Illini gearing up for No. 1 Buckeyes

 

 

By Mike Theodore

Last week the Illini won at Minnesota for the fist time since 1994. This week they face an even greater challenge.

The Illini will travel to Columbus, Ohio, to take on the top-ranked Buckeyes this Saturday and try to defeat a No. 1-ranked team for the first time since 1956. Last season the Illini fell at home to the then top-ranked Buckeyes 17-10.

“That’s why you come to the University of Illinois, to play in big time games like this against the top team in the country,” senior linebacker J Leman said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Head coach Ron Zook echoed Leman’s sentiment.

“If you want to see how good you are, then you have to compete against the best,” he said.

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    The game will feature a showdown of two of the nation’s best middle linebackers – Leman for Illinois and James Laurinaitis for Ohio State. Both players are candidates for the Butkus Award and are fourth and sixth, respectively, in the conference in tackles.

    Leman downplayed the attention.

    “Laurinaitis is a great player and I think we’ll both make our fair share of plays,” he said.

    Laurinaitis leads the stingy Buckeye defense that’s allowing 9.7 points and 65 rushing yards per game.

    “It’s a very, very talented defense,” Zook said.

    “They’re so athletic, they run to the ball so well and that’s why they’re giving up 43 yards rushing in the Big Ten. When you do that usually you’re a pretty good defense.”

    Awards for the Illini

    Place kicker Jason Reda earned Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors and cornerback Vontae Davis was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back.

    Reda connected on three field goals last week against Minnesota and is 13-of-14 on the season. The senior has three kicks of 50 or more yards and his 92 percentage is fourth in the nation and second in the Big Ten. Reda is the fourth Illini, after Rashard Mendenhall, Will Davis and Arrelious Benn, to earn Big Ten honors this season.

    “Jason Reda is an excellent kicker,” Zook said. “A kicker and special teams gets one play. You don’t get second or third down. You’re judged solely on one play, so there’s a lot more pressure. There are so many things that can go wrong in that phase of the game. Jason has done a great job.”

    Vontae Davis, the youngest semifinalist, intercepted his fourth pass of the season on the first play from scrimmage last week. Twelve players, including Ohio State’s Malcolm Jennings, are in the running for the award.

    “Arrelious Benn told me first,” Davis said. “I thought he was playing because he always tries jokes. It’s good to know where I stand in the country with some of the top defensive backs in the country.”

    The list will be trimmed to three on Nov. 19, with the award ceremony scheduled for Dec. 6.

    “It feels good because I know I’ve accomplished something, but I also know I need to work that much harder because I’m the youngest person on the list and they might want to cut me off next,” Davis said.

    Daily Illini writer Daniel Johnson contributed to this report.