A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, (actually, it was only a few years ago) there was a time when seeing the Illinois Fighting Illini on the schedule meant an automatic win. The Illini had a struggling program, and one year, they had hit rock bottom with a winless season.
Enter Ron Turner. The Illinois coach was able to turn things around a lot faster than expected, and so far, this year has been Illinois' best season in a long time. At 8-1, the Illini come in to Ohio Stadium trying to stay in the race for the Big Ten title and a BCS berth. Unlike the Illinois teams of a few years ago, this is a team to take very, very seriously.
It all starts with Kurt Kittner, the apparent favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year. Kittner is a senior who is the lifeblood of the Illinois offense, and he has been having a great senior season, going 156 for 303 for 2333 yards and 17 TDs with 11 INTs. Kittner is rated as one of the top five or ten QB prospects for the upcoming NFL draft. But Kittner has had some help this year in the form of a healthy Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd, a WR of All-America caliber, suffered injury problems last year, and this year, he has returned and has made a world of difference. He has 46 catches for 852 yards and 6 TDs. He's not the only target though; the tall but fast Walter Young has 456 yards on 30 catches.
The Illinois RBs always get into the action. However, the Illini were dealt a bit of a blow in the Penn State game, during which leading rusher Antoineo Harris suffered a broken wrist. Harris will miss the rest of the regular season. In his absence, most of the carries will go to Rocky Harvey -- one of those players who has seemingly been in college longer than John Blutarski -- and fullback Carey Davis. Illinois' offense should still be able to move the ball with those two, and look for Davis to be a target for Kittner out of the backfield. The Illini line, led by Luke Butkus, is solid and has only given up nine sacks on the season.
The Illinois defense was viewed as the team's weakness coming into the season, but they have been playing a bit better than expected. They still give up some yardage -- 342 total yards per game -- but they have only given up more than 20 points this year on two occasions. LB Jerry Schumacher leads the team with 5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. The pass defense ranks fifth in the Big Ten in yards allowed; Eugene Wilson and Christian Morton lead the conference with 21 and 18 passes defended respectively.
If the Buckeyes are to win this game, it will require a great effort by the defense, particularly the pass defense. The Buckeye D has shown a vulnerability to the pass in recent weeks, and they'll have their hands full in Kittner, Lloyd and co. OSU's offense should be able to move the ball and score points, but the defense cannot let Illinois reach their average of 32 points scored per game. The D needs to avoid giving up big plays and make some of their own, particularly forcing some turnovers and getting some pressure on Kittner.
The Buckeyes have the home field advantage, but after the last time Illinois came to town (the 46-20 drubbing at the hands of the Illini in 1999), the Illini believe they can win in Columbus. Some good crowd noise should be able to help OSU's cause here.
The Buckeyes, without a doubt, have their hands full. But this is a beatable Illinois squad. They are 8-1 and ranked #14 in America, but this is a game that OSU can definitely win. The offense just needs to keep up what they've shown the past two weeks, and the defense needs to come up big. On senior day, the prediction here is that the Bucks will be able to do it. Pick: OSU 28, Illinois 24.