The Fighting Illini have a new man at the controls since the beginning of this season, and senior Reilly O'Toole does some intriguing things for head coach Tim Beckman's team. A 6-4, 220-pound senior who has taken over for the injured Wes Lunt, O'Toole is crafty. Even though he isn't very fast or athletic, Illinois runs a variety of option plays and has had some success whether he gives it or keeps it. O'Toole has very good ball skills -- he is not afraid to take a hit, and he can exploit a crease in the defense.
His arm is adequate, but Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs told us Monday the offense has shifted from a throw-heavy one to an option-based attack since O'Toole took over. The top receiver is Mike Dudek, a 5-11, 185-pound freshman while Geronimo Allison provides a big target on the outside. Allison showed against Wisconsin he can overpower a defensive back in tight coverage in the end zone.
The offensive line looked adequate as a run-blocking unit against Minnesota but has not been good at all this season according to Football Outsiders' line yards measurement. By any measure, the Illini have struggled in pass protection, entering this weekend tied with Penn State for most sacks allowed (25) in the Big Ten this season.
If they can make some room, there are a couple of dangerous backs. I have always been a big fan of Josh Ferguson, a 5-10, 195-pound junior who is quick and has surprising power for his size. He's kind of a poor man's Gio Bernard, though maybe not as shifty. He will get the ball all over the field, both as a receiver and as a runner. Donovonn Young provides a good change of pace as a 6-0, 220-pound senior.
The advanced stats show they have had more success with explosive plays and drives than putting together long marches, but those could be somewhat skewed by the quarterback change. You'll see them in a variety of formations, from the shotgun, to the two- or even three-back pistol to the traditional I formation and even the Maryland I.
Teitmsa does a good job holding the point of attack, and Smoot and Woods both had some success penetrating the line against Minnesota, a power-run-oriented team. Neal really plays downhill, attacking the line of scrimmage in the run game, and Thomas is a playmaker with good athleticism. Thomas, who was a starting safety last year for them and now plays a hybrid role, leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss while Mason Monheim, a sophomore from Orrville, Ohio, tops the team with 72 tackles, including 5.5 for loss.
Illinois hasn't caused a lot of turnovers, but they have turned three of them into touchdowns, including two by cornerback V'Angelo Bentley. The Cleveland Glenville product, who returned a punt for a touchdown against Ohio State last season, has a pick-6 and also returned a fumble for the game-winning touchdown last week.
The advanced stats show the Illini defense 36th nationally in adjusted line yards, which would indicate their overall struggles defensively are more tied to the back seven. This is consistent with watching them play as their line looks solid enough but run fits were often poor against Minnesota and worse against Wisconsin. (You're going to lose some battles up front against the Badgers, but the safeties often took bad angles and Wisconsin did a good job of getting to the linebackers on the second level.)
They have been pretty poor against the pass overall and looked vulnerable against Minnesota, which hit a couple of explosive plays and had numerous missed throws when receivers were open.
In addition to Bentley in the return game, punter Justin DuVernois is a weapon who can change field position. He has 15 punts of 50 yards or more and leads the Big Ten at 45.8 yards per kick.
Overall, this could be a good week for Ohio State to work on the passing game. That's where Illinois is weaker, and the Buckeyes could use more reps building up to the big showdown with Michigan State. The Fighting Illini will probably have to blitz to get pressure, which could provide another learning opportunity for J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes.
The Ohio State defense needs to be more mentally alert than physically. Illinois has a pretty big playbook, and the duo of O'Toole and Ferguson can do some damage. They present a lot to keep track of with the option package, and there are some guys who can hurt you in the right situation.
Also worth noting: Aaron Bailey is a sophomore quarterback who showed some great burst as a runner when he was inserted into the Wisconsin game late. He doesn't seem very advanced as a passer, but he has some wheels. Of course, it should be noted the staff seemed to short-circuit their early offensive success against Minnesota (based mostly around O'Toole's operating the option) when they put Bailey in the game in the second quarter.
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