Andy Gottesman / The Lantern
Forget the diamond rings and gold trophies. When Ohio State welcomes Illinois to The Horseshoe on Saturday, the teams will be playing for a wooden turtle.
Originally, a real turtle was used as the game’s emblem, but the schools opted for Illy Illibuck, a wooden replica, following its passing in 1927, just two years after the first Illibuck match.
Of course, no prize boosts motivation like a wooden turtle.
“It would be good to win the turtle,” running back Brandon Saine said hesitantly with a laugh.
OSU has won four of the past five meetings with its tortoise-yearning adversaries. That one defeat, however, ruined the Buckeyes’ 10-0 start in 2007.
Illinois arrived in Columbus as overlooked underdogs, the No. 1 Buckeyes looking ahead to their regular season finale against rival Michigan, the final roadblock to a trip to the national title game.
The Illini escaped Ohio Stadium with a 28-21 victory, leaving OSU — and the BCS system — in shambles.
This time around, Illinois looks to spoil the start of the Big Ten season for the Bucks.
“I don’t look back at that game,” Illini coach Ron Zook said. “I think people try to bring that up, but that’s history. This is a different ball game. What happened then, happened then and obviously Ohio State remembers it. Our guys remember it. But every game is different and every year is different.”
For Illinois, senior quarterback “Juice” Williams holds the key. Williams missed the team’s victory two weeks ago over Illinois State after leaving Illinois’ opener with an injury to his quadriceps.
Illinois had a bye week last week, and Zook said Williams should be ready to play come Saturday.
“He’s full go. He was not limited in practice,” he said. “He’s got a strained muscle. He doesn’t feel like it’s an issue and the trainers don’t feel like it’s an issue. When he gets out there and starts playing, I don’t think he will even remember.”
In Illinois’ upset of OSU in 2007, Williams threw for four touchdowns while completing just 12 passes.
This season, however, success has been more difficult to come by.
Missouri, which lost its starting quarterback and top two receiving threats to the NFL, crushed the Illini 37-9 in the season’s first week.
“I’ll be honest, I never thought we were going to go 12-0,” Zook said. “The first thing out of my mouth after the game was that. That’s a game that you learn from.”
OSU coach Jim Tressel ignores Illinois’ opening result, instead focusing on the team’s talent on both sides of the ball.
“I felt going into the Big Ten year that Illinois probably had as good a personnel as anyone in the league,” he said. “The explosive ability they have over on the offensive side, the uniqueness they have over on the defense. They’ve got a big, strong front on defense.”
Since 2007, the Illini passing game has centered around Williams and junior receiver Arrelious Benn. Benn caught 67 passes for 1055 yards a year ago.
“Offensively, Illinois might be one of the most talented teams in the conference,” said cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, who will cover Benn on Saturday.
As for the Buckeye offense, Illinois expects to defend a run-heavy attack.
“They are typical Ohio State,” Zook said. “They are going to line up, play Smash Mouth, knock you off the ball and try to run it down your throat.”
Aside from the running game, Zook said his team has had trouble preparing for OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, presents a matchup problem for any defense.
“The thing about Terrelle is that he’s a hard guy to simulate,” Zook said. “He runs really fast and he’s really strong and he’s big. It’s really hard to prepare for a guy like [Pryor] because you don’t want to beat your guys up by trying.”
Illinois hopes to lock down on Pryor’s receiving options and stuff the run game, Zook said.
“You’re not going to go stop [Pryor],” he said. “What we have to do is understand that he’s going to get his [yardage] and we have to contain the best that we can and give up as few big plays as we can.”
The Buckeyes begin Big Ten play on a trek to their fifth consecutive conference title. OSU’s rich history of league success has Illinois motivated to emulate the 2007 game and beat the Bucks at The ‘Shoe.
“I think any time you play an opponent, if you’re a competitor you love to compete against the best,” Zook said. “Obviously they’re one of the best.”