The Fighting Illini were last in the conference in 2005 in scoring defense (39.5 points per game) and rushing defense (234 yards per game). And while they have struggled at times this season, they have been playing better each week and could give high-powered OSU a decent test.
Illinois is ranked fifth in the Big Ten and 39th in the country in total defense (300.3), seventh in the Big Ten and 87th in the country in scoring defense (26.1), third in the Big Ten and 37th in the country in pass defense (175.6) and sixth in the Big Ten and 53rd in the nation in rushing defense (124.7).
The two stars of the unit are junior linebacker J. Leman (6-2, 240) and sophomore defensive end Derek Walker (6-4, 270). Leman leads the Big Ten in tackles with 98 and also has 11.5 tackles for loss. Walker leads the team with 5.5 sacks.
"Leman just flies around," OSU tight end Rory Nicol said. "He's a guy with a high motor that's trying to get in on every tackle. And you have to credit some of that to the guys in front of him because no linebacker is any good without the front four. But yeah, he's a special player that kind of came out, in a sense, of nowhere and has done a great job and as you said is leading the Big Ten in tackles and is a fierce player and is a guy that is definitely going to come at you and a guy that's not going to quit until the whistle blows. He's a special player and he's really an emotional leader for their defense."
The Buckeyes had their way with the Fighting Illini defense last year in a 40-2 rout. But Nicol thinks Illinois has made great strides on that side of the ball.
"They are a defense that is dramatically advanced," he said. "They move a lot. If you study the evolution of them, they've clearly gotten better. They are very stout against the run and they are a group of guys that are hard-nosed players and they are going to stuff the run, that's their main priority. And they've got some skill in the secondary. We've just got to do a great job of studying them because like I said they are kind of complex in a sense with their scheme and they do some things that maybe some other teams haven't done to us in the past and it's really just something that we've got to study the heck out of because they are going to throw a lot at us. We feel like we've got a pretty good scouting report thus far and we've just got to keep studying and understand that they are a team that is definitely getting better."
Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) right guard T.J. Downing thinks that Illinois (2-7, 1-4) could be a dangerous team despite its record, especially at home.
"Illinois is at the point where they have nothing to lose and those are the teams you have to watch out for," Downing said. "They will throw everything they have at you. It shouldn't bother us because we are so focused. We know we just have to prepare for what they will give us and continue to stay focused."
Downing talked more about the leadership that the top-ranked Buckeyes are receiving from their senior class.
"I think the senior leadership has a lot to do with the focus of the team," Downing said. "Me, Doug (Datish), Troy (Smith), Stan (White) and all the seniors try to tell everyone to keep their focus and concentrate on each game like it is the last."
OSU wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell has also been impressed with what he has seen out of Illinois' defense on film. Calling them the most improved unit in the Big Ten wouldn't be a stretch.
"They play with a lot of energy and they look like they're having a lot of fun," Hazell said. "They've got a lot of young players that aren't going to quit and they're going to give us their best on Saturday. I think they are going to be really good in the future."
Hazell was asked if the Illini are an all-out blitzing defense.
"No, they're a zone-pressure team, they're not a full true-pressure team like zero coverage blitz all out," he said. "They'll bring somebody most of the time, a linebacker or something like that, but they're not a full blitz team."
Ohio State by the numbers
The Buckeyes enter Saturday's game with impressive offensive statistics. They are ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten and 15th in the country in total offense (418.3). They are also ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten and 10th nationally in scoring offense (35.8), third in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally in rushing offense (180.7) and third in the Big Ten and 30th nationally in passing offense (237.6).
Smith, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, leads the Big Ten and is fifth nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 174.3. He has thrown for 1,898 yards, is completing 67.7 percent of his passes, and has 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Junior tailback Antonio Pittman could go over the 1,000-yard mark against Illinois this week. The 5-11, 200-pound junior has 894 rushing yards (5.4 per carry) and 10 touchdowns. He is ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 14th in the country in rushing yards.
Pittman is looking to become the first OSU back since Eddie George (1994-95) to reach 1,000 rushing yards in two consecutive seasons. He had 1,331 last year.
O-line rotation rolls on
Ohio State has used a rotation on its offensive line all season and it's paid off well. It's allowed the starters to stay rested while giving valuable reps to the backups. And with starting left tackle Alex Boone possibly out this week with a knee injury, one of the backups will be thrust into duty.
"Anytime you go into a game and you're aware of the fact that you are going to get a chance to go out there and perform, I think mentally you are going to prepare harder through the week," Nicol said. "We've got a talented group of guys, those five guys that are behind us. They've really done a good job, even a big game like Texas where we drive down the field and get a score. So, really what I think it does is not only does it give the starters a little bit of a break, but we're getting experience for those guys that are going to have to step up and help us in the future and also it's more guys being involved."
Downing has arguably been OSU's best lineman this year – along with Datish – and he feels good about the overall performance of the line.
"I think we have been getting the job done since the beginning of the year," Downing said. "Now it is just a matter of getting things rolling. We are into Big Ten play now and we know that every team can beat us. We know we have the chance to lose and that will get anybody rolling."
Nicol talked about some of the young players that have really stepped up for the Buckeyes this year.
"You've got (left guard) Steve Rehring, who was really out of the mix to begin the season and he's really stepped up and has become a solid guy," he said. "They've just done a great job of understanding that they can't play like they're freshmen or second-year guys because there is a lot of stuff at stake and they had to step up and become key players for us and I think a lot of guys have responded well.
"And I've got to sing praises to my good guy Jake Ballard, the freshman tight end who has done a great job. He's a kid that really works hard and has a chance to be a phenomenal player. Just a big kid that's strong and once he gets accustomed to this – which he is starting to – and really grasps the offense, he can be a lights-out player and he works hard and hopefully someday he and I can make a good duo for this Ohio State team."
Nicol has nine receptions for 116 yards and three touchdowns on the season, but he understands that is primary role in OSU's offense is as a blocker. He is a very capable receiver, but he knows it's in the best interest of the team to get the ball to the playmakers like Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez as much as possible.
"Yeah, it changes so much and there was no balls thrown to the tight end last weekend and that's just kind of the situation we're in," Nicol said. "The thing that's important to all us as a group as tight ends is when we have chances, we have to make plays. And as you guys know and it's simply the truth, there's not many chances for us. And that's a credit to how explosive all our other guys are.
"I've said it before and I still believe it that why should we change our offense if no one can stop us? We put 44 points on the board last week. Until somebody stops it, I don't see any reason to change. We started to establish the run a little bit last week and we just need to make the most of our opportunities when we get them and the rest of it is really out of our control."