The Illini didn’t have the start to the season they hoped for. Considered one of the Big Ten’s better teams, complete with a senior, 4 year starting quarterbacks, the Illini opened 2009 with a huge, resounding thud against the Missouri Tigers. Disaster may be a better description, for the Illini lost Arrelious Benn and Jason Ford to second half injuries and lost Martez Wilson for the rest of the season following some neck soreness after the game. The Illini let it be known: they miss Brit Miller, Vontae Davis, Mike Locksley and Eric Wolford more than they would have otherwise imagined.
Of course, we all miss J Leman.
Those of us who remember the 2007 game between these two, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, remember the damage then-sophomore QB Juice Williams did on the ground. His 16 carries for 70 yards don’t tell the story of how inopportune his yards were, most of which came on 3rd and long and 4th down situations that denied Ohio State the ball with a chance to tie the game. In spite of a huge drop-off in team performance, Juice returns after a junior season in 2008 that saw him lead the team in rushing, throw for 3000 yards and tally 27 touchdowns for an Illini team that followed a Rose Bowl campaign with a stay at home for the holidays. There’s some cause for concern among the Illini. Not only did Juice command a 2008 team that fell well below expectations after the Rose Bowl year, but his Illini got rocked against Missouri (18/28, 179 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT)2. Further, Juice himself left the Illinois State game the next week with a bruised quadricep after the game’s first TD. Whatever Illinois fans make of Juice’s individual performance against Missouri, they will be pleased to know that no one is expecting Juice’s quadricep to show any ill-effects against Ohio State. The past two years has shown there’s such a thing as “Good Juice” and “Bad Juice”. The “Good Juice” is slippery, elusive, can break contain and create havoc for opposing defenses (see: Ohio State 2007, Michigan 2008). The “Bad Juice” is an antsy, tunnel-visioned turnover factory (see: Nerdwestern 2008, Ohio State 2008). May Buckeye fans see the latter, since he’s much more fun.
2008 also showed that Illini fans miss Rashard Mendenhall more than they would’ve otherwise imagined. All else equal, it’s generally not a good thing that your QB leads the team in rushing, as Juice did for the Illini last year. This year, the tailback picture hasn’t gotten any better to look at for Illini fans. Expect Daniel Dufrene (he of the fumble fame), Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure to all see the field against the Buckeyes, but you may also expect that not one of those 3 really stands out. None of them have so far. Leshoure only had 38 yards on 10 carries against the Tigers. Ford had the better day against Illinois State the next week (10 carries, 137 yards), but Illinois State is not a very good measuring stick. I’m expecting Ford to get the most carries against the Buckeyes, but the absence of a lead back in the fold is a source of consternation for the Illini. May it make Juice think he has to do too much to carry the Illini to victory.
Buckeye fans may want to keep their eyes peeled for #26. That’s Justin Green, the Louisville, KY product that originally committed to Ohio State to follow his older brother and Ohio State football alum Marcus Green. However, he was a National LOI Day switcheroo to the Illini. The Illini allowed him to play tailback whereas the Buckeyes saw him as a defensive back. He’s impressed so far (probably not enough to be an immediate player), and even played during the Illinois State game.
Illinois’ receiver corp fascinates me. When many people expected Illinois to have a strong 2009 season, they pointed to Illini’s receiving options as evidence for a valid prediction. This unit, perhaps moreso than the others, laid the biggest egg against Missouri, making the 37-9 shellacking all the more surprising. Still, in spite of that performance, this unit will hope to make things happen for the Zookers. The aforementioned Arrelious Benn is clearly the biggest weapon of the group, but is off to a very slow start this season (1 catch, 9 yards against Missouri). Regardless, he may be the best wide receiver our secondary sees the entire season, and that includes Damian Williams. Jeff Cumberland, of Columbus Brookhaven, may be the biggest matchup problem. Listed as a WR, his 6’5, 255lb frame makes him an easy target for Juice (his dropsies against Missouri notwithstanding) and may make defending him a difficult task. It’s actually Michael Hoomanawanui that’s the tight end, all 6’5 270lbs of him. Those names stick out, but it’s actually Florida transfer Jarred Fayson that leads the team in receptions. Keep your eyes peeled for #8 and #1. #8 is AJ Jenkins, who should play a lot, but — like Benn and Cumberland — has been quiet and inconsistent in 2009. #1 is Cordale Scott. If you follow recruiting and that name rings a bell, it should. Scott is a Tarblooder and, to date, the only Tarblooder to say no to an Ohio State scholarship to head elsewhere.
Protecting and paving the way for these Illini skillplayers is an experienced, and ultimately capable, offensive line that struggled mightily against Missouri. I didn’t get to see them against their 1-AA patsy, but I also don’t care. Jon Asamoah is a name to remember. He’s the starting right guard and was an all-conference performer last year.
Important Things to Watch for: Ohio State’s Defense v. Illinois’ Offense
- Everything goes to hell for the Illini offense when their offensive line disintegrates. Eric Wolford, the previous offensive line coach, left for a similar position at South Carolina. Fortunately for Ohio State, Cam Heyward is an angry, angry young man that’s been unblockable of late.
- The defensive philosophy increasingly bears the mark of Luke Fickell, praise be to him. However, in spite of this new, violent approach on defense, Thad Gibson has been dropping off into coverage a lot. Under what situations does the coaching staff rush him and try to flush Juice out of the pocket and when do they have him play contain? Remember, Juice on the run is not always good for opposing defenses.
- How much did playing Toledo prepare us for Illinois? The players seem to think it did and, if they’re right, ohhhhh boy. This could get fun.
- Who draws the Rejus Benn assignment? Is it going to be Torrence/Amos or Chekwa? Torrence and Chekwa performed admirably on their own islands against USC’s receiver corp of Ausberry and Williams.
Meanwhile, Ohio State’s offense will try to continue an improvement from one day and one game to the next. Outright grim against USC in a game that got away from the Buckeyes, they had a necessary bounce-back against a Toledo defense that was ripe for the picking. Credit where credit is due, though. Given our youth and inexperience on the offense, there’s a lot to be said about taking care of business, for the most part.
The most intriguing battle of the game might be Terrelle Pryor vs. the Illini pass defense. Buckeye fans know all too well; Terrelle Pryor has a lot of bad habits as a quarterback. We should remember that he’s just a true sophomore who likely got away with a ton of bad habits considering the spread offense he ran at Jeannette. Still, he’s learning and this newfangled sorcery called the “forward pass” both confuses and frightens the Columbus locals in its infancy3.
Alas, we know about lingering concerns regarding Pryor’s progression, mechanics, and his bad habit of locking into receivers and broadcasting his passes ahead of time. Still, Illini’s pass defense is just soooo inviting. Mark May made sure everyone knew that Toledo was the 107th ranked pass defense last week as Terrelle Pryor rebounded from the USC game the week earlier. Terrelle Pryor took advantage of that. But did you know that Illinois’ pass defense is even worse? Oh it’s true… it’s true. Out of 120 teams in 1-A, Illinois is 119th in pass defense, 103rd in pass efficiency defense, and 102nd in total defense. That’s right, the Illini fork over 330 yards passing a game. The season is young, but those numbers are grim. A green post-Maclin and post-whoever that QB was with the screaming mother and girlfriend during the Alamo Bowl4 Missouri team torched them for 329 passing yards. Illinois State one-upped that in a losing effort, gaining 354 yards through the air. Curiously, a scan of the Illini secondary — Dere Hicks (CB), Tavon Wilson (CB), Donsay Hardeman (FS), Garrett Edwards (SS) — reveals that there’s plenty of athletic ability in the back four. How they got shredded by Illinois State and Missouri is attributable to something outside of native athleticism, such as blown coverages, confusion among the safeties, and poor game-planning. Illinois does have a new defensive coordinator, who came over from the Bearcats after a dismal 2008 campaign.
Losing Martez Wilson sucks for Illini fans. He was, in my opinion, their best player on the defense in spite of 3/4 defensive backs returning to their positions and 3/4 senior defensive linemen. Consequently, I don’t know exactly how the Illini linebackers intend to line up. Evan Frierson, a redshirt freshman, replaces Martez Wilson, but a 6’2 226lb frame doesn’t seem becoming of a second string middle linebacker being thrown into the starting rotation this early in the season. He may be moved, and it may be Ian Thomas that moves inside. Both will be joined by junior Nate Bussey or Russell Ellington at weakside linebacker. The Illini didn’t get much production from this unit against Missouri, outside of a workman like effort from Martez Wilson. Now, absent Wilson, this unit will be given the task of stopping Ohio State’s run game and playing contain on Pryor. Easier said than done, even though the Ohio State rushing attack has not gotten off the ground… figuratively speaking.
Of course, what Buckeye fans will likely be watching the most is something they’ve finally realized is the most important part of the game: the battle in the trenches. Ohio State’s offensive line has been heavily scrutinized so far this season. An iffy unit overall just had a major shakeup. Cordle’s injury post-USC led to Brew Crew member JB Shugarts being given his first career start. Likewise, Mike Adams made his first appearance this season at left tackle, being subbed in for Andy Miller in the first half against the Rockets. This unit knows: it has to get better. Whatever the motivation is — hateration from Buckeye fans or abroad, they know they have to improve from where they are now.
“I think this team is going to play with a chip on our shoulder all the way through the Big Ten, just because of all the criticism we get, how people don’t believe in us,” Shugarts said. “I think we’re going to bring it as hard as we can every game playing nasty, playing fierce.”
That nastiness and fierceness will be directed at a veteran Illinois defensive front. 3 of the 4 starters are seniors (Antonio James, Doug Pilcher, Sirod Williams (DT)). One is a junior (Josh Brent, DT). They’ve been fairly good against the run so far, giving up about 80 yards a game. Then again, why run against this Illinois defense when you can throw it over their heads?
Important Things to Watch for: Ohio State’s Offense v. Illinois’ Defense
- Can we use a conventional rushing game to get yards on the ground? I have no doubt that Ohio State will try to establish an offense on the ground first before taking to the skies. If it can do that, the Illini are in for a very long game. But, we’ve seen so far a general aversion to a misdirection rushing attack, instead hoping to establish rushing yards with our ol’ buddy “Dave”. But by golly, the prospect of Pryor and the zone read creating hell for Illinois’ defense is real. Defenders take such bad angles on Pryor because he’s far too deceptive in his speed. I think the Buckeyes can gain the rushing yards on the perimeter. Whatever the case, I’ll be happy so long as we can get something going, be it out of the power I, the spread, the Notre Dame Box, whatev.
- Will Illinois’ defense make Pryor pay for his bad habits more than Toledo did? Those bad habits are there, and in the process of being un-learned, but Illinois may be able to seize the opportunity better than Toledo did.
- Pryor admirably keeps his eyes scanned downfield because he genuinely believes in his wide receivers. He was cited in an article I read on Bucknuts as having his eyes locked downfield when on the move because he feels that getting the ball to his receivers on the fly can allow them to make plays downfield. This is very admirable and demonstrates he’s a good teammate. Still, I think he needs to realize that, for this season, he is the biggest weapon on the Buckeye team. If the running lane is there, take it.
- Dane Sanzenbacher against a bigger, slower secondary: Sanzenbacher has a field day, right? The prospects are indeed promising for someone who may play himself into a consensus first team all-Big Ten nod.
- This is Jim Tressel’s 300th career game as a head coach (including his Youngstown State days)
- This is the third straight game against a team whose head coach was a former Ohio State secondary coach (Pete Carroll 1979, Tim Beckman 2005-6, Ron Zook 1988-90).
- Jack Park took a stroll back into memory lane, citing that the Illini’s victory over Ohio State in 1921 is responsible for giving birth to the “Fighting Illini” nickname that they carry today. Interesting if true, but I’ve seen references to the “Fighting Illini” that far predate 1921. Good read, though. You’re required to ready anything by Jack Park.
- Illinois has won 7 of 10 games played in Columbus. That. sucks.
- Woody Hayes turned this series on its ear. Originally the rivalry game for Ohio State, Woody turned the game into a one-sided affair. He lost only 4 times in 28 years. He tied twice, including a 0-0 tie in his first year in Columbus. Woody’s last loss came in 1967, which was the year before the 1968 team turned the program around for good. Since that 1967 loss, the Buckeyes outscored Illinois 411-68 (average score of about 37-6) in 11 games, including 3 shutouts.
- John Cooper’s record in this game, though, leaves a lot to be desired.
- I uploaded the 2005 game, but you can also reminisce about 1995 too.
- and by battle, I mean you can keep it if you want it that badly, Illini fans. Stupid turtle. [↩]
- He got NO help from his receivers this game. [↩]
- Can we have our T-formation back please? We could sure use a man like Herbert Hoover again. Those were indeed the days. [↩]
- I forget his name at the moment, and I also don’t care… oh wait, Chase Daniel. That’s right. [↩]