The Other Side: Illinois

Illinois comes into Ohio Stadium struggling with a 2-6 record and five straight losses. What has gone wrong for what many people thought was one of the more talented teams in the Big Ten coming into the season? BSB attempts to find out by talking to Scout's Illinois publisher, Fletcher Page, about the Illini's struggles.

Ohio State's game with Illinois this week goes under microscope as we catch up with our Illini man on the beat, Fletcher Page.

1. Nathan Scheelhaase has been banged up, but how would you say he's performed through the adversity?
FP: Scheelhaase deserves the mention -- he's as tough as they come. He's taken a lot of hits this season and been sacked far too often. He's had a high ankle sprain and a concussion, among some other nicks and bruises, and has kept coming back for more.

I think the injuries, combined with poor offensive line play and an overall lack of identity on offense has created a near impossible situation for Scheelhaase. When healthy, he's had some good moments, examples being his rushing performance in the first half of the Wisconsin game and his overall play in the first quarters of the Western Michigan and Indiana games.

He's just not been consistent, for all the reasons listed above.

2. What skill position players should OSU fans know about going into the game?
FP: Running back Donovonn Young is playing really well right now. He rushed for 124 yards last week. Really, he's had a solid year, but the results have kept his name under the radar.

Other than that, receiver Ryan Lankford got off to a strong start, but has faded as of late. He's the fastest player on the team, but doesn't have the frame to be an all-around threat. He's managed only six catches in the last three games, so it may be safe to say teams have figured out how to defend him.

Darius Millines is another receiver to keep tabs on. He was in line for a breakout season but missed time with an ankle sprain. He had five catches last week and looks to be back to his August camp form.

3. The Illinois defense has some pretty good players on it, so why has the team struggled thus far stopping foes?
FP: You're right, there is some talent on that side of the ball, notably linebacker Jonathan Brown, linemen Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan and corner Terry Hawthorne.

I see a number of reasons for the defensive struggles -- trouble adjusting to first-year coordinator Tim Banks, lack of discipline and penalties, injuries and a lack of help from the offense and special teams are the broad strokes.

First of all, that side of the ball has been banged up all year. The list is long, but starters Supo Sanni, Steve Hull, Brown, Hawthorne, Houston Bates and others have dealt with nagging injuries. Depth is an issue -- the team started two true freshmen together at linebacker in two games this season.

Also, there have been some major growing pains during the transition to Banks. Issues with communication, most notably in relaying play calls to the field against Arizona State, were an on-going issue into October.

Lastly, I won't defend the defense -- but I will say it's gotten no help from the offense and special teams. There have been some boneheaded personal fouls and penalties called against the defense, but turnovers and a lack of scoring by Illinois has kept the defense in all-out survival mode all year long. It's hard to produce good results when facing those conditions.

A quick stat: Illinois ranks 12th in the country in third-down efficiency, stopping teams 70 percent of time. So the unit is capable of stopping offenses. It just hasn't been able to hold it together when things don't go exactly as planned, i.e., turnovers, poor field position, penalties extending drives, etc.

4. What's the mood around the Illinois team? From the outside, we'd have to imagine it's glum, but how have the players and coaches responded to the losing streak?
FP: The players and coaches are all saying the right things in front of the media. Coach Tim Beckman has done a good job of keeping things consistent, in terms of what the media can see. In saying that, I've seen a few things that lead me to believe team morale isn't all that good.

Just prior to the Wisconsin game, many of the seniors called a players-only meeting and everybody got a chance to clear the air and speak their mind. That led to an improved effort in the first half of that game, but the final score was still a blowout. With the results not coming, there hasn't been much fire on game days. The sideline feels kind of cold.

I think the snowball effect is plaguing this team. Illinois has been in some games in the first half (Wisconsin and Indiana come to mind), but when one thing goes wrong, a fumbled punt or a penalty on third down, the wheels come off.

5. Is there any chance the Illini put it all together against the Buckeyes this weekend?
FP: In a word, no.

I don't think Illinois can beat a team with the talent and coaching of Ohio State, especially on the road. Last week was a good chance to get something positive going -- Indiana, at home, on homecoming, following a bye week. That ended in a 14-point loss. I don't see a win this weekend. In terms of Ohio State covering the 27-point spread, I always hesitate when the margin is that big. But keep in mind, Illinois has been outscored 121-28 on the road this season.

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