Illini's versatility poses threat for OSU defense

11/10/2007
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - You don't have to be a stat geek, or use rotisserie for something other than cooking a whole chicken, to know that occasionally numbers mean something.

Not all numbers, and certainly not the saturation bombing of numbers we endure with college football, such as pass defense efficiency ratings and kick coverage net return yardage average.

But in the buildup to this afternoon's Big Ten semi-showdown between two-time conference defending champion and No. 1 ranked Ohio State, and Illinois - certainly the most improved team in the league - one entry in the endless set of integers seems to close the gap between these teams quite a bit.

Through 10 games, Ohio State has averaged a crisp 415 yards of offensive production per game. Illinois has played the same number of games, run just 12 fewer plays (684 to Ohio State's

696), and averaged 1.1 yards less per game than the Buckeyes, with 413.9.

That is a difference of less than 40 inches gained, per game, on paper. It will be up to the Ohio State defense, which leads the nation in a newly renamed category, net stinginess, by allowing only 221.2 yards per game to its opponents to make certain the final yardage stats from today show a much larger differential.

"Those guys have been pretty much carrying us all season long," Ohio State senior offensive tackle Kirk Barton said about his cohorts on the defensive side. "Sometimes they've just been great, other times, they've been lights-out."

The Ohio State defense has allowed only seven touchdowns this season, and just two at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes have allowed just 9.7 points per game - best in the country.

But Ohio State coach Jim Tressel expects that defense to face more pressure today than it has seen to date. Illinois has an athletic and improvisational quarterback in Juice Williams, a very productive running back in Rashard Mendenhall and an explosive deep threat in Arrelious Benn.

Tressel said Illinois presents much more in terms of offensive alterations than a traditional option attack.

"If you think back to the old days and the option teams, you had to stop the dive, you had to stop the quarterback, and you had to stop the pitch," Tressel said.

"But the thing that could devastate you was the play-action pass.

"Now, things have changed a lot, and with the spread offenses running options, you have all of those different things, plus all those deployed receivers, that's where they can paralyze you with their ability to hit a home run, because you have to have so many things covered. Every threat you add, makes it more difficult on the defense. They put a lot of pressure on your defense by all the ways they can hit you."

Ohio State is on a 20-game winning streak in the Big Ten, and a 28-game overall regular- season winning streak. With rival Michigan looming just a week away, and the Big Ten championship on the line again, Tressel said his players have kept their attention on this week's work, and Illinois on the screen.

"I like the way they've approached things, and the way they have prepared themselves for each week," Tressel said. "I don't think there's an issue there."

Sophomore wide receiver Brian Hartline said last season's experience, where the Buckeyes went into a volatile atmosphere at Illinois and had to hold off a charged up Illini team to gain a 17-10 win, has made keeping the focus on today's game pretty easy.

"Last year, we got lazy when we went in there and they caught us sleeping," Hartline said. "After last year, our respect for them is really high."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.