Five Questions: Ohio State-Illinois

Strengths will collide when the Ohio State offensive line takes on the Illinois front seven. We look at that matchup in a couple of ways, the task of stopping the option, interpreting Illinois' defensive scheme and the Fighting Illini's propensity for the big mistake in this week's edition of The Five Questions.

1. Can Ohio State shore up the pass protection?

Todd Boeckman was under heavy pressure for much of the Wisconsin game last week, a big factor in the Buckeyes' inability to get a consistent offensive attack in motion in the first two and a half quarters.

Now here comes Illinois, a squad with 23 sacks in six conference games. Only Ohio State has more (25).

Every member of the starting front four is a difference maker and there is depth as well. Ends Doug Pilcher and Will Davis have combined for 12 sacks overall this season.

"The guys up front are good," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "They are great movement guys. They stunt and so forth, they love to blitz and they do a great job blitzing."

Last season the Fighting Illini were able to get good pressure on Ohio State's Troy Smith, but that was with left tackle Alex Boone sidelined by injury.

2. Can the Buckeyes run the ball?

The Buckeye running game is rolling, without a doubt, but this figures to be a stiff test. Ohio State, perhaps stubbornly, perhaps in response to blustering winds or possibly to mask the loss of Boone, tried to run right at the Fighting Illini last year even with the box stuffed with defenders, and the Buckeyes mostly struggled (116 yards on 47 attempts).

Aside from the front four, Illinois boasts three standout linebackers in J. Leman, Brit Miller and Antonio Steele.

They should wage a great battle with Ohio State's tight ends and senior fullbacks playing their last game at Ohio Stadium: Dionte Johnson, Tyler Whaley and Trever Robinson.

Johnson agreed with that sentiment and said there is more to the run defense than the trio of linebackers.

"Their cornerbacks play the run real well," Johnson said. "Their secondary as a whole, when they see run, they come and get it."

That means running north-south is crucial against the Illini.

"You get to bouncing around and wanting to go outside, the cornerbacks and the safeties will come and get to you, so we're preparing for that and we're ready to see what they bring this year," Johnson said.

3. Will the read option and its variations hurt Ohio State?

The Illini have an offensive attack unlike any Ohio State has seen this season.

Washington ran some spread option, but the Huskies were also fond of pro-style sets. Northwestern does some read option like the Fighting Illini, but the Wildcats do not have athletes that compare to Illinois quarterback Juice Williams or running back Rashard Mendenhall.

"It's like in the old days when you played an option team: You better have every single assignment right, or it's over," Tressel said.

"It's kind of that way when you face this group. You better have every gap taken care of. You better have every zone handled. You better make sure that everyone's doing what they need to do because anyone on their attack can beat you. They have homerun hitters everywhere."

Ohio State linebacker Larry Grant sees no secrets in regards to what it will take for his team to be successful.

"Basically just doing your job. Defending against a team that can run the option real good is going to take a lot of preparation and when it comes to be Saturday, just do your job," Grant said.

4. Can Illinois stay away from making big mistakes?

The Fighting Illini have a couple of good-looking wins but the one that got away was Michigan's visit Oct. 20.

They also gave Missouri all the now 8-1 Tigers could handle in both teams' season opener.

"The thing, as you look at all of their games and you take the things that are really big, it's usually the turnover margin, costly penalties or miscues," Tressel said when asked if Illinois' losses exposed any weaknesses.

The upstarts gave old-hand Michigan a toe-to-toe battle for most of four quarters, but a muffed punt set up the Wolverines' game-winning touchdown.

Illinois was plus-1 in turnovers for that game but Michigan accepted 10 penalties for 107 yards against their hosts.

The Fighting Illini gave the ball away five times against Missouri and two more in a 10-6 loss to Iowa.

Among the miscues against the Tigers was a fumble that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown.

"We've got to assume they're not going to make mistakes," Tressel said. "We've got to work like crazy so we don't make mistakes and see how we match up."

5. Will the Buckeyes be able to decipher what the Illini are doing defensively?

Boeckman has received plenty of praise for his ability to read defenses and make proper adjustments.

His awareness of the Ohio State offense goes a long way toward making it so flexible this season despite the loss of so many integral parts from a year ago.

This week, though, Boeckman will face a defense that is likely to do some things he has not seen before.

"They don't just blitz and play man, but they zone blitz from a little bit different configuration than our team does, for instance," Tressel said. "And so it's not like Todd's going to sit there this weekend and say, ‘OK, I see this configuration, it's just what our guys do, or it's just what Penn State does or just what Wisconsin does.' So it's a little bit different. There's a little learning curve there and perhaps that (leads to) indecision."

Receiver Brian Hartline said he sees Illinois doing some of the same things that flummoxed the Buckeyes last year.

"They've always been a defense that gives you a lot of different looks, a lot of safeties that are rolling," Hartline said. "They'll show you one thing and then roll to something else when you snap the ball. You do have to be alert. They do a lot of disguising."

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