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Preview: Ohio State at Illinois
Preview: Ohio State at Illinois
When Ohio State takes the field in Champaign, Illinois Saturday against the Fighting Illini, they will have their BCS Bowl destiny in their own hands. The Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) can virtually lock up an at-large BCS bid if they win and then beat Michigan next week. There are all kinds of other storylines for this match-up with the Illini, but that's the only one that really matters to the Buckeye players. Buckeye Dan previews the Buckeyes big game tomorrow.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Ohio State vs. U. of Illinois
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
Kickoff: 12:00 noon (ET)
When Ohio State takes the field in Champaign, Illinois Saturday against the Fighting Illini, they will have their BCS Bowl destiny in their own hands. The Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) can virtually lock up an at-large BCS bid if they win and then beat Michigan next week. There are all kinds of other storylines for this match-up with the Illini, but that's the only one that really matters to the Buckeye players.
They could be forgiven of course for allowing memories of
last year's game
to creep into their minds. Illinois came into Columbus and knocked off the 10-0 Buckeyes, as Illinois QB Juice Williams had a career day with four touchdown passes, and the Illini benefited from some awful officiating. (
see 1:10 mark
) Naturally, any talk of a revenge motive has been muted in the OSU preparation for the game this week, but that doesn't mean there are no scores to settle.
burst onto the scene in the Big Ten two years ago as the Next Big Thing among dual-threat quarterbacks in the conference, and he was understandably the toast of Champaign after beating the top-ranked Buckeyes and getting Illinois to the Rose Bowl. But the ascent of the Illini (5-5, 3-3) to the Big Ten elite has been put on hold in 2008, the result of graduation losses, a porous defense, and inconsistent play by Williams and the offense. Their disappointing season hit rock bottom last week in a 23-17 loss to Western Michigan of the MAC.
Now it looks like there's someone else wearing the tag of Next Big Thing, and the young QB for the Buckeyes understands what this one is all about. The freshman was quoted this week as saying, "...
if we lose to Illinois or Michigan, that's going to tear our seniors apart and I don't want that to happen. I won't let that happen."
The message is clear. To paraphrase
..."There's a new sheriff in town...and his name is
The clash of these two dynamic offensive players could make for a hugely entertaining game, even given the weather forecast (40 degrees and windy) for Saturday. Williams comes into the game as the leading passer in the Big Ten with 2,769 yards on a 57% completion rate, with 20 TD's and 14 interceptions. He has also rushed for 577 yards on 141 carries (4.1 yd. avg.) with five more TD's.
Pryor has far fewer passing yards, but his 1,076 yards have come on just 129 passes (65.1%) for an average of 8.3 yards per attempt, as compared to Williams' 7.1 yd. average. Pryor has thrown 9 TD's and just 3 interceptions, and has rushed 103 times for 450 yards (4.4 yd. avg.) and 5 TD's. In fact, Pryor has recently overtaken Williams for the league lead in quarterback rating (153.6 to Juice's 141.9) but he doesn't have enough passing attempts to qualify for the ranking.
Illini Defense Struggles
This game also matches Illinois' top offense in the Big Ten (437.8 yards per game) against the Buckeyes' league leading defense (284.5 yards per game allowed). The gaudy offensive statistics for Williams and the offense make you wonder how this team could be 5-5 and struggling to qualify for a bowl game. Their ineffective rushing attack and their decline on defense appear to be the two biggest reasons for the drop-off in 2008.
Illinois lost running back Rashard Mendenhall, the 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and J Lehman, their leading tackler from a year ago, to graduation.
(575 yds.) and
(379 yds, 5 TD's) have split the duty at running back this year, and the statistics aren't bad, but Illinois has averaged just over 90 yards rushing per game in their last three games. If you can't run the ball in November in Big Ten country, it's trouble.
On defense, the Illini are giving up 351 yards per game, and about seven points per game more than the 9-3 team of a year ago. Missouri racked up 52 points on the Illinois defense in the season opener, and they just haven't been able to right the ship ever since.
Beanie and Regis
Each of these standout quarterbacks has a talented 'wingman' to bring to the shootout on Saturday. Juice Williams and the Illinois coaches will try to get as many touches as they can for
Arrelious "Regis" Benn
, the sensational sophomore wide receiver who will probably top 1000 receiving yards for the season in this game. Benn will be used on bubble screens, end-around running plays, and kick returns, to maximize his special talents. He has 60 receptions for 947 yards, and 3 TD's on the season. Ohio State held Benn to one catch for seven yards in last year's game, but Williams still threw four touchdowns.
The Buckeyes of course have running back
as Pryor's feature weapon in the offensive backfield. Beanie broke out last week with a 140 yard day with two touchdowns against Northwestern, after a frustrating game in the loss to Penn State. He was named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his performance.
Wells has been playing through the pain of the early season foot injury in every game since returning, with some weeks being worse than others. But he will be the best running back on the field Saturday, a distinction that could mean a lot if the winds are blowing enough to disrupt the passing attacks of both teams. The combination of a determined Chris Wells and a struggling Illini defense could be the decisive factor in the contest.
Wells needs one yard to reach 3000 for his OSU career, and 122 yards to move past Pepe Pearson into fifth place on the all-time career rushing list for Ohio State. This season, he has already passed Carlos Snow, Michael Wiley, Antonio Pittman, Raymont Harris and Calvin Murray in the career rushing record book.
It's worth noting that Illinois held Beanie pretty much in check in last year's game, as he managed just 76 yards on 20 carries. The difference in 2008 is that the OSU rushing attack is a two-headed one.
Although the Illini defense has had its troubles, they still line up some very talented players on that side of the ball. As a team, they lead the Big Ten in sacks, with end Derek Walker and linebackers Brit Miller and Martez Wilson doing much of the damage. Wilson (6' 4", 246) is an emerging star as a sophomore, with a promising future playing on Sundays.
Cornerback Vontae Davis was on everybody's pre-season All-American team, and he could legitimately be the second best cornerback on the field Saturday. (Do you need to ask?)
One of those secondary storylines for Saturday's game is the attempt by Coach Tressel and his Buckeyes to extend their streak of 14 consecutive road wins in Big Ten play, dating back to the loss at Penn State in 2005. If they win Saturday, and in their first two conference road games of 2009 (at Indiana and Purdue) they would tie the record of 17 straight set by Michigan (1988-92) That would set them up with a chance to break the record back in Happy Valley next November.
Jim Tressel will be coaching in his 100th game as Head Coach at Ohio State. He is 81-18, and currently tied with Earle Bruce for 3rd place on the all-time victory list. He trails only John Cooper (111) and Woody Hayes (205) in career wins at Ohio State.
Ohio State comes into the game ranked 10th in the AP Poll, and 11th in the BCS standings.
I'm expecting a fired up Illinois team on Saturday. They are desperately trying to qualify for a bowl game, and Zook will pull out all the stops on offense to generate points on a stingy Buckeye defense. The OSU coaches have had a year to figure out what the hell happened to their defense in last year's game, and I'm guessing they've come up with a few answers. I suspect James Laurinaitis will be spying on Williams all day, as he did last week against Northwestern's Mike Kafka. The game may turn on how well JL performs at turning off the Juice.
If the two gifted quarterbacks cancel each other out, or if the weather plays havoc with the passing games, the edge goes to the Buckeyes. It's simple. OSU has Chris Wells. Illinois doesn't.
I think Beanie and the Buckeye seniors step up to get one game closer to their goal of a BCS Bowl game. It's Ohio State in a fairly close one, 28-23.
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