Illinois vs. Ohio State preview

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Last updated: 10/14/2011 2:39 AM
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Ohio State at Illinois Preview
By Tony Gerdeman

This weekend will mark the 97th meeting between Ohio State (3-3, 0-2) and #16/15 Illinois (6-0, 2-0). The two teams first met in 1902 and had played every year until the series was interrupted in 2003.

Ohio State owns the series lead with a 62-30-4 mark which includes a 33-12 record in Champaign.

Illinois is looking to start 7-0 for the first time since 1951.

The Illini are favored over Ohio State for just the third time in over 20 years. In 1991, 2001 and now in 2011, the Buckeyes have been an underdog against Illinois. Those three years also coincide with the only three times Ohio State has faced a ranked Illini opponent in that span.

Illinois has won five consecutive games against the Buckeyes when they have been ranked. There have only been five meetings between these two teams when Illinois is ranked and the Buckeyes are not. The Illini are 3-1-1 in such meetings.

It has been 20 years—almost to the day—since Ohio State last lost in Champaign.

When Illinois Has The Ball

Illinois will run a spread attack with various looks for the Buckeyes to counter, but the bulk of their plays will take place on the ground. The Illini run the ball about 70% of the time, and despite quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ranking fifth in the nation in passing efficiency (175.83), the best way to contain this offense is to force Illinois to throw the ball.

Scheelhaase is involved in every aspect of this offense because Illinois runs the read option very well. His coaches have actually been telling him to run the ball more. The last two weeks—wins over Northwestern and Indiana—he has carried it 38 times.

While Scheelhaase doesn't have the speed of a Denard Robinson, or even a Braxton Miller, he is extremely effective at moving the chains. If the defense isn't paying attention, he definitely possesses the ability to make them pay. He has had at least one 20-yard carry in each of his last two games, so much of the defensive focus will be on first stopping the quarterback.

The Buckeyes faded down the stretch against Nebraska because they were tired. If Illinois wants to push the tempo, they could see huge dividends being paid in the fourth quarter.

Much of the defense strategy will be on containing Scheelhaase and funneling everything back inside. Illinois is actually very comfortable with this because they run between the tackles with all of their ball carriers.

There is no workhorse for the Illini this year. In fact Scheelhaase's 94 carries are nine more than anybody else on the team. Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young will all get carries, and expect the coaches to settle on the hottest hand as things move forward. Ford has had a down year, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, while Young (6.7 yards per carry) and Pollard (9.8 yards per carry) have been much more effect. Both have homerun ability and will need to be watched carefully.

The Buckeye linebackers have been up and down this season. They've had issues getting off of blocks, and with Illinois' veteran offensive line, there could be more problems this week as well. The defensive line will need to continue to set the tone and disrupt the Illinois offense before it can get started. And they'll need to do it for all four quarters this time.

The Ohio State defensive line won't be able to simply rush the passer, they will need to be aware of where the Illinois quarterback is at all times. The Illini have given up 17 sacks this season, and that's while facing a tentative pass rush. The Buckeyes can make some strides here, but they will once again miss starting defensive end Nathan Williams, who is lost for the season.

The Illinois passing attack is mainly focused on receiver A.J. Jenkins. He has 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Nobody else on the team has more than 13 receptions. Jenkins will be moved all over the field as the offense looks to find the best matchups for their biggest playmaker.

The Ohio State secondary will need to know where Jenkins is at all time, because if he gets matched up on a linebacker, there needs to be help immediately. Ohio State will be playing this game without one of their three top cornerbacks—Dominic Clarke, so the play of starters Bradley Roby and Travis Howard becomes even more important.

Earlier in the week Roby said of Jenkins that he was “decent” and “nothing special, really”, and it's likely that those words made their way back to Champaign. Keep an eye on the matchup between Roby and Jenkins, because there will surely be some fireworks one way or another.

Scheelhaase has only thrown three interceptions this season, and that number will need to increase this weekend if the Buckeyes are going to win. The Illini have lost eight fumbles, however, and they average over two fumbles per game. If the Buckeye defense focuses on getting Illinois to put the ball on the ground the Illini should comply a time or two.

Illinois has yet to do anything in the return game this season. They have talented players, but the blocking hasn't allowed for any big plays. The longest kickoff return is 29 yards and the longest punt return is just eleven yards. The Buckeyes can't give Illinois any free yards on Saturday, and it starts in kick coverage.

Placekicker Derek Dimke is 7-7 on field goals, and is 36-41 in his career. He's as accurate as you'll find in the Big Ten from short distances. Punter Justin DuVernois is averaging just 38.2 yards per punt, and his long is only 49 yards. There are certainly opportunities here for the Buckeyes to win the hidden yardage battle.

When Ohio State Has The Ball

Last week freshman quarterback Braxton Miller had to leave the Nebraska game due to an ankle injury. When he left, the Buckeyes were up by 14 points and had the ball. The Huskers would then go on to score 21 unanswered points over the game's final 17 minutes to steal one from Ohio State. While Miller may be just a freshman, it's apparent how important he is right now to this team's success.

Two weeks ago against Michigan State, Miller was rendered moot by the Spartans' blitzing defense. Last week against Nebraska, the Huskers blitzed sparingly. By no coincidence, Miller and the Ohio State offense were much more effective against Nebraska. When they did blitz, Miller made them pay for it by taking off upfield and getting good yards on the ground. Illinois likes to attack as well, but was last week proof that Miller is much more ready to handle such things this week?

One thing that the Buckeyes had going for them against Nebraska that they will have again against Illinois is left tackle Mike Adams. He made everything better last week and Miller had plenty of time to look for receivers. That was something that was not afforded him against Michigan State.

Though to be sure, Adams will have his hands full with Illinois' defensive ends. Whitney Mercilus is leading the nation in sacks with 8.5. His bookend, bandit Michael Buchanan has 4.5 himself. Defensive tackles Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence are both solid and a large reason why Illinois is giving up just 79.7 yards rushing per game which is second best in the conference.

Boom Herron, who led the Buckeyes in rushing last year with 1,155 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns, returns this week. He provides the vision and burst that the Buckeyes have missed. Don't expect him to start, however—that will likely go to either Jordan Hall or Carlos Hyde.

Hyde has rushed for 400 yards, including 104 yards on just 13 carries last week at Nebraska. He needs to see the ball more, and against this defensive front, his frame (6-0 238) seems perfectly suited for such carnage.

The Buckeyes will try to control the defensive ends at times with the read option. However, coming off of his ankle injury last week, the coaches might be concerned about giving Miller too much weight to bear, but right now Miller's best asset is his feet, and he has to be allowed to play his game.

Middle linebacker Ian Thomas (5.0 tfl) and weakside linebacker Jonathan Brown (6.0 tfl) are both aggressive players who have the ability to get into the backfield. There will be times when the Buckeye tailback will have to make one of these two miss just to get back to the line of scrimmage.

Ohio State was helped with the return of receiver Philly Brown last week. He caught three passes for 61 yards, including a 27-yarder. This will be his second week back from injury and he should be more in tune with Miller thanks to another week of practice.

Illinois has quality cornerbacks in Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne, and they will be in the face of each Buckeye receiver who lines up against them. Wilson is actually leading the Illini in tackles with 41. He also has 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

The weakness of the Illinois defense comes in the form of pass defense from their safeties. Steve Hull and Supo Sanni are fine in run support, but neither has the speed to cover as much ground as the coaches would like. There are opportunities here for plays to be made, provided Braxton Miller is given enough time to throw.

Miller's ankle is reportedly fine, so don't be surprised to see the pocket roll out a bit this weekend in order to keep the aggressive pass rush on its toes. In doing so, there will also be opportunities to get behind a secondary that tends to keep too many eyes in the offensive backfield.

Boom Herron is expected to also get a look in the kick return game. Both Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry have looked hesitant of late, and perhaps a new charge is needed.

Ohio State has been tremendous returning punts this season. Chris Fields, Jordan Hall and Philly Brown are all averaging at least 14.0 yards per return so far. Illinois has only allowed four punt returns, likely because of the lack of distance they are getting from their punter.

How It Will End Up

Illinois is 6-0, but in three of their games (Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern) they have trailed (twice) or been tied (once) in the fourth quarter. You can expect the Illini to open strong—they have not been held without a touchdown in any first quarter this season, but they aren't above letting teams stay with them.

Ohio State went into Lincoln last week and was up 27-6 at one point. They will bring that experience with them this weekend and try to leave everything that happened after it was 27-6 back in Columbus.

The weather is always a factor in this game, even if it's mostly psychological, but Saturday's forecast calls for sun and breeze. That will help with the Buckeyes, who had issues with footing in the rain last week.

Ohio State will have success running the read option against Illinois, which will force their safeties to crash down and help out. That will lead to a few play-actions on deep post routes that Braxton Miller cannot afford to miss. If the Buckeyes throw this pass three times, they have to hit two. They can't let big plays slip through their fingers.

Expect Nathan Scheelhaase to carry the ball quite a bit, but if he has 25 carries on Saturday, that means the Buckeyes couldn't get the ball out of his hands, nor could they get the Illinois offense off the field.

The Illini will attack Braxton Miller repeatedly, and they will have moments of success. They have forced a turnover in 21 consecutive games, which is the longest streak in the nation.

The addition of a very fresh Boom Herron will boost this offense, and the budding reliance upon Carlos Hyde will move the chains for the Buckeyes. Braxton Miller will make enough plays not to lose, and the Ohio State defense won't collapse this week like they did last week.

Ohio State 21 – Illinois 17

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