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Week 7: Illinois Fighting Illini Preview

Coach Ron Zook

As usual at Scarlet and Game, it’s time for this week’s preview of our upcoming opponent, the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini, led by Coach Ron Zook, have made progress over the past several years in becoming a more consistently competitive Big Ten football program, and are off to their best start in 60 years. The undefeated, 16th ranked Illini always seem to be at their best against the Buckeyes, and this year should be no different. What can OSU expect from the team that is sitting atop the Leaders Division of the Big Ten?

Offense

Nathan Scheelhaase, the fearless leader of the Illini offense

As is the growing trend with winning teams in college football, Illinois has a very mobile quarterback in sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase (#2, 6’3”, 195 lbs). This young leader was good as a freshman, but has matured dramatically in his game, and is commanding an explosive Illini offensive attack. Scheelhaase has 10 TDs on the year and 3 INTs, but has a 6:1 ratio in his last two games (Northwestern and Indiana). His 1238 passing yards this year are very solid, but knowing that he has done that on 80 completions (15+ ypc) and with a 67% completion percentage are the more daunting numbers. In his last two games alone, he has 4 passing touchdowns over 33 yards (three of those are over 50 yards), and multiple QB runs of over 20 yards. Scheelhaase also has the most rushing attempts on the team with 94, and is a threat on designed rushes as well as improvised scrambles and broken plays. Last year, against OSU, Scheelhaase was a mediocre 50% passing for just 109 yards, was second on the team in receiving thanks to a 23 yard gain on a trick play, and still managed to keep the game within striking distance until the end.

The Illini running backs are another three-headed monster, with little or no rhyme or reason as to who carries the ball when. To say that they go with the hot hand doesn’t appear to be the case, as senior Jason Ford (#21, 6’1”, 235 lbs) has the most carries by far, but the fewest yards, averaging just 3.3 yards per attempt. Ford also has the most catches out of the backfield with 7 for 51 yards. Donovonn Young (#5, 6’1”, 215 lbs), whose parents were apparently unclear on how many o’s and n’s go into his name, is a freshman RB averaging 6.7 yards per carry with 4 TDs (second for RBs to Ford who has 5). He has big play ability; with a long run from scrimmage this season of 59 yards, but only half of the rushing attempts as Nathan Scheelhaase so far this year. The back with the most rushing yards, and yet the fewest carries, is Troy Pollard (#28, 5’8”, 190 lbs). This senior RB is averaging 9.8 yards per carry, although he received only a total of four against their two toughest opponents so far this year (Arizona State and Northwestern). He is a change of size and pace back, but if the previously mentioned trend continues, we may not see him on the field too often.

AJ Jenkins, The Playmaker

The greatest big play threat for this Illinois team is, without a doubt, their senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (#8, 6’1”, 190 lbs). Jenkins was a good receiver through the first four games of the season with 365 yards on 28 catches, but has been off the charts in his two conference games. Against Northwestern and Indiana he amassed a staggering total of 18 catches for 450 yards for a 25 yard per catch AVERAGE. His 268 yards receiving against Northwestern stands as the third best Big Ten performance ever. As if that weren’t individually impressive enough, his 815 yards receiving on the year accounts for 61% of the team’s total receiving yardage. Darius Millines (#15, 5’11”, 185 lbs, sophomore) and Spencer Harris (#80, 6’3”, 195 lbs, sophomore) account for the majority of the remaining receiving yards, and will either go relatively unnoticed in Saturday’s game, or will get the majority of the looks if OSU can double-team Jenkins. However, based on BJ Cunningham (Michigan State) being the obvious target of their passing game and still getting 9 catches for 154 yards, I like Jenkins chances of having another solid, but hopefully not record-breaking, game.

Defense / Special Teams

The Fighting Illini defense has been solid for their first six games of the season, but has given up 20 points or more in each of their last three games. Their rush defense is ranked in the top ten in the country, giving up an average of just under 80 yards per game. However, keep in mind that they have faced little competition and no team that is strong in the run game. The passing defense is giving up about 215 yards per game, but has managed to bend but not break in giving up too many big plays to the pass.

Tavon Wilson

Tavon Wilson (#3, 6’0”, 205 lbs), a senior cornerback, leads the Illini with 41 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack. Wilson is a leader on this team, was an Honorable Mention All- Big Ten player last year, and can always be found near the ball at the end of a play. Just like your defensive coaches teach, he flies to the ball and leads this unit with his on-field hustle. He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week last week against Indiana when he led the team with 11 tackles and scooped and scored on a 66 yard fumble return for a TD.

Steve Hull (#5, 6’2”, 200 lbs), a wide receiver turned safety, is another member of this team to watch out for, as he has 33 tackles and 1 INT so far this year. Trulon Henry (#9, 6’1”, 230 lbs) is a hard-hitting, impact player that recently bulked up and converted from free safety to linebacker, and leads the team with 2 INTs.

The defensive line of Illinois, despite losing players to the NFL draft, has been very solid so far this season. Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan, and Akeem Spence have been consistent and dependable through the first six games this year; accumulating 24, 27, and 27 tackles respectively. Mercilus and Buchanan have combined for 13 sacks so far, which should make OSU’s O-line and QB very nervous. Keep in mind, however, that this defense has faced just one team that is ranked above 68th in rushing, the Northwestern Wildcats, and they were able to put up more than double the 80 yard average that Illinois has been holding the other teams to.

The kicking game for Illinois, led by senior kicker Derek Dimke, has been perfect, making all 23 of his extra point attempts and all 7 of his field goal tries (long field goal of 49 yards). The punting by the freshman, Justin DuVernois has been less than stellar, but he maintains a reasonable 38.2 yard per punt average. The return game, typically led by Troy Pollard (kick returns) and Ryan Lankford (punt returns) has been unimpressive with long returns on the year of 29 and 11 yards respectively.

10/15 OSU vs. Illinois
Ron Zook’s Illini are off to a great start, but this game is a major test for them and one that will bring more proof that their team is for real than any victory over Northwestern or Indiana. Sure, OSU is in a down year thanks to many different variables, but the fact remains that they are still the Buckeyes and someone that Illinois takes great pride in beating.

What must OSU do in order to get a win over a highly ranked opponent?
1) The Silver Bullets must hold Illinois under the 24 point threshold. Although they showed otherwise in tight wins over Arizona State (17-14) and Western Michigan (23-20), Zook’s teams are typically in the loss column when they’re unable to score more than 24 points. Since 2009, the Illini have 2 wins and 11 losses when scoring less than 24 points.
2) Contain Scheelhaase and Jenkins. I’m not suggesting that the defense can completely shut down either of these players, and I’m not sure that many teams in the nation could even attempt to pull that off, but OSU must limit the big plays of both of these players on Saturday. Scheelhaase has the ability to tire and frustrate a defense by extending drives and converting third downs with his feet, so leaving him with third and long opportunities is a must. Jenkins, on the other hand, must be accounted for on all plays. One double-move or play-action with a safety’s eyes in the backfield WILL result in a touchdown, as this QB/WR tandem has proven that they do not miss chances to make defenses pay for mistakes.
3) Taking advantage of our mismatch over Illinois in both the punting and return games in order to constantly be winning the field position battle. Buchanon, good or bad, is making a strong case to be our team MVP right now, and Hall/Fields have shown a knack for finding space in returns. If nothing else, this will give Braxton Miller the confidence to pick up where he left off at Nebraska (minus the fumble) and our defense the chance to show that the second half in Lincoln does not define them.
4) Braxton or bust… Despite Fickell’s humor in his press conference today when asked about having the authority to make quarterback/offensive decisions, it is obvious that he has been unable to pull the trigger on getting Bauserman off of the field. His struggles are not a recent development, but instead go back all the way to the Toledo game. Braxton has had ankle issues for the past three seasons, and it is sad that OSU took a complete nose dive after his departure last week. Sure, there should be drop-off from your #1 QB to your #2, but not to the tune of less than 1/6 the offensive production in over 2/3 of the alotted time that Miller had. (Sorry for the fractions). IF Miller gets hurt, then Ken Guiton needs to step in and show that he can pick up the torch, because Helen Keller could have matched Bauserman’s 10% completion rate last week in relief.

My prediction:  OSU 27 Illinois 17

Follow me on Twitter @AJBorland and let me hear your predictions for the game…

Tags: Braxton Miller Nathan Scheelhaase Ohio State

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