When Ohio State and Illnois met a year ago in Champaign, a few things happened. Most notably, formerly suspended senior Daniel "Boom" Herron returned from a five game suspension related to his participation in the very same tattoo-for-goods bartering scandal that would ultimately claim Jim Tressel's job. Herron made good on his first action in 2011, rushing for 114 yards and the game winning touchdown en route to topping the then 16th ranked (and unbeaten prior to the game) Illini. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase failed to have his best game on the year and despite a decent day passing the ball would find himself responsible for multiple turnovers. Funny what a difference a year makes.
With then interim head coach Luke Fickell now relegated to the co-defensive coordinator (and hot seat, depending on whom you ask) and former Illini head man Ron Zook verbally waterskiing towards your heart on CBS Sports Network, two much different Ohio State and Illinois teams meet in the familiar confines along the banks of the Olentangy. The Buckeyes enter this one 9-0 under first year head coach Urban Meyer. With no post season to play for, each conference game is a baptism by fire for the new coach in a new league, that while not nearly up to the spec of his previous destination coaching gig, is none the less one he's not fully acquainted with as of yet.
And speaking of trial by fire, on the opposing sidelines, Tim Beckman continues to try to find the same bearings that helped him lead Toledo to a Military Bowl berth a year prior. Beckman's admitted to having lost 22 pounds from the stress and hardship of coaching a team finding themselves near the bottom of many of the top offensive and defensive statistics nationally. Some of the difficulties could likely be due to the growing pains of adjusting to a new staff and scheme, but to go from 7-6 to 2-6 with the same veteran quarterback and not enough of a dramatic philosophical adjustment to really justify it? It's enough to have the natives restless.
For all Tim Beckman's defensive experience (the former Ohio State defensive backs coach under Jim Tressel would get Oklahoma State's defenses functioning for the first time in the 2000's before succeeding Tom Amstutz at Toledo), Illinois' not dramatic departure from what now North Carolina DC Vic Koenning operated a year prior has been shocking to say the least. House of Sparky (SB Nation's fine Arizona State blog)'s Cory Williams told me yesterday "Illinois is the worst team I've seen play all season." This coming from a man who watched all four quarters of the Sun Devils' 21-43 home loss to Oregon.
Many of the early barometers indicate that this isn't all hyperbole. This Illini team doesn't just need help at one or two positions; they need help at virtually all of them. Of course, relative team strength hasn't prohibited Ohio State from finding a way to play down to some of the have nots on an admittedly weaker in general 2012 football schedule. Lowly UAB, who's one win on the year was against FCS Southeastern Louisiana and even lost to FBS cellar dwellars Tulane, managed to find a way to stay competitive with the Buckeyes. Close calls with Cal and Purdue have also served as staunch reminders that Ohio State is not even a year removed from a 6-7 season and that re-acclimation to the level of success Ohio State fans realistically (or more likely unrealistically) demand year in year out isn't an overnight process.
But if ever there was a game for Ohio State to look and feel like Ohio State, if ever there was an opportunity for the Buckeyes to take the overwhelming odds in their favor and run with them, on paper, this would appear to be it. Maybe you should temper your expectations and prepare to cope with the aftermath of a 23-17 win accordingly.
There was a time when Nathan Scheelhaase was regarded as the best pro style passing prospect in the Big Ten. Of course Scheelhaase is more widely considered a "dual threat" at the collegiate level due to his ability to run the ball with some degree of confidence but not well enough to consider moving him to a different skill position, and his historical efficiency at distributing the football. 2012, however, has served as a marked "junior slump" in the worst of ways for the Illini starter as the 6-3 Kansas City product has seen his completion percentage (63 to 61), average yards per completion (7.3 to 6.1), and TD-to-INT ratio (13-to-5 to 4-to-5) all drop precipitously. For all his pedigree (and perhaps some by default) his freshman and sophomore year, Scheelhaase doesn't quite feel like the same quarterback he was under Paul Petrino and Ron Zook's tutelage.
To Scheelhaase's credit, a nagging left ankle injury and a severely fractured offensive line, an injury that can undo even the most prodigious young passer, hasn't done him a whole heck of a lot of favors. Tim Beckman further comes from a world in which relying on multiple signal callers isn't necessarily a bad thing. Last year in Toledo's near win over the Buckeyes, Beckman leveraged the attributes of both Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens. A year later, he's (some by necessity) gone to talented sophomore Reilly O'Toole and even third string junior Miles Osei. While it's improbable Osei will see the game pending an absolute run on making on field sacrifices to a cruel and merciless god of unknown origins, if Scheelhaase is banged up and/or ineffective (or the Illini face a rather uphill battle), it's not out of the question that O'Toole sees some real playing time.
The Illini bring in a stable of running backs of relative median Big Ten quality, but judging how little they've leveraged them in Illinois' first eight games, you'd be hard pressed to know it. Generously listed at 5'10" redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson and the larger 6-0, 220 pound sophomore Donovonn Young are the co-starters at running back. Both are former 3-star types and Ferguson was in fact once a recruiting target of Beckman's at Toledo.
Young is the leader in the clubhouse with 400 rushing yards to his name on the season but at almost half as many carries, Ferguson has a comparable 4.1 yards per rush average. True freshman Dami Ayoola also sees action and has a 28 yard rushing touchdown on the season.
The Illini are "deep" at wide receiver, but deep with what is a fairly good question. Outside of X-reciever junior Ryan Lankford, the Illini have a number of guys who've been targeted with regularity, but not a ton of playmakers. Darius Millines, Spencer Harris, and Justin Hardee all have over 140 receiving yards on the season but struggle with consistency. Ferguson is the team's second leading receiver at just a hair under 200 yards, which tells you likely all you need to know about the levels of frustation exhibited outside of Lankford. For all their talent at the position, aside from the decisive victory over FCS Charleston Southern, they've yet to had a game that really gave you the impression that they put it all together for an afternoon. Jon Davis and the large 6-6 250 pound Evan Wilson are also options at the tight end position though neither have been particular difference makers.
Perhaps other than at the top, more harsh words have been lobbed towards the offensive line than any other particular part of a football team with plenty of blame to go around. Senior Hugh Thornton and left guard Michael Heitz get the distinction of having to deal with John Simon and Johnathan Hankins this week. Center Graham Pocic is another veteran, and between Big Hank and Garrett Goebel, will likely have his hands full as well. Pocic was once thought to be top 5 at the center position for next year's NFL Draft as a three year starter, but then he had to go and sign a baby. There was probably also that whole be part of a unit that gave up 30 sacks on the season thing. Second year guard Ted Karras and tackle Simon Cvijanovic round out the indistinguished group. For all Ohio State's underachieving on the defensive line, if ever there was a potential pick me up, this group would seem primed to provide it.
Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore was the lone holdover from Ron Zook's staff a year prior. This was thought to be a savvy move, but the scuttlebutt of late has been that Beckman hasn't been happy with any of his assistants, so it's completely possible (if not likely) we see Gilmore elsewhere in 2013. Though Whitney Mercilus is on to wreaking havoc on NFL quarterbacks for the Houston Texans, the conventional wisdom was the senior defensive line would have every opportunity to not skip a beat. This hasn't panned out. Ends Justin Staples and Michael Buchanan and tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster haven't been the force many thought they'd be. The Illini only have 12 sacks on the season and rank 9th in the Big Ten in the category. Buchanan and his principle backup, Darrius Caldwell, have been the best in this department, getting to opposing quarterbacks a combined five times.
That the Illini are starting a true freshman at middle linebacker probably tells you most of what you need to know about the 2012 Illini defense. That linebacker, however, happens to be one time OSU flirtation Mason Monheim. The Orville, Ohio product was recruited but never committably offered by Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel and though Fickell got him to delay his commitment to the Illini, the Buckeyes elected to go with Josh Perry and David Perkins in lieu there of. Monehim, a 3-star, had an absurd 191 tackles his junior year (which, grain of salt given how certain staffs credit these things), and could be a James Laurinaitis type yet. That he's having to try this early in his collegiate career, however, isn't the best thing you can say about former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Tim Banks' defense.
Illinois best LB is probably junior weakside linbacker Jonathan Brown. Brown leads the Illini in tackles with 55 and also has 2.5 sacks on the year. The lone remaining starter, Ashante Williams, plays more of a hybrid star position and would be a safety in most other defenses. The Illini will be in 4-2-5-type formations most of the afternoon (with some nickel variations), which follows the same scheme Koennig liked to run when the defense was under his control.
Essentially the antithesis of Ohio State, the Illini's secondary is the strongest part of their defense. With three returning starters, it's not entirely hard to understand why. Seniors Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green start at the cornerback slots. The safeties are senior Supo Sanni and junior Steve Hull (STEVE HULL!). Hull leads the team with two interceptions. Though Braxton Miller will probably force the Illini defense out of their comfort zone, if they try to cheat and he tries to go up top over them, they might have the athletes to make the end result interesting.
Finally, the special teams are well coached and though field goals have been a hit-or-miss proposition between both Taylor Zalewski and Nick Immekus, Justin DuVernois has been the Big Ten's best and most consistent punter. The sheer volume of practice he's gotten probably hasn't hurt his cause.
There isn't a single area on paper other than secondary and the punt team that Ohio State should be bested at on Saturday. Of course, that hasn't stopped them in the past from finding ways to make things way more interesting than they otherwise should be. If the Buckeyes have one of their trademark slow starts and especially if Illinois finds a way to settle into a rare offensive comfort zone early, should the Buckeyes begin to play tense, it's not out of the question that we see a closer than it should be affair. If Ohio State comes out loose and plays to their full potential on both sides of the ball, a blood bath, though unlikely, is within the realm of possibilities.
Holy Diver. Ohio State 35 - Illinois 14. The Buckeyes don't get the vaunted 24 (and now 27 at some books) cover, but they do get a comfortable win to feel good about with Madison just on the horizon.