When Illinois plays at No. 13 Ohio State on Saturday, the Big Ten Conference opener is more than just one game. It's the start of a three-game swing that will determine the direction of Illini football. Coach Ron Zook disagrees, but his fiery denials show the intensity of the situation.
When Illinois plays at No. 13 Ohio State Saturday, the Big Ten Conference opener is more than just one game. It's the start of a three-game swing that will determine the direction of Illini football.
Coach Ron Zook disagrees, but his fiery denials show the intensity of the situation. The matchup at four-time defending champ and preseason favorite Ohio State plus home games against Penn State and Michigan State – the Big Ten's other top two teams in the preseason poll – have everyone watching to see if Illinois survives.
''If you guys want to talk about all three games, we'll have everybody off-limits,'' Zook said. ''It's one game. Why would we want to talk about anything other than one game? I don't understand.''
It's impossible to pull the orange and blue over everyone's eyes.
After losing to Missouri in the opener, Illinois could get out from under the dark cloud hanging over the program in the key stretch. With two or three wins, it's time to think about New Year's Day.
By winning one of the next three, there's still life in the season. With three straight losses, the Illini are scrambling. Illinois would carry a 1-4 record and need a 5-2 finish to earn bowl eligibility.
"We talked about the schedule in the first meeting,'' Zook said. "We knew it was going to be a grind. We have to be ready to play at this point. Going into this game, we have to concern ourselves with one game. When that's over, we have to look at the next game. That's not coach-speak. That's how you have to put all your energy and focus.''
The Illini know the challenge ahead.
"A lot of people had one of these three teams picked to win the conference,'' said defensive tackle Josh Brent. "To play all three in a row, it's a measuring stick for where we are.''
Illinois has won seven of the last 10 games between the two teams in Ohio Stadium, including a 28-21 upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes in 2007 that propelled Illinois to the Rose Bowl. But Zook won't concentrate on his notes from that week.
"The mood and the atmosphere are completely different,'' Zook said.
Illinois' first impression was an embarrassing 37-9 loss to Missouri that still lingers. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn logged six plays together in the first two games. On defense, redshirt freshman middle linebacker Evan Frierson played 25 snaps before taking over for Martez Wilson, who will undergo neck surgery Monday.
Despite Illinois ranking 119 among 120 Division I-A teams in pass defense, Illinois safety Donsay Hardeman would rather see Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor throw it than run it. Pryor leads the Big Ten by averaging 263 yards passing and set a career high with 372 total yards (262 passing, 110 rushing) in a 38-0 win over Toledo last weekend.
Yet Hardeman isn't convinced.
"If we get him to throw the ball, I think we should be all right,'' Hardeman said. "We want him to throw the ball. We have trust in our secondary. That's what he's not used to doing, throwing throughout the game. He might throw the deep ball a couple times.
"Intermediate routes, he's not very good. He'll throw a couple picks or whatever. He likes to run the ball. If we contain that, we'll be all right.''
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are saying all the right things. Coach Jim Tressel, who sarcastically bristled at critics following an 18-15 loss to USC earlier this month, talked up the Illini.
"I felt going into the year that Illinois probably had as good a personnel as anyone in the league,'' Tressel said. ''They have explosive ability on the offensive side, with Benn and Williams and their tight end (Michael Hoomanawanui), who's a heck of a player, and Jeff Cumberland and Jarred Fayson out wide, and all those running backs.
"And they have a uniqueness on defense: a big, strong front and a coverage scheme that's something we don't face other than once a year against Illinois.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois (1-1) vs. No. 13 Ohio State (2-1)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Ohio Stadium (102,329), Columbus
Series record: Ohio State leads 61-30-4
Last meeting: Ohio State 30, Illinois 20 (2008)
Radio: Illini Sports Network
Coaches: Ron Zook, 19-31 in fifth year at Illinois, 42-45 in eighth year overall; Jim Tressel, 85-20 in ninth year at Ohio State, 220-77-2 in 24th year overall.
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 13th, 247.0; passing 86th, 189.5; scoring 65th, 27.0; total 30th, 436.5. Illinois defense -- rushing 18th, 80.5; passing 119th, 339.5; scoring 84th, 27.0; total 102nd, 420.0. Ohio State offense -- rushing 51st, 162.6; passing 62nd, 220.7; scoring 55th, 28.0; total 54th, 383.3. Ohio State defense -- rushing 40th, 105.6; passing 43rd, 182.7; scoring 24th, 15.0; total 31st, 288.3.
Notable: Illinois has won three of its last four games played in Ohio Stadium. . . Illinois quarterback Juice Williams needs 171 total yards to set the school career record. He has 8,710 yards, trailing only Kurt Kittner. Williams threw for four touchdowns in the 28-21 victory at Ohio State in 2007. . . Illinois redshirt freshman middle linebacker Evan Frierson makes his first start after logging 25 snaps in his first two games. He fills the hole left by Martez Wilson (neck). . . Ohio State has held opponents to 21 points or less in 42 games dating to 2006. The Buckeyes are 39-3 in those games. . . The Illibuck traveling trophy dates to 1915, when it was a live turtle. . .
Quotable: "Everyone loves a winner. We didn't win our first game. We took care of business (against Illinois State). If we're able to pull this one out, guys will get back on our side.'' -- Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.
Prediction: Ohio State 33, Illinois 13