zone with 45 seconds left.

The 11-yard touchdown was followed by another Barclay PAT to give the Buckeyes a 14-10 halftime lead.

Pryor exited early in the third quarter for seven plays after appearing to injure his left quad muscle at the end of a 10-yard scramble. But he returned and led the Buckeyes on a 14-play, 59-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 32-yard field goal from Barclay that pushed Ohio State's lead to 17-10 with 8:27 remaining in the game.

Meanwhile, the OSU defense was stoning Illinois. Three of the Illini's four third-quarter possessions resulted in three-and-outs and the fourth contained only three plays after Scheelhaasse was intercepted by Ohio State safety Jermale Hines. In the third period, Illinois ran 12 plays on offense and netted only 24 yards.

It was a different story in the fourth quarter. After Barclay's field goal, Scheelhaasse engineered a nine-yard, 67-yard drive that resulted in a 30-yard field goal from Dimke to make it 17-13 with 4:36 remaining.

But the Illini were their own worst enemy on the ensuing possession. A short kickoff was exacerbated by a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness and Illinois was called for two other major infractions on Ohio State's next drive. One was a backbreaking offside penalty on a third-and-1 when it appeared Herron did not pick up the necessary first-down yardage.

As a result, the Buckeyes were able to put together a 53-yard drive that featured all Herron runs, including a 6-yard touchdown scamper around left end. Barclay's PAT set the final score with 1:49 remaining.

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