Sweet, precious bye week ahoy. Ohio State has one more game before it gets a much needed week off. Next week, the players can think of Saturday as a time to heal some wounds and relax a bit before the Buckeyes play, arguably, the two best teams in the B1G TEN to conclude the season. The coaches, for their part, will probably pack their bags and go on some recruiting visits over the weekend, chasing some of the five stars that have held their ground on the recruiting trail to this point in the recruiting year. All that’s necessary is to take care of business at home against the Illinois Fighting Illini, essentially the worst team in the B1G TEN.
Still, we should not take the Illini for granted. We have seen the Buckeyes enough to know that there, ostensibly, no team they can’t beat. With some diligence, they can hang with the best of them and are undefeated this season as a result. There’s also no team against whom they can’t lose, as the games against Purdue, Indiana, and California demonstrated. Focus is necessary as the Buckeyes host the Fighting Illini, who are one loss away from bowl ineligibility in Tim Beckman’s first year. Beckman, the former Toledo head coach who took the Buckeyes to the wire last season, is both a former Ohio State assistant under Jim Tressel, and a former Urban Meyer assistant at Bowling Green. Meyer has said that there’s nothing special about coaching against a friend, and perhaps Beckman feels the same way. Despite the Illini reeling and on the verge of a losing season in November, there’s some talent on this squad. It hasn’t played to par, as the Illini were a trendy B1G TEN Championship Game pick in August, but the talent level at Illinois hasn’t really thinned over the course of the season. In what follows, I preview the Fighting Illini as you will see them on Saturday.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Illini’s offense this season. Nathan Scheelhaase (#2) hasn’t improved through the transition from Paul Petrino’s more pro style offense to Tim Beckman and Billy Gonzales’ (another former Urban Meyer assistant) more spread-to-run focus. Scheelhaase is mobile enough to make himself a credible option on the outside zone read, which I think is Beckman’s base play for the offense. It just hasn’t worked. The Illini are the worst offense in the league, last in both scoring and total offense. They are second to last behind only Michigan State in rushing offense, and averaging just 185 yards a game throwing the ball (8th in the B1G TEN). It just hasn’t gone well. Throw in some mid-game dings as well and it’s why Scheelhaase has split time with Reilly O’Toole (#4) this season. O’Toole hasn’t helped matters much.
That outside zone read is an important part of the Illini playbook has made it imperative for the Illini to get some production from the tailback position. The Illini lost Mikel Leshoure to the NFL last season, needing someone on the roster to step up. So far, Donovonn Young (#5) has done the most to fill in that gap. Still, it really isn’t a lot. Young looked good in two losing efforts, tallying 78 yards in the loss to Louisiana Tech and notching 124 yards on 21 carries in the loss last week to Indiana. However, we should be surprised if he didn’t get token yards, since the Techsters and the Hoosiers are the 62nd and 112th ranked rushing defense in all of college football. In games against opponents with some bite, Young hasn’t been involved much. He had 63 yards against the Nitts, 5 yards against the Badgers, and 49 yards against the Wolverines. This inconsistency has led to some other opportunities for Illini skill players. Josh Ferguson (#6) gets most of the other opportunities for the Illini. He had a fine game in the carpetbomb loss against Arizona State (14 carries, 101 yards, long: 51), but has a high of only 38 yards in all other games. Dami Ayoola (#22), a true freshman, may see some playing time as well. The Illini will want Scheelhaase to help on the ground, though he has only 161 rushing yards on the season. 84 of those came in the 31-14 loss to the Badgers in Madison.
The Illini are the 8th-ranked passing offense in the B1G TEN at 185 yards a game, which is a full yard a game better than the Ohio State Buckeyes. Mind you: this is the B1G TEN. Thus, 8th in passing the B1G TEN qualifies for 103rd nationally. Ohio State’s excuse is that it gets the lion’s share of its yards on the ground, putting the Buckeyes at a decent 45th overall in total offense. Illinois, though, is 90th in rushing offense, putting it at 111th nationally in total offense. The Illini could probably use AJ Jenkins again, though he declared early and is now with the San Francisco 49ers. As it stands, Ryan Lankford (#12) is doing the most work. He has 29 catches for 413 yards on the season, including a season high 104 yards against Penn State (and 97 against Charleston Southern). Josh Ferguson, the tailback, is next on the list with 23 catches and 199 yards, using his 5’8 frame as a type of “scatback” or multi-purpose back for the Illini’s offense. The two other starting wide receivers are Darius Millines (#15) and Spencer Harris (#80). Millines did have an 80 yard game against Indiana, though has combined for 4 catches and 9 yards in four of his other five games. Harris’ best game was a 4 catch, 46 yard game against Wisconsin. Illinois will feature a tight end in base sets, with Jon Davis (#3) and Evan Wilson (#89) listed as co-starters. Neither has done much this season.
That Illinois has allowed 30 sacks this season (121st nationally), including eight against the Hoosiers, is a big reason why the Illini offense has been so terrible in 2012. Allowing 71 TFLs (122nd nationally) on top of that hasn’t helped matters any. The line, going left to right, is Hugh Thornton (#72), Michael Heitz (#74), Graham Pocic (#76), Ted Karras (#69), and Simon Cvijanovic (#68). The best player on the unit is Graham Pocic, whose younger brother, Ethan, was recruited by the Buckeyes before verbally committing to play for Louisiana State. Pocic is a three year starter. Thornton, another three year starter, was previously the left guard.
Illinois is no man’s land in the B1G TEN. The worst scoring offense in the league is complemented by the worst scoring defense in the league. It’s a weird drop off from its previous position as the second best defense in the league last year, which conceded only 286 yards a game. The Illini did lose talents like Whitney Mercilus to the NFL, but nonetheless retained a fair bit of veteran players from last year’s squad. My belief is that Tim Beckman was foolish to not throw a lot of money to keep Vic Koenning in Champaign. Koenning was not retained by the new head coach and is now the co-defensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina. Their performance this season is much better than what Tim Banks and company have done. In short, Beckman, a defensive specialist that is not a defensive specialist, replaced a quality coordinator like Vic Koenning with the holdovers from Brian Kelly’s staff at Cincinnati.
The Illini could really use Whitney Mercilus back, but they do retain Akeem Spence (#94) from last year’s squad. At 6’1, 305lbs, he may not be having the same impact as he had last year playing opposite of Whitney Mercilus, but he presents a noticeable size problem for the interior of our offensive line . Corey Linsley’s play has decreased a bit as the season has progressed, which may make Spence a problem. Marcus Hall’s play has also deteriorated significantly as well. Spence is joined inside by Glenn Foster (#91), who has had a fairly quiet season to date. The one with the best stats on the defensive line is Michael Buchanan (#99), who has 5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks on the season. With this in mind, most of the production has been in the non-conference games. Justin Staples (#54) will start opposite Buchanan. Like Buchanan, Staples has been a bit of a non-factor in league play.
The Illini fans in attendance would probably want a monster game from Jonathan Brown (#45), the starting weakside linebacker who leads the team in tackles (55), TFLs (8.5), and sacks (3.5). He’s having, essentially, a second team All-B1G TEN type of year as a junior. The problem, though, is that tackles are few and far between on this team. The three starting linebackers are the only Illini in the top 50 in tackles, with Brown the highest at 21. Contrast that with the steady production Michigan State is getting from its linebacker corp, with Max Bullough leading the way with 76. The middle linebacker is a true freshman that Ohio State seriously considered picking up late in last year’s class. Mason Monheim (#43), of Orrville, Ohio, could be a good one down the road for the Illini and has made an instant impact for the squad. The final linebacker is more of a “star” in Ohio State’s nomenclature. Ashante Williams (#25), another Ohioan, has 52 tackles and 2.5 TFLs this year.
The Illini are fairly experienced in the back four, though I’m not sure it’s really mattered this season. The veteran of the group is Justin Green (#26), whose name should sound familiar. His older brother, Marcus, was one of the first recruits, if not the first recruit, to commit to Jim Tressel when he took over the reins of the program in Columbus. Justin Green was originally committed to Ohio State before a last minute switch on signing day in 2009. Green wanted to play some tailback. Ohio State saw Green as a cornerback. Green is now a cornerback, so there you go. The other corner is Terry Hawthorne (#1), another name that appeared on Ohio State’s radar for a while in 2009, before Hawthorne found a home in Champaign-Urbana. The starting strong safety is Steve Hull (#5), who has two interceptions on the season. This name should also sound familiar. Steve Hull was the safety that Jake Stonerburner torched in last season’s game for Ohio State’s only catch in the game, which eventually propelled the Buckeyes to victory in Memorial Stadium. Supo Sanni (#7) is the other starting safety.
Illinois wins if… someone has a monster game. The Illini will need someone like Nathan Scheelhaase to have his best game of the season. Against Wisconsin, Scheelhaase had 178 passing yards and 84 rushing yards, which gave the Illini an initial charge against the favored Badgers in Madison. Josh Ferguson hasn’t had a breakout game this season, but is the Illini’s most versatile player. If Scheelhaase can have 300 yards of total offense, or if Ferguson can have 150+ yards of offense, an Illini win is that much more likely. If one of these conditions are met, it seems likely that the game could unfold a bit like the Ohio State-Purdue game did. Only this time, it could be the visitors that win at the final gun.
Ohio State wins if… it’s in plus territory in turnovers. Turnovers have killed the Illini this season, leaving them at 103rd nationally in turnover margin. Even one promising Illini drive killed by a costly turnover could lead to a snowball effect that favors the home squad. This is kind of a ceteris paribus game for Ohio State, but it has to be mindful to take care of business.