Opponent Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Ohio State will put its 9-0 record on the line Saturday against a flagging Illinois team that has yet to pick up a Big Ten win. But the Illini do have some talented players, which is outlined in this preview. We also take a look at the team's results and what the Buckeyes think of the upcoming challenge.

Illinois (2-6, 0-4)
Saturday, Nov. 3
3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ohio Stadium; Columbus, Ohio

The Fighting Illini
Head coach: Tim Beckman, 2-6, first year (23-22 overall, fourth season)
2011 record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten Leaders Division, fifth place)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 63-30-4
School location: Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
Enrollment: 42,605
Colors: Orange and Blue
Stadium: Memorial Stadium
Fight song: "Oskee-Wow-Wow"
Game Notes, including depth chart on page 12

Tim Beckman's ties to the Ohio State program are extensive both then and now. In addition to working under Jim Tressel as cornerbacks coach in 2005 and '06, he worked under current OSU coach Urban Meyer at Bowling Green.

Beckman also coached against OSU twice when he was the head coach at Toledo from 2009-11, nearly beating the Buckeyes last season in Ohio Stadium while with the Rockets.

Add in a pair of eight-win seasons and bowl appearances at Toledo and it looked like Beckman, with his pedigree, was a good choice to take over Illinois' moribund program. Of course, it hasn't worked; the Illini are only 2-6 this season and have lost five in a row, including all four Big Ten contests, heading into the matchup with OSU on Saturday.

Still, Meyer believes his former staffer will get things turned around in Champaign.

"I love Tim," Meyer said. "He's a great coach, great person. I like his dad even more than I like him … but I have great respect for Tim, and there is no doubt he'll get that thing turned."

The team's poor start – and make no mistake about it, the numbers show the Illini are performing poorly in just about every segment of the game – has been a surprise given the talent many thought was left on hand by former coach Ron Zook.

Zook oversaw a team that had five first-round draft choices in the past five years – DE Whitney Mercilus (Houston) and WR A.J. Jenkins (San Francisco) in 2012, DT Corey Liuget (San Diego) in 2011, CB Vontae Davis (Miami) in 2009 and RB Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh) in '08 – and still has some very talented players left on the squad.

"I'm surprised they're not doing as good as they normally are," OSU's Ryan Shazier said. "They're one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten, to be honest. They always have somebody going in the first round. Just knowing the type of players they have, it kind of surprises me to see they're not doing as well."

Illinois does have some strong history against OSU, as the Illini's nine victories against the Buckeyes since 1988 are the most of any Big Ten team except Michigan.

This year, Illinois has 16 players on its roster from the state of Ohio, including the following 11 players who have seen regular time on the field in 2012: freshman DB V'Angelo Bentley (Cleveland/Glenville), sophomore OL Simon Cvijanovic (Cleveland/Benedictine), junior OL Jake Feldmeyer (Centerville/Centerville), freshman WR Justin Hardee (Cleveland/Glenville), junior DB Steve Hull (Cincinnati/Sycamore), junior DL Tim Kynard (Toledo/St. John's), freshman LB Mason Monheim (Orrville/Orrville), senior DE Justin Staples (Lakewood/St. Edward), freshman LB Mike Svetina (Brunswick/St. Ignatius), senior OL Hugh Thornton (Oberlin) and senior LB Ashante Williams (Mayfield).

In A Nutshell
Still, there isn't much hope for a quick turnaround. Illinois sits in the bottom half of the Big Ten of every major statistical category tracked by the NCAA except for net punting. That includes last-place rankings in total offense, scoring offense, pass efficiency defense, scoring defense, punt returns and sacks allowed.

Illinois' totals of 18.0 points per game and 317.4 yards per game are last in the Big Ten, and the news is even worse in Big Ten play. The Illini are averaging only 9.5 points per league game, well below Michigan State's 11th-place total of 17.8. The reasons for the Illini's struggles in league games are numerous. The team has allowed 17 sacks in four games, is converting only 30.6 of its third downs, has lost nine turnovers and has posted only one play of 30 yards or more.

The starting quarterback is third-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase, but the junior has been heavily banged up in 2012 and hasn't shown his best side. He's started each of the last five games, and on the year he is 84 for 137 (61.3 percent) for 839 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. The mobile Scheelhaase has also run for three touchdowns while totaling 161 yards. Backup Reilly O'Toole has also seen extensive time, and he's completing 74.7 percent of his passes and had five TD passes vs. Charleston Southern.

In the backfield, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are capable young backs. Young, a sophomore, ran for 124 yards last week vs. Indiana, and he leads the team with 400 yards rushing while adding 27 catches. Ferguson has added 226 rushing yards and 23 grabs during his redshirt freshman campaign. Zach Becker is the team's fullback, and he's a senior.

Out wide, the top player is junior Ryan Lankford, who has seven grabs of 20 or more yards and leads the way with 29 total catches for 413 yards and five scores. Juniors Spencer Harris (17-187-2) and Darius Millines (14-143) are also experienced while Justin Hardee has 12 catches. Tight end Jon Davis is versatile, with seven rushes and six catches, while Evan Wilson and Eddie Viliunas must be watched in short yardage situations.

Up front, left tackle Hugh Thornton and right tackle Simon Cvijanovic are Ohioans, while senior center Graham Pocic has been banged up but is a solid player. The left guard is sophomore Michael Heitz and the right guard is redshirt freshman Ted Karras, the only OL to start every game at the same spot. Overall, Illinois has given up 30 sacks, worst in the league.

Defensively, Illinois has watched most of its best players get banged up, one reason the Illini have forced only four turnovers in four conference games and given up an average of 35.5 points to Big Ten foes.

The good news is that the team has been very good on third down. Illinois has given up only 30 conversions on 100 third downs, a mark of 30.0 percent that is best in the Big Ten. Illinois' rush defense isn't actually that bad, as it places seventh in the Big Ten and 55th in the nation at 152.6 yards allowed per game.

End Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence have earned praise from Meyer. Buchanan made 7. 5 sacks last year and has 32 tackles, 2.5 sacks, an interception, five pass breakups, four QB hurries and a forced fumble this year. Spence is one of the best tackles in the league, having made 37 stops with a forced fumble. On the rest of the line, senior tackle Glenn Carson has 17 tackles, while Darrius Caldwell, Justin Staples and Tim Kynard add to the attack at end.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown is a Butkus Award semifinalist who has been fighting an ankle injury. The returning leader in the Big Ten in TFL after making 14.5 last year, Brown has 55 stops and 8.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks and forced fumble. Mason Monheim is making an impact in the middle with 52 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception, while Ashante Williams has 52 stops and a pick-six as the team's "Star."

The secondary has been truly hurt by injuries, with cornerback Terry Hawthorne, safety Steve Hull and safety Supo Sanni all missing time. Hawthorne – who has two career pick-sixes – is back healthy and has 24 tackles and six PBU this year. His opposite number, one-time OSU commit Justin Green, has 22 tackles and three PBU. V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence are the next guys in.

At safety, Hull might miss the game while Sanni is back after battling a knee injury. Sanni has 13 tackles this year while Hull has 17 while leading the team with two interceptions. Earnest Thomas (37 stops) and Pat Nixon-Youman (28) have seen extensive playing time this year because of the injuries.

On special teams, punter Justin DuVernois averages 42.4 yards per kick, and Illinois' net punt mark of 39.0 is best in the Big Ten. Kicker Taylor Zalewski is 3 of 6 this year. The coverage units are very good but both returns are among the worst in the nation.

Possible Ohio State edges: Ohio State should have the advantage on both sides of the ball given the Illini's struggles both putting points on the board and keeping other teams from scoring.
Possible Illinois edges: Illinois' more talented players will have to win individual matchups, while the Fighting Illini will likely try to make things happen in the screen game on offense given OSU's struggles defending that at times.

Sept. 1: vs. Western Michigan, W 24-7. Illinois took down the potent Broncos behind a suffocating defensive effort that included four turnovers, a pick-six and 259 total yards allowed, minus-6 on the ground.
Sept. 8: at Arizona State, L 45-14. With Nathan Scheelhaase out injured, Illinois couldn't get much going and allowed 510 yards to the Sun Devils.
Sept. 15: vs. Charleston Southern, W 44-0. The Illini gave up only 125 yards and earned its first shutout since 2007 while Reilly O'Toole threw five touchdown passes.
Sept. 22: vs. Louisiana Tech, L 52-24. The Bulldogs' explosive offense carried the day, putting up 403 yards and getting four touchdown passes from Colby Cameron. Illinois also lost four fumbles in the game.
Sept. 29: vs. Penn State, L 35-7. The Nittany Lions dominated, as Zach Zwinak and McGloin each ran for two scores. Ryan Lankford caught 104 yards worth of passes and RB Josh Ferguson threw for a TD.
Oct. 6: at Wisconsin, L 31-14. The Badgers pulled away in the fourth quarter behind two Montee Ball touchdown runs, while Scheelhaase combined for 262 yards and two scores.
Oct. 13: at Michigan, L 45-0: Illinois had only seven first downs and was outgained 527-134 while losing two turnovers. Michigan ran for 353 yards.
Oct. 27: vs. Indiana, L 31-17: The Illini had two first-half leads but couldn't close despite having edges in first downs (23-14) and yards (372-292) thanks to two costly lost fumbles.

Five Fast Facts
1. Scheelhaase and Brooks Bollinger (Wisconsin) are the only two QBs in Big Ten history to start and lead their teams to bowl victories during both their freshman and sophomore seasons. The Illini won the Texas Bowl vs. Baylor in 2010 and last year's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over UCLA.

2. Former Ohio State quarterbacks coach Tim Salem (1997-2000) is on the Illinois staff as its running backs coach and special teams coordinator.

3. Illinois' last win over the Buckeyes in 2007 marked the first time the Illini beat a top-ranked team since 1956. The victory ended OSU's 29-game regular-season winning streak and 21-game Big Ten win streak.

4. Illinois is being outscored in every quarter this season.

5. Coach Beckman has brought back helmet stickers, in the shape of the state of Illinois, to reward players. Blue decals reward on-field performance and go on the left side of the helmet, while white stickers honor off-field work and are placed on the right side.

Last Time Out
In a game that wasn't exactly an advertisement for scintillating offense, Ohio State managed to take a 17-7 victory Saturday at 16th-ranked and previously undefeated Illinois despite completing only one pass the entire game.

The Buckeyes avoided their first three-game losing streak since 2004 by taking advantage of three turnovers and surviving a furious fourth-quarter comeback attempt by the Fighting Illini, who scored their lone touchdown and totaled 134 yards in the final period. Illinois had only 151 total yards to show for the first three quarters.

Meanwhile, the OSU offense used an attack that would have made former head coach Woody Hayes very proud. Swirling, gusty winds at Memorial Stadium allowed the Buckeyes to force-feed the Illini with a steady diet of off-tackle plays and draws – 51 rushing plays in all worth 211 yards.

The main beneficiary of the ground-based attack was senior Boom Herron, making his 2011 season debut after serving six games of an NCAA suspension. Herron carried 23 times for 114 yards and a touchdown while junior tailback Jordan Hall added 56 yards and 12 attempts.

Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller returned to his starting position after missing the final quarter of the loss to Nebraska and added another 34 yards to the ground assault. Miller was called upon to throw the ball only four times and his lone completion was a 17-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jake Stoneburner.

Illinois, which entered the game No. 3 in the Big Ten in total offense and No. 4 in scoring, sputtered throughout much of the afternoon before finally finding its footing in the fourth quarter. Even then, however, the Fighting Illini were disjointed. Their only touchdown drive covered 80 yards, but it took 16 plays and ate up nearly seven minutes as UI tried to rally from a 17-0 deficit.

Later, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase pitched a costly interception with 3:43 remaining in the game and threw behind his intended receiver on a fourth-and-2 at the Ohio State 17 with 1:11 to go in the game.

Scheelhaase completed 20 of 34 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions while rushing for a team-high 49 yards.

Illinois senior A.J. Jenkins entered the game as the Big Ten's leading receiver with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns, but he was largely a non-factor against the Buckeyes despite eight catches for 80 yards.

The first half featured very little from either team in the way of offense with OSU holding a 3-0 halftime lead thanks to sophomore kicker Drew Basil's 43-yard field goal into the stiff breeze at the 9:04 mark of the first quarter.

That held up until early in the third period when OSU defensive back Bradley Roby picked off Scheelhaase and returned the interception to the Illinois 12-yard line. Herron took it from there, sweeping around left end on first down for the touchdown. Basil tacked on the extra point for a 10-0 Ohio State lead at the 14:06 mark of the third quarter.

Another Illinois turnover gave the Buckeyes a short field early in the fourth quarter. OSU senior Tyler Moeller stripped Jenkins of the football after a short reception, and linebacker Storm Klein recovered the fumble for the Buckeyes at the Illinois 37-yard line.

A subsequent personal foul penalty against the Illini gave Ohio State another 15 yards, and three plays later Miller found Stoneburner on a post pattern over the middle for a 17-yard touchdown. Basil added the PAT again and the Buckeyes enjoyed a 17-0 advantage at the 13:06 mark of the final period.

Scheelhaase tried to get his team back in the game, engineering that 16-play, 80-yard scoring drive, capping it with a 3-yard TD pass to tight end Evan Wilson. During the march, the Illinois quarterback rushed six times for 40 yards and completed 4 of 6 pass attempts for 30 yards. Once Illini kicker Derek Dimke added the extra point, the OSU lead was down to 17-7 with 6:22 remaining.

After the Illinois defense forced a three-and-out series, Scheelhaase went to the air on his team's next play from scrimmage. But he underthrew his intended target just enough to Ohio State cornerback Travis Howard to snatch the ball out of the air for an interception with 3:43 to go.

Illinois got the ball back again a minute and a half later and drove to the OSU 17. But on fourth-and-2 from there, Scheelhaase threw behind Jenkins and the Buckeyes were able to run out the final 1:11 for the victory.

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