While the No. 3-ranked Ohio State football team (9-0, 5-0) has won 21 consecutive games since the start of last season, Illinois (3-6, 0-5) has lost five in a row.
Despite the teams moving in opposite directions, Illinois senior linebacker Jonathan Brown said he isn’t going to let OSU walk out of Champaign, Ill., unchallenged.
“If you’re not going out there to compete, you’re not going out there to win a game, then there’s no reason to step on the field,” Brown told The Lantern Monday. “It’s what we do every week. We step on the field to compete, and that’s what we’re going to do this weekend.”
Competing to win has left the Illini short of actually winning any games since their conference play began this season. The team goes into Saturday’s game needing to win its final three games against OSU, Purdue and Northwestern to become bowl eligible.
“We definitely want to get to a bowl game, and get our first Big Ten win, so in order to do that, we got to win three games straight,” redshirt-senior wide receiver Steve Hull said Monday. “The first one is Ohio State, and we just got to prepare and attack this week to go out there and get a win.”
OSU ranks fifth nationally with 48.2 average points scored per game and eighth nationally with 17.0 average points allowed per game. Illinois, by contrast, ranks 62nd nationally with 29.7 points scored per game and 105th nationally with 34.7 average points allowed per game.
Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said Monday his team has to step up its game Saturday.
“(The matchup’s) not in our favor, so we got to play above and beyond really what we’ve played so far this year,” Cubit said.
The expectation that OSU should win, however, does not have to determine the outcome, Hull said.
“On paper, I’m sure that everybody’s saying we’re going to be destroyed and going to get our butts whooped, but that’s why we play the game on Saturday,” Hull said.
While the win-loss records might show that OSU’s season is going one way and Illinois’ is going the other, Brown does not see it that way.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re going in two opposite directions,” Brown said. “They’re progressing as a team. We’re progressing as a team. It’s fun to get out there and compete against another great opponent.”
Although the Illini haven’t won a Big Ten game since Tim Beckman’s coaching tenure began, Beckman said his team has improved this season after winning just two games in 2012.
“We’re a better football team than we were last year at this time,” Beckman said in Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference. “I think offensively, what we’ve done in a matter of a year has been unbelievable … Defensively, we’ve lost some players (from last season), there’s no question about that, and some very good players that are playing on Sunday. These players that we’re playing with now have to continue to mature.”
Both the offense and defense are looking to improve upon their performances in last year’s 52-22 loss to OSU at Ohio Stadium. The Fighting Illini only mustered 170 yards of offense in that game, while giving up 567 yards to OSU.
“If you compare (the Illinois offense) to last year, there’s huge strides, but I don’t compare it to last year, because I wasn’t here,” said Cubit, who is in his first season at Illinois. “We just got to keep on improving and getting ourselves better. It’s going to be real difficult this week, because of the opponent, but that’s college football, you got to go out and play.”
One player who is expected to play better than he did last year is redshirt-senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for only 96 passing yards in last year’s game.
So far this season, Scheelhaase has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 2,420 yards and 15 touchdowns — all improvements from his 60.6 completion percentage, 1,361 passing yards and four touchdowns last season — while he has thrown the same number of interceptions, eight, as last year.
“He’s improved tremendously,” Cubit said. “He’s really run the system (well) … How he’s handled it and how he’s adapted to it and been a leader out there, that’s been great.”
OSU sophomore linebacker Josh Perry also noticed Scheelhaase’s improvement this season.
“He’s more of a quarterback than he was last year or the year before,” Perry said Monday. “He’s looking more when he scrambles to throw the ball than take off and run.”
OSU coach Urban Meyer said his No. 1 concern for Saturday’s game is “getting to the quarterback.”
“(Scheelhaase is) a guy that keeps plays alive even when they break down … that’s what causes problems for defense,” Meyer said during a Monday press conference. “I think we got to pressure him.”
As for the offense’s opposition, Beckman said the OSU defense, even considering their success in holding the Illini to just one offensive touchdown last season, is “very, very improved.”
“Their front four are playing outstanding,” Beckman said. “Linebackers are very aggressive in making plays, and you see a secondary that also is playing very aggressive.”
On the other side of the ball, Illinois will once again be trying to find a way to slow down OSU junior quarterback Braxton Miller, who leads the Buckeyes this season with 1,726 yards of total offense, and senior running back Carlos Hyde, who leads OSU with 701 rushing yards.
“We got to tackle in open space,” Beckman said. “We’ve got to leverage the football and be in the proper fit and not overdo what we think’s necessary to make a play because that, in the end, bites you. We just have to play our brand of football and if that’s putting pressure on (Miller) or containing him, I think that’s the game all defenses have to play against something like that offense, you got to try to keep them off track.”
Meyer said the Illinois defense, which ranks 116th in the FBS with 482.7 average yards allowed per game, is a difficult unit to characterize, but one he expects to bring pressure Saturday.
“It’s all over the place,” Meyer said. “They have good players but they’re just, it’s hard to get a beat on who they are and what they’re trying to do. They’re a very heavy blitz team and I think they’ll blitz us a lot.”
OSU is looking to retain possession of Illibuck, the carved wooden turtle that serves as a trophy for the winner of the two teams’ annual rivalry game, as it has since the Buckeyes last fell to the Illini in 2007. But although Brown acknowledged OSU has “some of the top players in the country,” he said his team has no plans to back down.
“We’re not going to have any fear going into this game,” Brown said. “We’re going to be ready to play. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for noon at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.