Ohio St.-Illinois Preview
By JEFF MEZYDLO
(AP) -- Illinois proved it could win on the road last weekend. Now, it must find a way to beat Ohio State at home.
Looking to remain unbeaten, the 16th-ranked Illini try to avoid a ninth consecutive home defeat to the muddling Buckeyes on Saturday in a Big Ten Leaders Division contest.
Facing an early 10-point deficit, Illinois (6-0, 2-0) regrouped then rolled to a 41-20 win at Indiana in its first road game. The Illini are in position to open with seven straight wins for the first time since the 1951.
"That's where we wanted to be," said sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 601 yards with six touchdowns and one interception in the last two victories over Northwestern and Indiana. "We're excited about the point we've gotten to right now, and we're looking forward to going back home and playing Ohio State."
Another reason for Illinois' collective excitement and anticipation also stems from the fact that the school has been outscored 227-92 while dropping eight in a row to Ohio State (3-3, 0-2) in Champaign since a 10-7 victory in 1991. The Illini have lost three straight overall in the series since a 28-21 win over the then-No. 1 Buckeyes in Columbus on Nov. 10, 2007.
Though Ohio State remains clouded with off-field distractions resulting in the absence of some key players, Illini coach Ron Zook believes his team cannot take anything for granted against a Buckeyes squad trying to avoid losing three in a row for the first time since 2004.
"We're a good team," Zook said. "But as I told them to be a great team, we've got to do a lot more."
Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins has done more than his part, leading the conference with 46 receptions for 815 yards and seven TDs. Five of those touchdowns have come over the last two games, in which he's totaled 18 catches for 450 yards. However, he's been held to three receptions for 48 yards in two versus Ohio State.
Scheelhaase, who rushed for 88 yards and a score at Indiana, amassed just 121 total yards, threw an interception and was sacked three times in last season's 24-13 home loss to the Buckeyes.
Jenkins and Scheelhaase have a chance to improve on those performances against an Ohio State defense that gives up 24.3 points per contest and blew a 27-6 third quarter lead to lose 34-27 at No. 14 Nebraska last Saturday.
"We've got to get a few stops on defense," coach Luke Fickell said. "That's what it comes down to. We've just got to do a better job. I'm sure there are lessons out there. We've got to figure out what they are and grow from them. That's part of football, part of life."
Trying to avoid a third consecutive loss Buckeyes will get back defensive lineman Melvin Fellows after he was suspended for last week's contest for taking too much money for a summer job.
After missing the Nebraska game for the same reason and the previous five for accepting improper benefits from a tattoo-parlor owner, running back Dan "Boon" Herron will make his 2011 debut Saturday. A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010, Herron rushed for 1,555 yards and 16 TDs a year ago. The Buckeyes are 18-1 in games in which the senior has rushed for at least 55 yards.
He's totaled 199 yards and four touchdowns on 49 carries in three games versus Illinois.
The Buckeyes also expect freshman quarterback Braxton Miller to play after he suffered a sprained right ankle in the third quarter at Nebraska. Miller was 5 of 8 for 95 yards with a TD and rushed for 91 yards on 10 carries prior to the injury.
He'll get his first look at an Illinois defense which ranks 17th in the country, allowing 17.8 points per contest, and has forced a turnover in 21 straight games - the longest stretch in the nation.
Updated October 11, 2011