1. Losing Wes Lunt seems to have hurt the Illini passing game, but what has the team been doing to move the ball under Reilly O'Toole?
Illinois has changed the offensive gameplan quite a bit with O'Toole at the helm. The read option has become a much bigger part of the playbook and Illinois isn't throwing as much as it previously had been. O'Toole can still make some of the throws Lunt could, but he doesn't have the big arm Lunt has. O'Toole wasn't always recognized as a running quarterback, but so far in Lunt's absence, he has been able to make plays with his feet, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has shuffled the play calling a bit to both mix up the looks and give his offense plays with which they can sustain drives and control possession much more effectively than before.
2. Josh Ferguson and Mike Dudek seem to be among the skill position players that have stepped up for Illinois during the Big Ten season; what do each of them bring to the table?
Ferguson and Dudek are probably the two fastest guys on the team. Ferguson has proven himself as a threat in both the running and as a viable receiver in the passing game. Run blocking is not the strength of the Illinois offensive line, but when Ferguson is able to get in space, make one hard cut and accelerate downfield, he's a home-run threat and must be a key cog in the Illinois offense. As for Dudek, the freshman has been Illinois' leading receiver so far this season, which speaks to the coaching and preparation he had coming out of high school. Dudek is one receiver with whom O'Toole has been comfortable so far, and with his ability to get open and make acrobatic catches and plays in space, he's someone the Buckeyes will likely have to keep track of as he lines up all across the formations.
3. Who are some of the defensive players Ohio State fans should be aware of? Have the Illini been making strides on defense of late?
Illinois' defense looked drastically better last week against Minnesota. They decided to take away the run and force Minnesota to put the ball in the air. If J.T. Barrett's mobility is limited this week, it will help the Illinois gameplan on the defensive side of the ball quite a bit. One thing that helped the defense last week was that the schemes were kept simple. Illinois has struggled with containing the edge in run defense in weeks past, but last week they filled the gaps and got themselves in position to make plays and finished tackles.Earnest Thomas, a senior, has gotten better and better throughout the season, and last week had arguably his best game of the year. Additionally, if Barrett is indeed unable to run as much as before, I wouldn't be surprised to see Illinois dial up the pressure a bit more and rush guys like Jihad Ward or Dejazz Woods more often. On the back end, V'Angelo Bentley, a Cleveland native, is a playmaker at corner and will be tasked with matching up against the speedy and athletic OSU receivers.
4. What is the game plan Illinois has to do to have a chance to win this game?
First and foremost, the Illinois defense has to avoid giving up the big play. On the road in the Horseshoe, the last thing they want to do is have a lapse and let the crowd take over the game. If they can consistently keep plays in front of them and keep the Buckeyes to third-and-distance situations, they have a chance to hang in the game. Offensively, Illinois has to protect O'Toole, whether that's in the passing game or when he takes off running. Joey Bosa is a monster on the defensive line, and Illinois will undoubtedly key in on him, but they also need to make sure they account for guys like Michael Bennett and keep O'Toole on his feet as much as possible. By doing that, they will also look to sustain longer drives and try to win the time of possession battle.
5. Saturday was a big win for the Illini, can the team bottle up some of that and use its momentum vs. Ohio State? And is there a sense the Ohio natives on the Illinois roster are looking forward to this game?
For this team, a lot of the battle was getting the guys to buy in, but some of it had to do with adjusting the schemes to something this team could accomplish and not be out on the field second guessing themselves. Seeing the players after the last game, the monkey was off their backs and they were as excited as I'd seen them in a long time. One of the biggest victories Illinois won last weekend from a statistical standpoint, though, was the turnover battle. Illinois has struggled mightily to force and capitalize on turnovers the last few years. Illinois forced three turnovers against Minnesota and only gave the ball away once, and that, I believe, was one of the biggest differences in the game. They know Ohio State is a big challenge, and Illinois may admittedly need some help from Ohio State to have a chance in this one. After last week's overtime test and with a huge matchup with Michigan State next weekend looming, Illinois will hope to catch Ohio State looking ahead.