2006 Big Ten Glance: Illinois Fighting Illini

We continue our look at Ohio State's 2006 opponents and the rest of the Big Ten with today's preview of the Illinois Fighting Illini. Former OSU assistant Ron Zook returns for his second year as the Illinois head coach. He welcomes back 21 starters from a team that went 2-9 last year.

Here is the 10th in a Bucknuts.com series on Ohio State's 2006 football opponents as well as a preview for the Big Ten in 2006. We continue with the Nov. 4 game against Illinois.

Illinois

* Date, Time: Sat., Nov. 4, time TBA (seems likely to be at noon on ESPN or ESPN2).

* Location: Memorial Stadium; Champaign, Ill.

* Last Year, Bowl: 2-9. Big Ten: 0-8/11th.

* Coach: Ron Zook (second year at UI, 2-9; fifth year overall, 25-23).

* Returning Starters: 21. Offense (10): LG Martin O'Donnell, LT J.J. Simmons, C Matt Maddox, RG James Ryan, RT Ryan McDonald, WR Kyle Hudson, WR Derrick McPhearson, WR DaJuan Warren, RB Pierre Thomas, QB Tim Brasic. Defense (7): DE Xavier Fulton, DT Chris Norwell, DE Derek Walker, MLB J. Leman, OLB Sam Carson, OLB Brit Miller, CB Alan Ball, FS Justin Harrison, SS Kevin Mitchell, CB Sharriff Abdullah. Specialists (1): K Jason Reda.

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

* Rose Bowls: 4, last appearance in 1983.

* BCS Bids: 1, 2001 (Sugar).

* National Championships (Rissman/Rockne, 1924-35; Associated Press, 1936-2005): 1 (1927).

* Series Vs. Ohio State: Ohio State leads 59-29-4, including 31-12-0 in Champaign. OSU has won seven of the last nine in the series, including the last two meetings – 23-16 in overtime in 2002 at Champaign and 40-2 last year in Columbus. The teams compete for the Illibuck Trophy.

* Schedule: Sept. 2, Eastern Illinois; Sept. 9, at Rutgers; Sept. 16, Syracuse; Sept. 23, Iowa; Sept. 30, at Michigan State; Oct. 7, Indiana; Oct. 14, Ohio U.; Oct. 21, at Penn State; Oct. 28, at Wisconsin; Nov. 4, Ohio State; Nov. 11, Purdue; Nov. 18, at Northwestern.

* Outlook: It was a tough first year at Illinois for Zook. Although he is a defensive-minded coach, it was the Illini defense that allowed 35 or more points in each of the team's last nine games – all losses. But Zook hit the recruiting trail and brought in a recruiting class judged only behind the conference's Big Three (OSU, Michigan and Penn State).

"It's good to be back for the second year," Zook said. "We have a lot of work to do, but I think we've made a lot of progress. We helped ourselves on the offensive line with a couple of transfers and position changes. We're fortunate enough to have both our running backs back. We have an excellent kicker returning. Our defense will be young but much improved. We've helped ourselves athletic wise. We'll have a defense that moves around and doesn't stay in one spot."

It may be a year or two until that group, led by QB Isiah Williams, makes an impact in Champaign. Besides, Brasic, a senior, is back at that position after throwing for 1,979 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thomas and fellow senior E.B. Halsey will split time at running back.

Things can only get better for the defense. Zook is hoping to breed some competition for playing time to get his starters to play up this year. Ball may be the most accomplished of the returnees.

"One guy we feel particularly good about is Alan Ball," Zook said. "He's a returning starter and had a great summer. He broke his arm in the last week of spring, but we felt like he was beginning to come on and be a Big Ten type defensive back. He is back healthy and has worked extremely hard this summer."

Zook said the Illini hit rock bottom when they trailed Penn State 56-3 at halftime of a 63-10 home loss.

"As bad as it was, it might have been the best thing that happened to us," Zook said. "I was in shock like everyone else. I told our football team that this is as bad as it's going to get - it's not going to get any worse. I don't think there's any question that since that day we have steadily improved both on and off the field."

The coach talked about what it will take to get Illinois back into the first division of the Big Ten.

"Growing up in Ohio, I know how prestigious and competitive this conference is," Zook said. "We have everything we need. There's no reason why our program shouldn't be up there with everyone else. Since the 2000s, there have been four teams that have won the conference and Illinois is one of those teams. We've done it; we just haven't done it consistently."

* Jerry Rudzinski Says: Illinois has been 1-23 in the Big Ten the last three years. They open with Eastern Illinois, but then at Rutgers and home with Syracuse. They need to steal one of those games.

I'm a Ron Zook fan. I liked him in his NFL days with the Saints. He has Ohio State ties and worked for John Cooper. I have met him and he is full of energy. He's a lively guy. I hope he does well out there. I'd like to see him rebuild that program. He is the kind of caliber coach who could do well out there. I think he will recruit well out there. He started a lot of young players last year, so hopefully they can reap some rewards from that this year and next year.

Tim Brasic had some academic issues this off-season. Shame on him for that when he has a team depending on him. I like the running back tandem of Thomas and Halsey. They could get it going if they have an offensive line to run behind.

On defense, they only had 12 sacks all last year. They need to get tougher physically and mentally on that side of the ball.

* Steve Helwagen Says: The OSU-Illinois series was OSU's longest, dating to 1913 until it was snapped in 2004. The teams are back on each other's schedules and competing again for the Illibuck.

OSU won 40-2 last year and even the two points were suspect. OSU botched the snap on an extra point. An Illini player picked up the ball and Josh Huston had him dead to rights until another Illini player shoved Huston directly in the back with two hands. No flag was thrown and the Illini got two points on the runback, so that, in all reality, should have gone into the books as a shutout.

Ron Zook took over the program last year and had remnants of what Ron Turner had left him. Hard to believe the Illini won the Big Ten as recently as 2001, but Turner could not recruit off of that. Illinois sat and watched as Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Notre Dame picked the state clean.

The Illini weren't even competitive in some of their games last year. The Penn State score was 63-10. Michigan State was 61-14 in Zook's Big Ten home debut. They lost 37-3 to Purdue. They have a lot of work to do. Turner left the cupboard bare.

I thought Brasic, at times, did some nice things. How would you know, though, with the dregs that lined up alongside him at times? If he can't go, they may turn it over to true freshman Isaiah Williams, one of Zook's plum recruits.

They have nine returning starters on defense and many of them are underclassmen. Chris Norwell, an Ohio kid, is at defensive tackle. If somebody can shore up this defense, it would be Zook.

Below are archives of past opponent previews:

Game 1: Northern Illinois

Game 2: Texas

Game 3: Cincinnati

Game 4: Penn State

Game 5: Iowa

Game 6: Bowling Green

Game 7: Michigan State

Game 8: Indiana

Game 9: Minnesota


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