Optimistic Illini have history against them

Photo Illustration by Adam Babcock

Photo Illustration by Adam Babcock

By Jason Grodsky

To be the best, you have to beat the best.

That’s what Illinois head coach Ron Zook has reiterated to his team this week in preparing to travel to Columbus, Ohio, to take on the No. 1 Buckeyes of Ohio State.

Illinois has a long history of playing the Buckeyes when they sit atop the national standings. Of the 17 games the Illini have played against opponents ranked No. 1, nine have come against Ohio State. But only once has Illinois knocked the Buckeyes from the top spot in the polls, beating Ohio State at home 14-7 in 1950 when the Illini were ranked No. 8.

Since then Illinois has dropped eight straight contests to the Buckeyes when they own the No. 1 ranking, including last season’s 17-10 defeat at home.


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Taking our shot at No. 1

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“I don’t think there’s any question that they are one of the top teams in the country,” Zook said. “If you go back and look at what they’ve done the last three or four years since Coach Tressel has been there is no question, in this part of the country, that Ohio State is one of the best.”

“There are a lot of teams that don’t get the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the land, and it will be a great challenge for us.” Zook added.

Illinois is 3-14 against No. 1 opponents with all three victories coming at Memorial Stadium and none coming since 1956.

But the Illini came close to ending their drought last season when the Buckeyes came to town.

Despite being in the basement of the Big Ten standings last year, Illinois gave the No. 1 Buckeyes their toughest test of the regular season in 2006. The Illini outgained the Buckeyes 233-224 and held Ohio State to its fewest points scored on the season.

Trailing 17-0 at halftime, Illinois kept the Ohio State offense scoreless in the second half and closed the gap to 17-10 with two fourth-quarter scores, before coming up a score short in the final moments.

“We had a great, close game against them last year and we’re excited to play,” senior linebacker J Leman said. “We all came to the Big Ten to play in great stadiums and to play against great teams.”

With another year of experience under their belt the Illini feel they will be able to keep up with the Buckeyes once again this year and believe that they have a lot of similarities in their style of play.

“We’re back on the national scene and this will be a great opportunity for us,” junior linebacker Brit Miller said. “We seem to always match up with them well. We will be fired up. They run a lot of power and they have a lot of weapons, but that’s Big Ten football and that’s what we enjoy to go up against.”

Illinois will also have to deal with the factor of playing on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the country.

For Illinois’ younger players, this will be their first trip into the Horseshoe, where Ohio State has an incredible 366-104-20 record since play began there in 1922. But Zook feels that his younger players will welcome the challenge of the road environment.

“We don’t have a whole lot of seniors, and for some of our players, this will be their first time in Ohio Stadium,” Zook said. “I don’t see that as being overwhelming or anything for our guys. For (young) guys like Martez (Wilson) and Vontae (Davis), that’s the kind of guys they are. They want to compete against the best. They want a challenge and want to be challenged. Obviously, this weekend they are going to be challenged and that’s what makes them who they are.”

In 2005 Illinois walked out of Ohio Stadium bruised and beaten following a 40-2 loss. The only Illini score came when then-sophomore Kevin Mitchell returned a blocked extra point for two points.

Whether the Illini will be intimidated when they arrive in Columbus this time around is yet to be seen, but it can’t get much worse than Illinois’ most recent trip to the Buckeyes’ turf.

“We look forward to going into their stadium,” junior running back Rashard Mendenhall said. “You come to a school like this and play at this level to play in a big game like this.”