The game also pits two teams heading in vastly different directions, while still falling short of preseason expectations. Ohio State, tagged to be a worldbeater preseason, was routed by USC and lost at home to Penn State. Still, the Buckeyes have performed well throughout the rest of the season and are on the path to earning a share of a 4th consecutive Big Ten title. Illinois, on the other hand, has had a season that I’m hoping has made Ron Zook begrudge him ever letting a reality TV show — The Journey — be constructed around it. Their defense was blitzed by Chase Daniel for the second consecutive year, they lost at home to Minnesota, were bombarded by Penn State and beaten by lowly Wisconsin. To make matters worse, they decided to become the Big Ten’s newest MAC casualty this season by losing to Western Michigan in Detroit the week before. In short, they’re 5-5 and are finishing their season against a potential conference champion (Ohio State) and a potential January bowl team (Nerdwestern). They could just as well be spending their holidays at home. Illinois is certainly missing J Leman.
For the second straight week, the Buckeye defense will have to deal with a spread-ish offense run by a mobile quarterback. For those of us who remember Kafka’s Tim Tebow impersonation early into the game last week and the defensive debacle last year against the Illini in Columbus, I’m sure we’ll all be watching with baited breath to see what will transpire when Illinois has the ball. That said, there is definitely cause for optimism. After Kafka ran wild on the 4-5 wide shotgun QB draws on the first drive of the game, he was stuffed for practically the rest of the game. Further, Heacock’s defenses don’t exclusively feature the passive zone coverage that doomed them in important stretches last year.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Illinois’ offense just isn’t what it was last year. Rashard Mendenhall’s departure for the NFL left a two-man tailback tandem in his wake. Daniel Dufrene — who had the big gain fumble on Illinois’ first play from scrimmage — and freshman Jason Ford have done an admirable job in lieu of the explosive Mendenhall. Yet, they just aren’t Rashard Mendenhall and it’s showing both in the stats and in the wins-losses column. Accordingly, with Mendenhall’s departure mostly uncompensated for at the tailback position, Juice Williams has had an incredible burden in leading the offense. He, and not Dufrene, is the Illini’s leading rusher this season, though it’s a slim margin (577 yards to 575 yards). Further, it seems the Illini offense is struggling with the fact that lightning just may not strike twice. After finally accruing the talent to run the zone-read option plays, Illinois’ offense barnstormed through most foes — including us — last season before being kicked in the jimmy by the Trojans in Pasadena. But it seems like opposing defenses are catching up to the Illini’s schemes, which, in conjunction with Mendenhall’s absence, has forced Juice Williams into more passing situations. While he has two games over 400 yards passing, Juice’s TD-INT ratio is not good (20-14). His performance has also been cause for public criticism from Ron Zook.the hype this season, but his speed and athleticism are very real. The Illini also have capable talent in the secondary, with Vontae Davis as the headliner of that unit. Again, they have, in essence (but perhaps not spirit, because of J Leman), the blueprint for last year’s defense that stifled the Buckeyes’ offense. And yet: it isn’t working.
As someone who’s new to blogging, I struggle with a format for these type of posts. This is true especially for this year’s team as our offensive line — the only thing I really watch — has been frustrating. Furthermore, I hate making predictions since predictions are glorified unscientific guessing. Still, I’ll take a stab at it with some kind of keys to victory. I’ll also try to shy away from something that centers around the truism for this year’s team that “as the offensive line goes, so goes the team”.
Ohio State wins if… Nader Abdallah has a repeat performance of his game last week against Northwestern. Of course, this isn’t limited to just Abdallah, and if Cam Heyward and Doug Worthington want to dominate as well, they are more than welcome to. But it seems that Abdallah has been the one to catch fire of late this season. I don’t know if the stats he piled up (8 tackles, 3 solo, 1 TFL and a QB hit) were a function of the opposition or not, but a similar performance would create havoc for Illinois’ fragile offense. Pressure up the middle is crucial for defending the option. It would allow Laurinaitis to spy and it would certainly turn Good Juice into Bad Juice. The latter is what I want to see this game.
Illinois wins if… they get sacks. I know, I know. I said I’d try to shy away from saying something about our offensive line. That said, while Illinois’ defense has been grim at points this season, they are first in the conference and sixth nationally in sacks per game. As we all know, our offensive line is the clear weakness of our football team and their performance this season hasn’t gotten any better. Sadly, there’s just no hope that they will be anything other than a liability against Illinois and Michigan, with a faint hope that a month off could do them some good in preparation for a bowl game. Remember, Ohio State found themselves behind down and distance often against Northwestern last week. And still, in spite of the 3rd and 10, 11, 14, 15, and 16 holes our offense was in, they inexplicably got out through the grace of Terrelle Pryor. That is not skill; that is luck. Remember again: there was nothing good that our offensive line did on Beanie’s 55yd TD run against Northwestern. That was not skill from the line that created that running lane; that was luck that Beanie wriggled his way out of that. If Illinois is able to get to Pryor on these certain passing situations, as Northwestern was NOT able to, our offense gets off the field and Illinois is in a better position to win.
This will be the first Illibuck game of the post-J Leman era. While he will not be on the field playing, his spirit will watch over us all.