Game Preview: Illinois

No. 10 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by traveling to Illinois for an early start at Memorial Stadium. previews the game with takes on the Fighting Illini's inconsistent season, notes on the squad's key players to watch and a breakdown of the team's offensive and defensive units.

Illinois (5-5, 3-3)
Saturday, Nov. 15, Noon
Memorial Stadium (62,870)
2007 Record: 9-4, 6-2 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Ron Zook, 18-28 at Illinois (fourth season)

If there's one fact that should give Ohio State fans pause above all others going into Saturday's game at Illinois, it's that the Fighting Illini have not lost consecutive games this season.

So though the team sits just 5-5 after making the Rose Bowl a year ago, there's enough about this contest in Champaign that should leave the Buckeyes on high alert. The Fighting Illini have talent in spades at a number of positions, and though it is inconsistent it has prevented the team from being held down for long.

"They're good," OSU receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. "They're scary. They have a lot of ability, a lot of talent. It's funny, they played well in a lot of games, had some bad breaks against them, but they're a good football team with a lot of good players. We have to be at our best on Saturday."

The biggest challenge has been getting that talent to play up to its level. On offense, the team has been inconsistent, as the running game has struggled after last year's Big Ten offensive player of the year, Rashard Mendenhall, left for the NFL. When it comes to the passing game, Juice Williams has had a good year but he has 14 interceptions, and no wideout but Arrelious Benn has stepped up.

Defensively, a line that was supposed to be dominant has been merely very good, while the back seven has had trouble in both coverage and with tackling.

"Here's the deal: We are a better football team than we play at times," Zook said after one loss this year. "Our fans deserve a better team. They should be upset. Hell, I'm upset, too."

The result is that Illinois has been a different team each week. After an opening loss to Missouri, the team beat Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette. That win over the Ragin' Cajuns started a stretch of alternating wins and losses – the team lost at Penn State, beat Michigan, lost to Minnesota, beat Indiana, lost to Wisconsin, beat Iowa and then last week lost to Western Michigan.

"For whatever reason, we didn't play the way we're capable of playing," Zook said after that loss to WMU at Ford Field.

One person who expects the Fighting Illini to play as well Saturday – perhaps as well as they did last year while beating Ohio State – is Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel.

"I think as I watch them on film they look every bit as good or better today than they did a year ago, so we know what the challenge is going to be," Tressel said.

Fighting Illini Players To Know
QB Juice Williams: The player formerly known for his ability to run now is one of the best passing quarterbacks in the Big Ten, as evidenced by the fact that he leads the conference in passing yards per game (276.9) by more than 50 yards and also is second in the league in passing efficiency.

The raw numbers show Williams at 182 of 319 (57.1 percent) through the air for 2,769 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 picks, while he's rushing 141 times for 577 yards and five touchdowns. So far this year, he has set total yardage stadium records at the Edward Jones Dome, Illinois' Memorial Stadium and Michigan Stadium.

"Juice is going to make plays with his arm and he still can make plays with his legs, I think," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "One thing that impresses me about him is his arm strength, how far he can throw the deep ball without much effort. He can get the ball from sideline to sideline."

WR Arrelious Benn: Williams' favorite target by far is the man known as "Rejus," who has 60 receptions to the 21 pulled in by the second-best receivers in Will Judson and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Benn leads the Big Ten in receiving yards with 947 and he averages 15.8 yards per catch to go with three touchdowns. Benn also has rushed the ball 21 yards for 93 yards and two scores.

The Washington, D.C., native had an excellent freshman campaign last year, earning league freshman of the year honors, but he's now fully healthy having shed the shoulder harness that protected an injured wing last year and a big part of the Fighting Illini offense.

"He has taken such a big step since last season," inside receivers coach Jim Pry said. "Route running, he's almost perfect. He works his butt off all the time. He's got some places he needs to get better at. He knows where they're at and he works at them."

LB Brit Miller: A four-year starter, Miller is enjoying his best year having moved from outside linebacker to the middle after the graduation of J Leman. He leads the Big Ten in tackles per game and has 110 on the season, and he's made some big plays to go along with the quantity of stops. On the year, Miller has 15½ tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

CB Vontae Davis: The Davis family has had itself a year so far. Brother Vernon, a tight end for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, was the brunt of the famed blowup by head coach Mike Singletary earlier this year, but Vontae hasn't had the easiest season himself.

Zook has been all over his star cornerback in an attempt to get him to play all out at all times. The head coach said he loves Davis "like a son" but also benched him at the start of the Iowa game Nov. 1 because of some tough love dispensed by the staff.

"Like John Wooden used to always say, the bench is the best coach," Zook said of a player he said he expects more from because of his talent. "I know this, Vontae played pretty well yesterday."

On the year, Davis has made 64 tackles and six for loss while making one interception and forcing three fumbles.

Series Top OSU Returnees
Chris Wells has good but not great numbers against Illinois. Last year, he had just 76 yards, the least he had of any of the last six games including the bowl, and in 2006 he lost a fumble that earned him some time on the bench. In his career, he has 24 carries vs. the Fighting Illini for 97 yards (an average of 4.0) and three touchdowns. Maurice Wells has a touchdown and 53 yards on 15 carries.

When it comes to receivers, Brian Hartline holds the yardage lead with 96 on five catches, while Brian Robiskie has six grabs for 64 yards. Jake Ballard has a catch for 22 yards. No current Buckeye wideout has caught a touchdown vs. Illinois.

Defensively no Buckeye has had a hand in any turnovers, though James Laurinaitis has 24 tackles and Marcus Freeman 21. No other Buckeye has more than 10 career stops vs. Illinois. Malcolm Jenkins and Cameron Heyward have 1.5 tackles for loss.

Game Breakdown
When Ohio State has the ball: If Illinois' past performances this season are any indication, the Buckeyes should have some success moving the ball. Every BCS team except Indiana has totaled at least 20 points against the Fighting Illini and the last seven opponents all have topped 300 yards of offense.

The Fighting Illini are in the bottom half of the league in most defensive categories, placing sixth in total defense (351.1 yards), seventh in rushing (142.1), seventh in pass defense (209.0), eighth in scoring (26.2 points) and 10th in passing efficiency defense (129.43).

While Illinois has struggled stopping teams at certain points this year, Ohio State can expect a slightly different defensive scheme than it is used to during this contest.

"Defensively it's a once-a-year thing that you face this concept," Tressel said. "They have a little bit different style of defense, very aggressive, a little bit different type coverages, carry receivers within zones and so forth, a little bit different than what we face every day, so it's a learning challenge that we've got to handle first and then an execution challenge."

One major difference between Illinois and most teams is that the Fighting Illini defensive backs will wall receivers, which is to play inside and prevent them from getting to the middle of the field on crossing routes and the like. Most teams will drop into a zone from the start of the play, but while Illinois does that sometimes, they also provide the other look, Hazell said.

"They play with their inside defenders different techniques where you get vertical guys running down the steams, they're going to take their inside defender and try to wall the receiver from getting inside, keep them outside of them," Hazell said.

Where the Fighting Illini do excel is at getting to the quarterback. The team leads the Big Ten with 32 sacks, an average of 3.2 per game, which places the squad sixth in the nation. Miller and defensive end Derek Walker lead the team with six apiece, while tackle David Lindquist has four, end Will Davis has 3.5, linebacker Martez Wilson has three and end Doug Pilcher has 2.5.

An area in which the team has not done so well is in the secondary. Illinois has just five interceptions this year, and no player has more than one. Opposing teams have passed for 15 touchdowns, and both Missouri and Western Michigan topped 300 yards through the air.

Part of that is because of a shifting secondary. Four safeties have played, with Travon Bellamy and Bo Flowers starting the year before Flowers moved to the bench with the return of junior college transfer Donsay Hardeman from injury. Nate Bussey also has seen time, but those four players have combined for one pick, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

At cornerback, Davis has held down one spot but the opposite starter, Dere Hicks, was moved to safety for the second game of the year with the emergence of Miami Thomas, who promptly tore his ACL. Hicks, last year's starter at corner, was then forced to move back to the position. In addition, Garrett Edwards has started one game in place of Davis.

Another player to watch is Wilson, a former five-star prospect who was supposed to vault to stardom this season. Instead, he's made 69 tackles but struggled at times under the burden of expectations.

"Potentially, as an athlete, he's as good as I've ever seen," linebackers coach Dan Disch said during October. "But as a linebacker, he's still not there. He's middle of the road right now."

Wilson has tried, spending the summer in the film room after spending some time with the second unit during spring because of missed assignments.

When Illinois has the ball: Expect fireworks through the air. Fighting Illini quarterbacks have thrown the ball 321 times this year, while the team has just 240 rushes by non-quarterbacks.

Everything really does start and end with Williams, who is atop the Big Ten in total yardage with 334.6 yards per game. He has had the ball in his hands for 460 of the team's 708 offensive plays. In four games this year, Williams has topped 300 yards, and he's averaged 310.7 yards per game over the last seven.

He's not afraid to air it out, as six Illini have caught passes of 50 yards or longer and seven of the top eight receivers average more than 13 yards per catch.

"Juice does a great job of getting the ball downfield," Jenkins said. "He has a great release. It's coming out hard and fast. The receivers are just getting better. They're growing. They're making plays downfield and things like that."

Benn is the No. 1 target, and Illinois likes to put him in the slot and watch him work from there. As a result, matchups of him and Jenkins might be few and far between.

After Benn, there are a number of talented receivers, but none stands out from the rest at least on the stat sheet.

Judson, a spritely 5-8, 163-pound senior, has 21 catches for 401 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Jeff Cumberland and true freshman Fred Sykes have 12 grabs apiece. Sykes has snagged 12 passes for 156 yards and a score, while Cumberland, a Columbus Brookhaven product and converted tight end, has returned from a preseason foot injury to catch 12 passes for 270 yards and three scores.

Chris Duvalt (5-11, 175) and A.J. Jenkins (6-0, 175) are both talented playmakers. Jenkins, a true freshman, had two touchdown grabs against Minnesota and leads the team in yards per catch (29.8) while amassing eight grabs and three touchdowns. Duvalt, a converted defensive back who burst onto the scene during fall camp, is a junior with eight catches for 119 yards and three scores.

Hoomanawanui is a dependable target with 278 yards and two touchdowns on his 21 grabs.

Illinois has struggled in the running game, which is one of the reasons Williams has been forced to throw so much. It hasn't helped that injuries have forced the squad to play two true freshmen in Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis at tackle at times. In four of the last five games, the Fighting Illini have been held below 120 yards rushing.

Daniel Dufrene, the back whose long run on Illinois' second play from scrimmage last year turned controversial when the officials did not notice a fumble at the end, is the leading tailback with 575 yards on 103 carries, though he does not have a touchdown. Freshman Jason Ford burst onto the scene with 172 yards against Indiana, but he has just 52 in three games since.

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