Game Eleven: Illinois Fighting Illini
Location: Memorial Stadium (Champaign, IL) 12PM EST, ESPN
Head Coach: Ron Zook
Illinois Players Who Were Recruited By Ohio State: LB Martez Wilson, QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, WR Cordale Scott, and DL Josh Brent. WR Jeff Cumberland was on Ohio State's radar but was not cleared academically by Ohio State. WR Brian Gamble, LB Justin Staples, and DL Antonio James were all on Ohio State's recruiting radar for a time but were not offered scholarships.
Illinois Rushing Offense vs Ohio State Defense: Illinois' rushing game is a committee effort, led by QB Juice Williams and RB Daniel Dufrene. Illinois does not have a back the caliber of RB Rashard Mendenhall on the roster any longer. Considering how poorly Ohio State played last year against Juice Williams, how Ohio State has traditionally struggled against spread offense quarterbacks/mobile quarterbacks, and how Ohio State had an opportunity to play against Northwestern's Mike Kafka last weekend, this will be THE KEY to the game for Ohio State. If Juice Williams is able to keep drives going, Ohio State may be in for a long day. Considering Ohio State's historical struggles in this area, I give the edge to Illinois. Illinois' rushing offense ranks 6th in The Big Ten, while Ohio State's rushing defense ranks 2nd. Even so, ...
Slight Edge: Illinois
Illinois Passing Offense vs Ohio State Defense: Juice Williams has dramatically improved his passing, leading The Big Ten in passing efficiency. WR Arrelious Benn is the primary weapon for Illinois, with 60 receptions; the next player on Illinois has 21 receptions (Will Judson). Look for Ohio State to match up CB Malcolm Jenkins on WR Arrelious Benn to try and slow Benn down. If Ohio State can negate Benn in the passing game, that will allow Ohio State to focus on QB Juice Williams (see above). Ohio State needs to watch out for TE Jeff Cumberland. Cumberland could present match-up problems for Ohio State's linebackers. Cumberland had a big game against Michigan earlier in the year. Illinois' passing offense ranks 1st in The Big Ten; Ohio State's pass defense ranks 1st in The Big Ten. Something has to give here.
Ohio State Rushing Offense vs Illinois Defense: Ohio State's rushing offense depends on RB Chris Wells. Even though Ohio State tries to spell Chris Wells with other running backs such as Boom Herron or Maurice Wells, Chris Wells is the key to Ohio State's offense. QB Terrelle Pryor will help with designed quarterback keepers and bootlegs, but Ohio State does not rely on Pryor's rushing as much as Illinois does with Juice Williams. Ohio State will need to be patient with the rushing game, as I look for Illinois to crowd the line of scrimmage to shut down Chris Wells. Ohio State's rushing offense ranks 4th in The Big Ten; Illinois' rushing defense ranks 7th in The Big Ten.
Slight Edge: Ohio State
Ohio State Passing Offense vs Illinois Defense: QB Terrelle Pryor had arguably his best game as a Buckeye last weekend against Northwestern, with three touchdown passes. Pryor's mobility can keep drives alive for Ohio State, and Pryor's confidence with the offense with each week. Pryor is starting to involve TEs such as Rory Nicol, Jake Ballard, and Brandon Smith as outlet receivers, while continuing to go downfield to WRs Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. Illinois has not been as effective defensively as they were last season, despite the presence of DB Vontae Davis, who will be a 1st round draft choice in the 2009 NFL Draft. I look for Davis to be isolated on WR Brian Robiskie, so Pryor will need to spread the ball around in the passing game. Illinois' pass defense ranks 7th in The Big Ten, while Ohio State's passing offense is last in The Big Ten. Neither team are particularly strong in these areas. Illinois leads The Big Ten in sacks, so Pryor will need to be careful with ball security and not stay too long in the pocket.
Special Teams: Ohio State will need to be cautious with Illinois on kickoffs, as Illinois ranks 2nd in The Big Ten in kickoff returns. Ohio State is 3rd in The Big Ten with field goals, so it is important for Ohio State to come away with points whenever they are in the red zone.
Edge: Ohio State
Intangibles: Ohio State should be ready for this game, considering how Illinois came into Ohio Stadium last November and upset the then #1 ranked team in the country. Ohio State's upperclassmen, especially RB Chris Wells, can also remember how Illinois nearly beat them in 2006, in Illinois.
Illinois is reeling from its loss to Western Michigan and needs this game just to gain bowl eligibility. Nothing would be better for Illinois to spoil Ohio State's season again, as Ohio State clings to hopes of sharing The Big Ten title and a faint shot at a Rose Bowl berth.
Considering how Ohio State struggled the last time at Illinois, how Ohio State has struggled with mobile quarterbacks such as Juice Williams, how Illinois needs this game, and how the weather forecast for Champaign should be cold and wet, I give the edge to Illinois in this big area.
Prediction: This game will epitomize Big Ten football - gray skies, cold, and hard-hitting. Ohio State needs to come out ready to play, as Illinois will for its last home game of the 2008 season. Even with the intangibles favoring Illinois, and QB Juice Williams' talents at running and throwing, I look for Ohio State to win a close one against The Fighting Illini.
Ohio State 21, Illinois 17