Illini face big test

By Derek Barichello

Ron Zook was five minutes late for Tuesday’s press conference and his excuse was No. 12 Ohio State. He was watching game film on the Buckeyes looking for holes in their game.

“Ohio State presents a lot of problems,” Zook said. “They are an awfully athletic, well-coached football team. This will measure where we are.”

It will only take one play in front of 102,000-plus at Ohio State’s Horseshoe for Zook to feel the pressure.

“If we kick off, it’s (kick returner, Ted) Ginn (Jr.) and how fast he is,” Zook said. “If they kick off, it’s the defense and three of the better linebackers in the country.”

The Buckeyes present a formidable challenge for any team, but Zook said it is especially tough for the Illini, who are the nation’s youngest team and still adjusting to new schemes.

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Offensive lineman Ryan McDonald knows it first hand; he was moved from center to offensive tackle.

“Last year, we were more of a downhill running team,” McDonald said. “We’ve had to adjust a lot of players around to better suite this offense.”

Ohio State will be the third consecutive ranked opponent for the Illini and fifth this season.

Yet, Zook said he keeps pushing for results because the fans have been supportive despite the lack of success.

“They deserve a better team and deserve a better game,” Zook said. “I’ve been using every finger and every toe I got to plug the dyke. Once we fix something here, something pops up over there.”

And Zook cannot wait to get his fingers and toes on the recruiting trail. He said the team needs to recruit players that better fit his fast-paced, spread offense.

“We need to improve our athleticism if we want to get better,” Zook said. “In this league, there are more big plays than ever.”

Zook said it is a growing trend across college football for offenses to put up big numbers, and his team is not keeping up.

The Illini have the 10th-best offense in the Big Ten, averaging 379.5 yards per game, and worst scoring offense, averaging 20.1 points.

Six teams in the Big Ten average more than 30 points per game and each of them have been in the national rankings at some point in the season.

Despite the winless conference campaign thus far, Zook is positive the program is moving in the right direction.

“We’ve made progress,” Zook said. “We continue to get better.”

The Ohio Gang

Defensive lineman Chris Norwell is one of four Illini players that come from Ohio. He is a native of Cincinnati and knows about the tradition of Buckeyes football.

“I was a little bit of an OSU fan, being from Ohio,” Norwell said. “I’ve went up there for games about four or five times, once for junior day in high school, and my dad has taken me up there when I was little.”

Norwell said the game will mean more to him because he will have about 20 family members in attendance. But he said the excitement level was already high playing a ranked team.

Zook knows about Ohio State as well. He was the defensive backs coach there from 1988-90.

“I enjoyed Columbus,” Zook said. “We were in a little bit of the same situation there in 1988. It was tough, we were 4-7 and my oldest daughter got in a fight in grade school the week of the Michigan game. But those were great times.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Mallory, defensive secondary coach Curt Mallory and wide receivers coach Dino Dawson also have Ohio ties.

Weatherford a possible option

Zook said kicker Jason Reda is still the man, despite missing two field goals against Wisconsin from 34 and 39 yards, noting that Reda recovered from a poor performance against Iowa, but said punter Steve Weatherford was an option if necessary.

Zook gives replay a nod

Despite having a play overturned last week against Wisconsin, Zook said he is OK with instant replay.

“There are a lot more riding on games,” Zook said. “You have millions and millions of dollars and careers at stake, I’m for replay because I believe you have to get as close to right as you can, and I accept that.”

Injury Report

Fullback Jason Davis has a bruised tailbone and is questionable for Saturday… Offensive lineman Martin O’Donnell is expected to play on Saturday, he practiced Tuesday and Wednesday of last week but missed the Wisconsin game because he was not ready to go, Zook said.