Big Ten Game Preview: Illinois

As the season nears, anticipation rises for the 2009 edition of Ohio State football. The Buckeyes will face eight Big Ten foes while trying to win another piece of the conference title, and today begins a series looking at each of those eight teams OSU will face and an early look ahead to their contests with the Buckeyes. Illinois is the first team to go under the microscope.

As the 2009 season nears, Ohio State will prepare to win a share of its fifth straight Big Ten title, a feat accomplished just once previously in school history.

With that in mind, will run a series this week that provide previews of the eight Big Ten teams the Buckeyes will have to face in order to reach those lofty heights.

Illinois Sept. 26, Ohio Stadium
Head coach Ron Zook
2008 record: 5-7, 3-5 Big Ten

With a senior quarterback in charge, the Fighting Illini will try to return to 2007's Rose Bowl form after last year's disappointing season in which stats might suggest that the team underachieved.

What We Know: Illinois returns most of its skill position talent from 2008, and those players are actually skilled and talented. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn form one of the most dynamic quarterback-wide receiver duos in the country, while Illinois has a number of options in the backfield.

Major Questions: There are a ton after last year's disappointing season. Will that talented offense be able to avoid last year's major issues with turnovers, penalties and inconsistency? Will the defense find maturation and experience as a means to better performance? And will a team coached by Zook ever find and maintain a high level of performance from week to week?

Offensive Overview: Despite the fact that Illinois finished below .500 overall in both league and overall play – even dropping an embarrassing nonconference contest to Western Michigan – the Fighting Illini did have one of the league's most prolific offenses. The squad's 438.8 yards per game were good for second in the league, just ahead of the third-place standing of 28.7 points per contest.

In addition, Illinois' 269.3 passing yards per game topped the Big Ten; in league play, the total upped to 271.5 yards per game, more than 35 more than second-place Purdue.

So what went wrong? Turnovers and penalties didn't help. Williams tried to put the Illini on his back but seemed to bow under the load at times, tossing a league-high 16 interceptions. Overall, the squad lost 26 turnovers, near the top of the conference and an average of more than two per game.

The Ohio State game really summed up Illinois' year offensively. Despite 455 yards, the most the Buckeyes allowed all season, the Fighting Illini had just 13 points until a garbage-time score with under a minute to go, fumbled four times, lost one and threw an interception. The fumble led to a short OSU touchdown drive and the interception, made by Kurt Coleman, came with Illinois inside the red zone.

The cast of characters is mostly the same, and a year of experience should help when it comes to the mistakes and inconsistencies that dogged the Fighting Illini. A running game would also make a big difference.

Illinois simply wasn't able to mount much of a rushing attack from those players who are not named Williams. The quarterback was right when he entered the year telling anyone who would listen that his squad would be a passing team after having been a rushing-based attack in previous seasons, but that was mostly because of a lack of production from the team's backs.

Williams led the squad with 719 yards on the ground, outpacing the total of starting tailback Daniel Dufrene, who had 663 yards. Dufrene was used less and less as the year went on, averaging 38.1 yards per game over the team's last eight contests after checking in at 99.0 in the first four games.

Jason Ford, a big 230-pound back, tried to step up and had a few good games, rushing for 172 yards and three touchdowns against Indiana, but his output was far from consistent. The arrival of freshman Justin Green, who Illinois promised a chance at running back, could help. Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard also are in the mix.

Illinois did lose two of its best offensive linemen, first-team All-Big Ten left tackle Xavier Fulton and standout center Ryan McDonald.

The passing game has a chance to be lethal given Williams' growth as a thrower a season ago, which Zook said continued into the spring. Benn's continued maturation will also help; few in the conference can match the physical skills of the All-Big Ten second-team receiver, who caught 1,055 yards worth of passes a season ago as a sophomore.

The coaching staff had plenty of skill to work with at wideout a season ago but never could figure out a rotation that allowed any wideout but Benn to emerge. This year, the Fighting Illini could have a possible star on their hands in Jarred Fayson, a Florida transfer who sat out last year after showing plenty of potential as a freshman as a Gator by catching 148 yards worth of balls and three touchdowns to go with 89 rushing yards.

There are plenty of other options at the wideout spot. Jeff Cumberland, a converted tight end, has plenty of size and started to come into his own last season with 20 catches, 352 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui caught 312 yards worth of passes.

Chris Duvalt looked to be ready for a standout junior year with two scoring catches in the opener before ending the year with just 10 grabs, though four were touchdowns. A.J. Jenkins forced his way into playing time as a freshman and had 11 catches for 287 yards and three scores. Same with Fred Sykes, who had 12 catches for 156 yards and a touchdown. Dufrene also provides a good pair of hands out of the backfield after making 30 catches last season.

Despite the offseason loss of coordinator Mike Locksley, who took a head coaching job at New Mexico, the Fighting Illini will continue to run the same offense, Zook said during the spring.

If that stays true, expect plenty of deep strikes this year from the Illinois offense. Williams averaged 14.5 yards per completion, best of the league's top 10 passers, and 10 of his 22 touchdown passes went for 25 or more yards.

Key To The Season (Off): The running back position. If Illinois can find a workhorse to carry the football the way league player of the year Rashard Mendenhall did in 2007, a maturing unit at almost every other position shouldn't have much trouble piling up the points in '09.

Defensive Overview: The Fighting Illini gave up 26.6 points per game to finish in ninth place in the conference, though the average yards allowed of 350.3 landed right in the middle of the conference.

Part of the problem for the squad stemmed from the offense leaving Illinois in dire straights. Teams started drives from an average of beyond its own 35-yard line, and 33 opposing drives – nearly three per game – began in Illinois territory.

As a result, the Illinois defense looked a lot worse in 2008 than it might have really been. Of the 319 points given up by the squad last year, 98 came when opponents started drives inside Fighting Illini territory, and 30 more were either return touchdowns or safeties not allowed by the defense. That total of 128 points equaled more than 10 per game.

That breakdown of the numbers shows two fundamental truths. The first is that the Illinois defense wasn't done many favors by the team's offense or special teams. The second is that Illinois still had plenty of issues stopping teams, allowing too many yards and points even when given long fields to protect.

Overall the Fighting Illini defenders placed sixth in the conference in passing yards allowed (197.4) and ninth in rushing yards (152.9). Those totals assuredly would have been better had the team's tackling been better. Throughout the year, some short passes became long gains and some runs were broken against an Illinois team that, especially in the secondary, had issues getting ball carriers on the ground.

On top of that, Illinois lost what might have been its two best defensive players in first-round draft choice Vontae Davis at cornerback and middle linebacker Brit Miller, who led the team in tackles. There were also massive losses along the line in ends Derek Walker and Will Davis as well as tackle David Lindquist. The three combined for 113 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks.

In addition, tackle Josh Brent has been suspended indefinitely after serving jail time related to a drunken driving arrest. Last year, the sophomore made 34 tackles and 8.5 TFL.

The Fighting Illini would like to have Brent back to anchor a line that was underrated in '07 and then solid on the pass rush last season, especially when it came to making 32 sacks, two shy of the conference lead.

End Doug Pilcher is back as well after making six TFL while sharing playing time with Walker and Davis, while Jerry Brown made six TFL in the team's spring game in his bid for playing time.

At linebacker, Illinois has to replace both Miller and outside backer Rodney Pittman. One-time uber-recruit Martez Wilson was expected to dominate last year as a sophomore, but he was inconsistent to the point that Zook was forced to reduce his playing time.

Zook was exceedingly complimentary to Wilson in the spring. The Chicago native has extraordinary talent, but he'll still have to prove it on the field.

Travon Bellamy and Donsay Hardeman return as starting safeties, though the secondary outside of Davis was a weak link for Illinois most of last season. A 2007 starter at corner, Dere Hicks was to be a safety last season before starter Miami Thomas blew out his knee, moving Hicks back to his original position.

Bo Flowers and Nate Bussey also got time, but no matter which combination the Fighting Illini put on the field, it struggled to be effective. Illinois made just six interceptions a season ago.

Key To The Season (Def): All three units have questions, so picking one is difficult. However, replenishing a defensive line that powered some of Illinois' best moments over the past two seasons will be the first key for Zook and his coaches when Camp Rantoul begins in August.

Special Teams: As a freshman, kicker Matt Eller showed that he's one of the best in the conference, making 15 of 20 kicks including 8 of 10 from beyond 40 yards. The other side of the coin could use some work as punter Anthony Santella dropped just 13 of 53 kicks inside the 20, averaged 39.4 yards and had a blocked punt result in a safety against Ohio State.

Despite all of the talent on hand, Illinois struggled in the return game with a solid but unspectacular kick unit led by Jenkins' 22.4-yard average and one touchdown. Benn and Hawthorne could combine on punts, where the Fighting Illini was last in the league a season ago. Clearly, the punt game needs some work in Champaign.

New Name To Know: Terry Hawthorne, WR, 6-1, 185, East St. Louis, Ill. – The nation's No. 11 wideout, Hawthorne could nose his way into a position for playing time given Illinois' inconsistent performances at the spot and his talent after scoring 28 touchdowns, recording 1,009 receiving yards and running back four picks as a senior.

Best Case Scenario: The offense clicks, a few key players on defense turn into monsters and Illinois makes a second run toward the top of the conference in three years.

Worst Case Scenario: Last year repeats itself. With too many players prone to making too many mistakes, a talented team blows up and falls short of a bowl contest.

OSU Game: There's no doubt Ohio State should be concerned about its Big Ten opener given the way Illinois has played against OSU the last three seasons. The Fighting Illini nearly pulled off a stunning upset against the undefeated Buckeyes in 2006, ended the Scarlet and Gray's unblemished season a year later and then piled up the yards last season.

Illinois starts with a rebuilding Missouri team that has had its number during the past few seasons. Next is Illinois State before an off week that precedes the game against Ohio State. If the Fighting Illini emerge a confident 2-0 from the first two weeks, they should be in a better mental state than they were at the conclusion of last year's disappointing campaign.

Of all of the landmines on the Buckeye schedule, this will be one of the toughest to avoid. Ohio State will have the talent advantage but Illinois comes closer than most teams in the Big Ten. Illinois has made plenty of mistakes in the past; the Buckeyes are young enough to expect some. This one could very well come down to which team makes fewer.

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