A Closer Look: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten play commences for No. 13 Ohio State on Saturday in Ohio Stadium with what might be one of the toughest games of the conference slate. Despite early struggles, Illinois will bring a talented team to Columbus. History is also on the side of the Fighting Illini, who have won three of four in the Horseshoe.

Illinois (1-1)
Saturday, Sept. 25
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN
Ohio Stadium; Columbus

The Fighting Illini
Head coach: Ron Zook, 19-32 at Illinois, fifth year (42-46 overall)
2008 record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 61-30-4
School location: Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
Enrollment: 42,326
Colors: Blue and Orange
Stadium: Memorial Stadium
Fight songs: "Illinois Loyalty" and "Oskee Wow Wow"

Illinois Players To Watch
QB Juice Williams: The senior is set to move into the top 10 in Big Ten history in total yardage; with just 171 against OSU, he would set the UI record as well, having thrown for 6,584 yards and rushed for 2,126 in his career.

Williams started his career as mostly a running threat but has developed into a credible passer whose major flaw seems to be a propensity for interceptions. He led the Big Ten in passing yards per game a season ago by a wide margin.

"The thing about Juice Williams is that he's a double threat," OSU linebacker Ross Homan said. "He's an unbelievable passer, but at the same time, if he gets outside the pocket, he's a great runner. You don't have that every week."

WR Arrelious Benn: A first-team All-Big Ten choice last year with 122 career catches, "Rejus" is one of the top receivers in the league despite being held to just one catch for 9 yards through two games. He had that catch in the opener before going out with a sprained ankle, and Illinois State focused on taking him out of the last game, snapping his streak of 26 games – every one of his career – with a catch.

WR Jarred Fayson: A Florida transfer who played on the '06 national championship team, Fayson has brought skill and leadership – he was a group leader for one of eight "team" units during the offseason – and leads the team with eight catches for 89 yards. Fayson, once a five-star wide receiver recruit, ran the ball 14 times for 126 yards and a touchdown at Florida in 2006, showcasing his skills in limited action.

DE Doug Pilcher: One of three senior starters on the defensive line, Pilcher, a Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end) candidate, has started at least five games in each of the last three seasons. He has made seven tackles this year while adding two tackles for loss, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble.

Projected Starters (12 players listed on offense)
QB 7 Juice Williams, 6-2, 235
RB 22 Daniel Dufrene, 5-11, 205/21 Jason Ford, 6-0, 230/5 Mikel Leshoure, 6-0, 255/29 Troy Pollard, 5-8, 185
WR 9 Arrelious Benn, 6-2, 220
WR 17 Jeff Cumberland, 6-5, 255
WR 11 Jarred Fayson, 6-0, 215
WR 8 A.J. Jenkins, 6-0, 185
TE 16 Michael Hoomanawanui, 6-5, 270
LT 71 Jeff Allen, 6-5, 310
LG 66 Randall Hunt, 6-6, 320
C 62 Eric Block, 6-3, 290
RG 52 Jon Asamoah, 6-5, 315
RT 78 Ryan Palmer, 6-7, 310

DE 95 Doug Pilcher, 6-5, 265
DT 56 Sirod Williams, 6-0, 295
DT 92 Josh Brent, 6-2, 315
DE 90 Antonio James, 6-5, 255/97 Clay Nurse, 6-3, 260
LB 38 Ian Thomas, 6-0, 225
LB 33 Russell Ellington, 6-2, 225
LB 51 Evan Frierson, 6-2, 225
CB 3 Tavon Wilson, 6-0, 195
SS 20 Garrett Edwards, 6-2, 210
FS 4 Donsay Hardeman, 6-2, 210
CB 28 Dere Hicks, 5-10, 175

PK 84 Matt Eller, 6-2, 210
KO 13 Derek Dimke, 6-0, 180
P 87 Anthony Santella, 6-2, 190
KR 9 Arrelious Benn, 6-2, 220/8 A.J. Jenkins, 6-0, 185
PR 11 Jarred Fayson, 6-0, 215

Five Fast Facts:
1. The success of the road team in this series has been well documented. Illinois has won three of its last four and seven of 10 in Ohio Stadium. What's interesting is that of those seven wins, Ohio State was favored in five of the games, according to research done by the Champaign News-Gazette. The largest upset? The now-famous 2007 game in which Illinois beat then-No. 1 OSU by a 28-21 final. The Buckeyes were 15-point favorites that November day.

2. Illinois has played 23 games after an open week in the modern era and is 11-12 in those contests. The Illini have faced Ohio State six times after an off weekend, going 4-2. This is just the second season in UI history in which the team has two open weeks, joining 1989.

3. The Fighting Illini have faced a ranked Ohio State team on 36 occasions, going 11-25.

4. Hoomanawanui is a native of Bloomington, Ill., but his father Isy originally is from Hawaii and moved to the Land of Lincoln to play football at Illinois State. Hoomanawanui has grown his hair long to honor his Polynesian roots and also wears a kikepa, a colorful traditional Hawaiian dress, on campus at times.

5. Illinois' 384 yards rushing in the second week of the year against Illinois State is the sixth most for an NCAA team this year. The last time the Fighting Illini racked up such yardage? The team ran for 399 yards last year against another in-state I-AA foe, Eastern Illinois.

Offensive Scouting Report A week ago, Ohio State said that Toledo's offense began and ended with Aaron Opelt. This week, the same could be said of Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.

Buckeye fans are familiar with Williams, the multitalented threat who nearly beat Ohio State on the ground in 2006, did so through the air in '07 and then ran an offense last year that piled up 455 yards, the most given up by OSU during the campaign.

After starting his career as a work-in-progress passer who made most of his big plays with his legs, Williams worked a lot through the air a season ago, leading the Big Ten in passing yards per game.

"He just makes better decisions," OSU linebacker Austin Spitler said of Williams' progress over the years. "He has the same athletic skills. He flies around out there. He can hurt you with his feet. He's come along as a passing threat as well."

The problem with saying what Williams can do this year is that he hasn't had much field time. Illinois is coming off of an early open week, and Williams missed all but a few plays of the team's week two crushing of in-state foe Illinois State. On the year, he's 18 of 28 passing for 179 yards and an interception while rushing for 76 yards on 14 carries.

The Buckeyes will try to force Williams into mistakes; he threw 16 picks a season ago and was responsible for two turnovers last year, and by contrast, he had zero turnovers against four touchdowns while leading Illinois to its 2007 upset win in Ohio Stadium.

Williams is the key to running an offense that might be unlike any other the Buckeyes will see the rest of the season. BSB's unscientific poll of defenders from across the conference during the preseason Big Ten meetings yielded Illinois as perhaps the toughest team in the league for which to prepare.

"Our coaches would attest to that as well because of all the athletes they have and the different schemes they have on offense and a multitalented quarterback in Juice Williams," Spitler said. "It's definitely a difficult team to prepare for. We have to treat it like it's our last game, a bowl game."

The Fighting Illini have used misdirection and deception as part of its rushing attack for the past couple of years, and that also works into the playaction passing game that victimized Ohio State in 2007. In addition, this year Illinois has added more two tight-end sets as part of an offense now coordinated by former TCU offensive coordinator Mike Schultz.

When it comes to the rushing game, Illinois' rotation of five running backs got healthy with 384 yards against Illinois State after struggling against Missouri with top tailbacks Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford on the shelf with sprained ankles.

Each of those five tailbacks have had more than five carries, with Dufrene – the listed starter going into the season – hitting that number on the head with 62 yards and a touchdown on that quintet of carries.

Ford isn't known as a breakaway threat but has a 68-yard score to give him 11 rushes for 137 yards and a touchdown on the year. Then there's Troy Pollard (10 rushes, 64 yards), Mikel Leshoure (10, 38, 1 TD) and true freshman Justin Green (8, 56, 1).

Out wide, Illinois has at least nine players listed on its depth chart, led by Arrelious Benn and Jarred Fayson. The latter leads the team with eight catches for 89 yards, while Benn has been kept to just one catch for 9 yards despite prodigious talent. The Williams-to-Benn hookup expected this year has been on the field for only a handful of plays thanks to their respective injuries.

Fred Sykes has four catches on the year, while Chris Duvalt has the team's only receiving touchdown among his three catches for 43 yards.

Illinois returns three starters on the offensive line, including one of the better linemen in the Big Ten in senior right guard Jon Asamoah. Center Eric Block got an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA, while left tackle Jeff Allen was a Freshman All-American last year. Left guard Randall Hunt and right tackle Ryan Palmer are new starters.

Defensive Scouting Report
For the past two years, defense has been an Achilles' heel for the Fighting Illini. A year ago, the team finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every major defensive category, including ninth in rushing and scoring defense.

While the team was hurt majorly by return scores and short drives given up via turnovers from the offense, Illinois still had at best an average defense, and that was before the loss of standout linebacker Brit Miller and all-league cornerback Vontae Davis.

This year, the team has done well stopping the run, giving up just 80.5 yards per game, but neither Missouri nor Illinois State had to run considering each racked up more than 300 yards through the air.

Head coach Ron Zook blamed a few plays that got away against the in-state Redbirds.

"I watched every single play," he said. "Did we play perfect? No. But everything bad that happened can be very easily corrected. The thing that upset me more than anything, more than the pass coverage, is missed tackles. You take away the three missed tackles and you take away 110 yards from their passing game. Those are 5-yard, 4-yard, or 3-yard pass plays that turn into big plays."

The Illini have two experienced players in the secondary led by senior corner Dere Hicks, who is in his third year as a starter. There's also senior safety Donsay Hardeman, but his propensity of going for the kill shot rather than wrapping up has resulted in some big plays for the opposition over the years.

When it comes to the back end, Illinois runs a different coverage scheme than most teams, something the Buckeyes have said they have to be on the lookout for.

"They're very unique on defense," OSU receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. "It's the only time we'll see it all year, so we have to spend a considerable amount of time doing things to attack their coverages. They play it differently than other teams play their two high safeties, so it's different, and we have to make sure we're doing the right things."

The strength of the defense is the front line, where the team starts three seniors and also finds playing time for two juniors. End Doug Pilcher is the lone major holdover from the 2007, when the team's deep line frustrated many a Big Ten team, and he's had a solid year so far.

The other two senior starters are tackle Sirod Williams, who is the strongest player on the team, and end Antonio James. Then there's junior Josh Brent, a starter at tackle and former OSU recruit with five stops and three tackles for loss on the year.

A pair of backups has also made an impact in pass-rushing tackle Corey Liuget (seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble) and junior end Clay Nurse (seven tackles, 1.5 TFL).

"I just know they're big guys, strong guys and really fight to get to the ball," OSU lineman Bryant Browning said. "All of them look like they're strong. They come off the ball well and they try to make plays."

The Illini is inexperienced at linebacker with three new starters including leading tackler Ian Thomas, who has 17 stops. Projected middle linebacker Martez Wilson made nine stops in the first game, but the one-time five-star recruit is out for the rest of the year with a neck injury, leaving redshirt freshman Evan Frierson to start. The Illini, who average 225 pounds across its starting unit, also expect to start Russell Ellington (eight tackles and an interception) with Nate Bussey and Aaron Gress earning time.

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