As we enter into the Big T1e1n Season, we’re giving tBBC readers the chance to gain insight into the teams and fans that the Buckeyes will be matching up with on Saturday. Our friends at Writing Illini were gracious enough to do a little Q&A with us, you can see our thoughts on their questions over at their site. Football writer Nick Houska gives his thoughts on the stuff that our team tossed his way. Enjoy!
How do you feel about your upcoming run of games including #2 Ohio State, at #23 Penn State and at #25 Michigan State? After the non-conference schedule, where do you see Illinois finishing within the Big Ten? What kind of record would be “satisfying” at the end of the season, given the schedule?
The next 3 games, which Writing Illini has dubbed the “State Stretch”, will show us what the Illini can do this year. The unfortunate part for Illini fans is that Illinois could play well in all 3 games and still go 0-3. The State Stretch features 3 opponents, all of whom are in the Top 25 and a combined 11-1, with the only loss coming when Penn State fell at #1 Alabama. To make matters worse for the Illini, 2 of the 3 contests are on the road.
Despite this difficult batch of games, I am excited to see how the Illini handle the State Stretch. The Ohio State game will be tough. Illinois has not defeated the Buckeyes in Champaign since 1991, and I’m sure the 2007 upset in Columbus has not left Ohio State’s minds. The Illini must ensure that no matter the outcome, they must not allow themselves to get in a funk like the one the Missouri loss put them in last year.
The other two games, at Penn State and at Michigan State, both have the potential for a huge road upset. The Penn State game will be a tough environment for Illinois’ first true road game, but the Nittany Lions’ offense has struggled at times this year with a freshman quarterback. The Michigan State game is also an opportunity to get the season’s signature road win. The Spartans are living up to their preseason hype for once, but with head coach Dantonio’s recent health struggles, the Illini could stand a chance.
If the Illini can win one of the three games in the State Stretch and come out with a 3-3 record overall, they stand a significant chance of making a bowl game this year. If they struggle and come out 2-4, their chances drop significantly. Either way, the most important thing for the team is that it does not let a few losses ruin the rest of the season as it did last year and that they avoid any more injuries.
How happy have you been with the play of Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase? Has the offense improved or regressed with him replacing Juice Williams? If we switched QB’s where would you think Illinois be ranked and where would Ohio State be ranked?
I have been pleasantly surprised by Scheelhaase’s overall performance and improvement through his first three games. Anytime you lose a 4-year starter (especially one who holds the 5th best career total offense mark in the Big Ten) and replace him with a freshman, there is going to be some regression on offense. Luckily for the Illini, Mikel Leshoure has really emerged in the running game, and fellow back Jason Ford is no slouch either.
It would be interesting to see what happened if Scheelhaase and Terrelle Pryor were to switch teams for the season. Assuming that Ohio State was still ranked at #2 in the preseason, I have no doubt that they would still be a top-15 team. Other than Miami, Ohio State’s opponents have scored a combined 34 points in 3 games. Even with Miami’s 24 points, the 4 turnovers the Canes had would have given the Buckeyes a chance. There is no doubt that with the weapons Ohio State would give him, Scheelhaase would do well in the Ohio State offense. Worst-case scenario, the Buckeyes lose a close one to Miami and are 3-1 and ranked top 15 right now.
With Pryor on the Illini, the team would easily be 3-0 right now. Illinois lead Missouri, its only loss, at the half and only lost because the offense disappeared in the second half. With Pryor’s scrambling abilities and arm, the Illini would have defeated the Tigers in style. Illinois would still likely not be ranked due to its early bye week and relatively week opponents outside of Missouri.
What strengths do you think Illinois has that they can utilize to give them the best chance of winning on Saturday? There’s been some buzz about the way the Illini defense is playing this year- What’s your take on what’s made a difference?
Obviously the team’s greatest strength right now is its run game. Illinois is averaging more than 200 yards a game on the ground, with star back Leshoure rushing for more than 110 yards in each game. If Leshoure can be a threat against the dominant Ohio State defense, he will open up some receivers for Scheelhaase to throw to.
I don’t expect Scheelhaase to throw the ball much against the Buckeyes.
The coaching staff has been playing the pass pretty conservatively this season and the freshman often rolls out of the pocket and scrambles on passing plays anyways. However, the Illini must not become one dimensional if they want to beat the Buckeyes.
The defense is notably improved from last year, but the news that injured corner Terry Hawthorne is unlikely to return for the game really hurts. Terrelle Pryor once again poses a problem for the Illini. Of Illinois’ 3 opponents, the quarterback that did the most damage was Northern Illinois’ Chandler Harnish, who rushed for more than 100 yards and threw for more than 200 yards. The dual-threat quarterbacks are what gives this defense the hardest time, and you will not find a better example of one than Pryor.
Illinois’ defense has certainly benefited from new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who came from Clemson after the 2009 season. The Illini have bent but usually not broken on this side of the ball, with linebacker Ian Thomas having a better season than the more-heralded Martez Wilson.
What’s the general feeling about Ron Zook around campus?
While the current 2-1 record has caused some bowl-game hope this season, Zook is still on the hot seat. If the team does not make a bowl game this year, the cries for his firing will hit a fever pitch.
The problem is that with the University’s current financial woes, it cannot really afford to buy out his current contract. If Illinois can win 2 more games, it will have improved its record from last year. If that happens, it is doubtful the University will fire him.
Are you excited about the 2012 conference divisions? Relieved not to lose the hallowed Illibuck rivalry game?
I am very excited about the new conference divisions. Illinois was able to keep all three of its trophy games through the protected crossover game with Northwestern, and the added national attention should only help Illinois recruiting efforts.
The Illibuck rivalry, though one-sided as it may be, is still an important one to many Illinois fans like me, and I am thus glad that we did not lose it. The history behind the trophy is one of the cooler stories in the Big Ten (it used to be a real turtle), and it is the second oldest of the trophies that Big Ten teams fight over.