The Essentials: Illinois

Players to watch, themes to know - its the essential guide to Illinois, the most important notes about the Fighting Illini before Ohio State hosts its final game of the year in the Horseshoe on Senior Day.

Illinois (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten)
Game 11
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

One thing is for sure about the Illinois offense: it is unlike any one No. 1 Ohio State has faced up to this point.

The Fighting Illini's media guide describes the base offensive set as "multiple," a moniker that couldn't be more apt. Illinois will often line up in the shotgun with tailback Rashard Mendenhall next to quarterback Juice Williams, looking like a newfangled spread option team. The next play, Illinois might line up with a tight end and a fullback and run right down the throat of the defense. At all points, Williams is a threat to both run and pass.

"We've seen bits and pieces of their scheme, but not every down like they play with the pressure they put on you with their quarterback ability to run and the speed they have on the field," head coach Jim Tressel said.

But it's no secret that Illinois makes its hay on the ground. It was that rushing attack that keyed a 655-yard performance in Illinois' last game before coming into Ohio Stadium, a 44-17 win at Minnesota. Illinois ran for 448 yards, the fifth-highest total in school history. Mendenhall ran for 201 of those yards, while Williams added 133 yards of his own.

Williams is a sophomore from Chicago who is most adept at running the offense through his legs and not his arm, but that's more by design than anything else, OSU linebackers coach Luke Fickell said.

"I think it's more of what they've asked him to do," Fickell said. "I think if they asked him to drop back and throw the ball 50 times a game, they'd be a better passing team or they'd have more yards passing. But what they ask him to do he does well, and sometimes they ask him to run t he ball a lot more than they do throw the ball."

So far this year, Williams, a second-year starter, is 105 of 187 through the air (56.1 percent) for 1,138 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. His passing efficiency mark of 111.8 is the worst of the Big Ten's 11 starting quarterbacks. However, he has averaged 5.1 yards on his 111 carries (568 yards total) and has run for five touchdowns.

He has had to fight redshirt freshman Eddie McGee for playing time, though. McGee first saw action in the season opener against Missouri because of an injury to Williams and has continued to spell Juice during times of injury and ineffectiveness, and when Zook wants a change of pace. On the year, McGee has completed 28 of 54 passes (51.9 percent) for 338 yards, a touchdown and three picks while running for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries.

No matter who is under center, opposing teams must key on Mendenhall. A junior All-America candidate from Skokie, Ill., he enters the game as the eighth-leading rusher in the nation, having rushed the ball 197 times for 1,314 yards (a 6.8-yard average) and 14 touchdowns.

He is one touchdown away from tying the school record for scores in a season, set by Howard Griffith in 1990, and needs just 16 yards to tie Antoineo Harris' 2002 mark for the school record in yards.

"I know he's a big, physical back that has gotten even bigger," Fickell said. "I think he's 225 pounds now. He is a strong, strong fast runner, and very quick too, good feet."

Out wide, the No. 1 name is that of a true freshman, Arrelious Benn. The Washington, D.C., product and the 12th-ranked player in the country last year by Scout, Benn has not disappointed, having already broken UI records for receptions and yards as a freshman. The electric Benn has 46 grabs for 573 yards and a touchdown and has added 29 carries for 135 yards. The next leading receiver, senior Jacob Willis, has just 16 catches.

"He was there during the spring so obviously he's not like a freshman," said Fickell, who recruited the player known as "Rejus" for OSU. "I don't think there's anything he doesn't do or doesn't know about the offense. Obviously he's a great talent. He's a big, physical kid who can run."

With those weapons and the pressure Illinois' option attack puts on defenses, OSU has a challenge ahead of it.

"You try and do your best," Fickell said. "You just try to be sound in what you're doing and make everybody understand that they have a spot to do and they have a place to do and you have to stay fundamentally sound because they'll hit you anywhere."

Seven Up: That's how many defensive linemen and linebackers the Fighting Illini will have on the field in most situations, and that group of seven has been one of the reasons why UI has excelled this year. That front seven has spurred Illinois to 22nd in the country in rush defense (112.5 yards per game) and 10th in sacks (3.30 per game).

"Their front seven is really good," OSU receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. "They bring some pressure. They pressure with their front four, so they sometimes don't have to pressure with their back three. They're fun to watch."

Leading the way for the line is junior end Will Davis, who is tops on the team with 10½ stops for loss and 7.5 sacks. His biggest day came against Indiana Sept. 22 when he earned four sacks in the Fighting Illini's win. Starting on the other side is junior Derek Walker (20 tackles and 2.5 sacks). The third end is sophomore Doug Pilcher, who has 4.5 sacks.

The tackles aren't to be slept on, either. Senior Chris Norwell is expecting to make his 44th career start in Ohio Stadium, which might be fitting for the Cincinnati Anderson graduate. On the season, Norwell has 25 tackles, 3.5 for loss. He's joined at tackle by junior David Lindquist, who leads the position with 38 tackles and has 4½ sacks. The third man is Mike Ware (6-3, 285), a senior with 11 tackles and two sacks.

The stars also shine at linebacker, where Butkus Award candidate J. Leman plies his trade. A year after making 152 tackles – 19 of which came against Ohio State – Leman has 102 stops this season. He's not quite on his way to the 19 tackles for loss he had a year ago, but he does have seven stops behind the line and 2.5 sacks. Most importantly, he even has the respect of the OSU defense.

"That guy is a playmaker," said OSU linebacker Austin Spitler. "We watch film of other linebackers trying to make ourselves better, and he seems to always be around the ball. Great player."

"He's always around the ball," fullback Trever Robinson said. "He's a good athlete and we always have great respect for him."

Leman is flanked by two experienced players in Brit Miller and Antonio Steele. A junior, Miller has 54 tackles on the year. On the other side is Steele, a senior from Cleveland who attended Bedford St. Peter Chanel. Steele has 72 tackles, five for loss. Also seeing plenty of time is true freshman Martez Wilson, a former OSU recruit with 24 tackles and two sacks as a blitzing linebacker brought in for passing situations.

Off Da Zook: Through the first two years, one had to wonder if Illinois' hiring of Florida's deposed head coach, Ron Zook, was a good idea. Zook's Fighting Illini went 4-19 during his first two years, winning just two games apiece in each season. Even as the talent on hand increased through Zook's recruiting, the question was if the coach so maligned at UF for questionable game coaching would turn the talent into wins.

That has been answered to a certain extent with Illinois' 7-3 record and 4-2 Big Ten mark. However, to suggest that Illinois is satisfied with a winning season and probable bowl bid would be off base.

"We're still hungry," Leman said. "We realize that we haven't arrived yet. This is one step in where we're going."

Tressel had two simple answers when asked why this year's rapid improvement has been made: familiarity and talent.

"If you watch the evolution since he's been there, you see a greater understanding of what they're trying to do every year, which is only normal, and so obviously there's good merit to what he's instructing them to do. They can see why he's having them do it and they're very talented.

"He's done a good job bringing talent. When he was an assistant coach, he was always thought of as being an excellent recruiter. When he was head coach at Florida and now here, he's been an excellent recruiter. So you add all that together and it's not a shock. Illinois is a great place. Illinois ought to be good and they are."

Scheming And Dreaming: Much has been made this week of Illinois' confusing schemes on defense, especially when it comes to the passing game. The Fighting Illini are not known for lining up and running simple schemes; instead the presnap look given to the quarterback might not signify exactly what the defense will be doing.

The results have been mixed for Illinois. Cornerback Vontae Davis – a Thorpe Award candidate – and safety Kevin Mitchell have four picks apiece, but the Fighting Illini are allowing more than 240 yards per game through the air.

OSU wideout Brian Hartline laid out a way the Buckeyes can make Illinois add to the latter total while holding down the former.

"I think they can just catch you in some situations where you think they're in one coverage and they're in another, and you might rotate or connect on a certain route and they kind of catch you," Hartline said. "I think it's just about making sure that you don't see a lot of the junk, you don't see a lot of the rotation. You just read it for what it is and just kind of play it on the run. Don't read it presnap and think it's going to stay that way, but kind of see it as the ball snaps."

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