Courtesy of MCT
While the Ohio State football team has started its season with nine consecutive wins, its next opponent, Illinois, is currently riding a streak of its own.
The Fighting Illini, however, have lost five consecutive games, including all four of their games thus far against Big Ten competition.
Wins have been hard to come by for Illinois this season, but that has not deterred junior linebacker Jonathan Brown’s confidence going into Saturday’s matchup with the No. 6 Buckeyes at 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.
“I think we have a very good chance of winning the game,” Brown said. “We’re a good team despite what our record says. I think we got enough weapons to go out and win this game.”
With a 2-6 record, and all of its losses being by at least 14 points, Illinois will be considered underdogs in a road contest against the 9-0 Buckeyes. Redshirt junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said it does not matter to him if the team’s opponent is favored to win.
“It’s more about the team that goes out there and executes and is more consistent throughout the game,” Scheelhaase said. “I’m sure nobody really talks about projections and who was favored, this and that, but who did a better job executing play to play, quarter to quarter and the game.”
Scheelhaase acknowledged, however, that the competition will be a challenge on Saturday.
“We’re meeting a team that is as good as anyone we’ve played, and you know, really as good as anyone in the country,” Scheelhaase said. “We know we’re going up against a tough team. It’s going to take great execution … to knock off a team like Ohio State. But there’s no doubt that we have the potential to go in there and compete with these guys.”
The Illini have not won since Sept. 15, but rather than dwelling on their losses as they prepare to face a team that has not lost since last season, Scheelhaase said the team is taking the season “one game at a time.”
“It’s one game, and that’s definitely the mantra that we’re taking going into the game, and that’s what everybody should be thinking about, just this game,” Scheelhaase said.
Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman echoed his quarterback’s sentiment.
“We understand that Ohio State’s a good football team, but the only thing that we can control is what we do,” Beckman said. “We understand that we got four football games, four opportunities left … we’re going to take one at a time.”
Offensively, Scheelhaase said the key to a victory is consistency.
“We have to execute in critical downs,” Scheelhaase said. “On those critical downs, you got to make plays … that’s what it comes down to for any great offense.”
Through their first eight games, the Illini have converted less than 35 percent of their third-down conversion attempts this season, which ranks just 102nd nationally. That is consistent with Ohio State’s defense, which ranks 33rd nationally, holding opposing offenses to a conversion rate of just under 35 percent on third-down plays.
Beckman said the OSU defense is “fairly talented,” while Scheelhaase said the OSU defensive line is “as tough as anyone in the country.”
“They’re really good just with getting push off the ball, beating people at the point of attack, getting pressure on the quarterback,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s something that’s important to take note of and make sure that we try to get after those guys early and definitely send different looks at them, send different things at them so they’re not playing as fast and as aggressive as they’re accustomed to. They’re great players, you know they’re going to make plays, you just try to limit them in different ways, slow them down a little bit.”
On the other side of the ball, Brown said the Buckeyes offense, which ranks 21st nationally with 38.6 points per game, is a “well-oiled machine.”
“They do make mistakes, but there’s few and far between,” Brown said. “They capitalize on your mistakes, and they got a lot of playmakers, a lot of guys that can go up and get the ball. So it’s going to be a fun challenge for us trying to stop them.”
Going into last year’s contest in Champaign, Ill. against the Buckeyes on Oct. 15, 2011, the Fighting Illini were 6-0. But including their 17-7 loss on that day to OSU, the Illini have won just three of their last 15 games. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes were just 3-3 heading into that game last season.
Scheelhaase said he is not drawing much from last year’s loss going into Saturday’s game, because the two teams are in positions “about as opposite as possible” from last year’s game.
“You don’t think too much about stuff like that going into the game, you just think about how you can execute and how you can prepare to play one of the best teams in the country,” Scheelhaase said.
Scheelhaase did say, however, that the chance to play and potentially be the first team to defeat the Buckeyes this season gives him extra motivation for Saturday.
“I think everyone in the (Big Ten) conference gets up for playing a team like Ohio State,” he said. “With as much history and tradition as they have … it’s hard not to be excited to get to go and play in that environment. That’s why you come play in the Big Ten conference, that’s why you choose to play college football in a conference like this because you get to play great games like that, and it’s something that I’m excited about and I think the rest of my team is.”
Brown said that given the team’s struggles this season, a win at the Horseshoe on Saturday would be “better than anything.”
“I don’t think it’s so much with being the team that gave Ohio State its first loss, as much as it’s just getting the win for us,” Brown said.