2005 Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini

We continue our look at OSU's 2005 opponents and the Big Ten with this thumbnail of the Illinois Fighting Illini, now led by coach Ron Zook.

We continue our look at Ohio State's 2005 schedule as well as the Big Ten. In today's ninth installment of the series, we look at the Nov. 5 game against Illinois.

Illinois

* Date, Time: Sat., Nov. 5; time, TV TBA.

* Location: Ohio Stadium.

* Last Year: 3-8. Big Ten: 1-7/10th (tie).

* Coach: Ron Zook (first year at UI; fourth year overall, 23-14).

* Returning Starters: 16. Offense (7): LG Martin O'Donnell, LT J.J. Simmons, RG Matt Maddox, WR Franklin Payne, WR Kendrick Jones, FB Jason Davis, RB Pierre Thomas. Defense (7): DT Ryan Matha, DT Chris Norwell, DE Scott Moss, LB J. Leman, CB Alan Ball, FS Justin Harrison, SS Morris Virgil. Specialists (2): P Steve Weatherford, K Jason Reda.

* Big Ten Championships: 15, last title in 2001.

* Rose Bowls: 4, last appearance in 1983.

* BCS Bids (since 1998): 1, 2001 (Sugar).

* National Championships (Rissman/Rockne, 1924-35; Associated Press, 1936-2004): 1 (1927).

* Series Vs. Ohio State: OSU leads the all-time series 58-29-4, including 25-17-4 in Columbus. The Illini rotate back on to the schedule after a two-year respite. The series with Illinois was OSU's longest continuous series, dating to 1914, until it was snapped. Illinois has two straight double-digit wins in Columbus (46-20 in 1999 and 34-22 in 2001). OSU won the last meeting, a 23-16 overtime thriller in 2002 in Champaign.

* Schedule: Sept. 3, Rutgers; Sept. 10, San Jose State; Sept. 17, at California; Sept. 24, Michigan State; Oct. 1, at Iowa; Oct. 8, at Indiana; Oct. 22, Penn State; Oct. 29, Wisconsin; Nov. 5, at Ohio State; Nov. 12, at Purdue; Nov. 19, Northwestern.

* Outlook: Illinois wasted no time in snapping up Zook after he was let go at Florida. He follows Ron Turner, who was unable to parlay Illinois' Big Ten title run in 2001 into anything remotely positive over his last three years (Illini were 5-19 in conference play since that title). Zook will go to work on the recruiting trail and try and salvage what he can from the Illini, who suffered six double-digit losses a year ago.

"I am excited to be back in the Big Ten," Zook said. "I was fortunate in my coaching career to coach in the Big Ten (at Ohio State). It has been a whirlwind tour that started in the middle of December. We have been going as fast as we can go ever since. Illinois is a great place with great people.

"We're going to be out there and make sure people leave Memorial Stadium seeing that we're having fun and flying around. I can't say enough about the attitude of this team and the way they have bought in."

Zook endured a rough three-year stint in Florida, following the wildly popular Steve Spurrier. Expectations won't be quite as high at Illinois, which, other than 2001, has been mostly a second-division Big Ten team over the last decade.

"Obviously the expectations are quite different," Zook said. "I think that maybe in Florida the expectations were a little out of sync where they were talent wise. And I think that here in Illinois our talent level might be better than the expectations here. That might be a little more convenient for our players here as well."

Junior Tim Brasic is the odds on favorite to replace Jon Beutjer at quarterback. Thomas (893 yards, 8 TDs) and E.B. Halsey (461 yards, 5 TDs) form an effective tandem at running back.

Defensively, the Illini need all the help they can get. Illinois was 10th in scoring defense and total defense in the Big Ten a year ago. Harrison may be the best of the lot. Punter Steve Weatherford (45.4 yard average) was the only Illini player mentioned on either the All-Big Ten first or second teams last year.

* Jerry Rudzinski Says: I think this is a great hire for Illinois. Ron Zook brings a wealth of experience. He was at Ohio State and the Steelers and the Saints before going back in at Florida. He's going to get some top-notch assistants. He can come to Ohio and go down to Florida to recruit. He can get in to see those high school coaches because they know who he is.

He didn't fall on his face in Florida. The players there seemed to like him. He won some big games and he also lost some big games. It's not like it was absolute self destruction down there. Ron Zook is a great football coach and I hate to see him line up against Ohio State because this guy is going to bring in better recruits. They will be in that top third in the Big Ten.

Offensively, we do not know much about Brasic. But they have their top three receivers back and I like that combination they have at running back. Any great college team needs that 1-2 punch at tailback. They have jumbled some things on the offensive line, and I think Zook likes that. He'll get them to produce.

They were inconsistent defensively. They gave up 30 points or more five times. That is where Zook will focus his recruiting. He will go down to Florida and get players who can help him defensively.

* Steve Helwagen Says: In terms of this year, it could be a long one for the Zooker. I look at that Big Ten schedule and I'm not sure where the win – even one of them – comes from. The Illini beat Indiana 26-22 last year, but they have to go to Indiana this year.

I like the tandem of Thomas and Halsey running the ball. Brasic – or whoever plays quarterback – will certainly endure a baptism by fire in the rough Big Ten.

But Zook is a high energy guy. He will energize the defense and also make sure his teams are solid in the special teams. His work as a defensive guru speaks for itself. I think he'll bring the Illini back into the first division in the conference, though it may take three or four years to do it.

I would agree that Zook will be able to bring some national caliber recruits to Illinois. But he will also work to make the state of Illinois a strong territory for the Illini once again. I think the biggest factor in Ron Turner's demise was that he stood idly by as Wisconsin, Iowa, Notre Dame, Michigan and Northwestern just took them apart in recruiting in the state of Illinois.


Buckeye Sports Top Stories