3:30 PM EST - Champaign, IL - Memorial Stadium
ABC Regional Coverage -- Commentators: Brent Musburger, Gary Danielson, Jack Arute (Coverage Map)
Usually, one would look at a matchup between the 11-0 #2 team in the country and a 4-6 team as a gimme for the former. After Ohio State's narrow 10-6 win over Purdue, however, that is not the case. Throw out the records and the rankings in this one because it could be another dogfight.
The Illini have won three out of their last four games, including an overtime win against Purdue and a big 37-20 win at Wisconsin last week. After starting out 1-5 (including a 38-35 loss to San Jose State and a 31-10 loss to Minnesota), the Illini are said to be improving and playing their best football of the year. Let's also not forget that there are plenty of players on this team that were on last year's Big Ten championship team. They'll be pumped and ready to pull off an upset.
The offense features some talented skill players in junior WR Brandon Lloyd (6-2, 180, 55 catches, 910 yards, 7 TD), senior WR Walter Young (6-5, 220, 40 catches, 598 yards, 5 TDs), and senior TB Antoineo Harris (6-1, 221, 1090 yards and 8 TDs on 213 carries), although Lloyd recently suffered a hip flexor, and his status for the game is uncertain. The quarterback situation was one that was unsettled at the beginning of the year, but Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer (6-5, 205, 1544 yards on 106 of 171 passing with 15 TD and 8 INT, 9 games and 5 starts on the year) has taken over the spot. The offense is potent as they are averaging 450.7 yards and 29.9 points per game. The line is solid as they are led by preseason All-American Tony Pashos (Sr, 6-6, 330). The rest of the line consists of LT Sean Bubin (6-7, 300, Jr), LG Dave Diehl (6-6, 300, Sr), C Duke Preston (6-5, 290, So), and RG Bucky Babcock (6-4, 290, So). The line has given up 18 sacks this year. Sophomore Anthony McClellan (6-3, 243, 114 yards on 8 catches) is the tight end. Junior Peter Christofilakos (5-9, 170, 8-11 FG) and junior John Gockman (5-10, 165, 2-3 FG) are the kickers, while sophomore Matt Minnes (6-2, 200, 37.7 average on 33 punts) and freshman Steve Weatherford (6-4, 215, 39.9 average on 11 punts) are the punters.
Defensively, Illinois returns some familiar faces, but they've been giving up their share of points this year. The D has given up 422.2 yards a game (197.0 rushing) and 26.0 points a game. The front four is led by junior defensive ends Derrick Strong (6-4, 250, 46 tackles, 12 TFL, 5 sacks) and Mike O'Brien (6-6, 245, 40 tackles, 9 TFL), while junior Jeff Ruffin (6-4, 290) and senior Jamie Hanton (6-4, 280) are the tackles. The linebackers are led by one of the Big Ten's best in senior captain MLB Jerry Schumacher (6-3, 235), who has 95 tackles on the year and has had six games this year with double-digit tackles. Sophomore Matt Sinclair (6-3, 230) and junior Joe Bevis (6-0, 225) are at the other linebacker spots. The secondary is led by cornerback Eugene Wilson (5-11, 185), who is a Thorpe Award Semifinalist. He has 56 tackles, 1 INT and 14 passes broken up this year. Senior Michael Hall (5-10, 175) is at the other CB spot and the safeties are freshman Travis Williams (6-1, 170, FS) and junior Marc Jackson (6-1, 205, SS).
To win this game, the Buckeyes will need to do more of the same on defense and, needless to say, find a rhythm on offense. Illinois will be plenty fired up considering as how OSU is ranked #1 in the BCS and it is Senior Day in Champaign. The difference here could come defensively. Ohio State has the capability of shutting down Illinois' offense, but many are skeptical that Illinois can completely shut down the Buckeyes, regardless of OSU's recent struggles and Illinois' apparent improvements.
It seems difficult to get a grasp on this game. Will the Buckeyes struggle again on the road and have trouble focusing? Or will they finally deliver a strong road showing? Is Illinois starting to approach the level they were at in 2001, and has their defense improved enough to keep OSU in check? Whatever happens, it should be another exciting game. If the Buckeyes come in focused and on their game defensively, they should win back the Illibuck Trophy (and the two teams won't play again until 2005). It just might not be easy.