Illinois vs. Ohio State: Two very different teams, two very different goals

By Laura Hettiger

As the players, coaches and analysts have said all season, this year’s Fighting Illini football team is not the same team that made a magical run to the Rose Bowl in 2007.

Last year, Illinois flew into Columbus, Ohio, with one mission in mind: upset the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes.

On Saturday, however, the team’s mission is a little less explosive, but will still have a huge effect on whether the Illini will end up in their second bowl game in consecutive seasons.

“Being No. 1, you know you always gear up to play No. 1 like we did last year, but the O-State name still carries the O-State name,” said senior linebacker Rodney Pittman. “Any time O-State come in here, you know you’re going to have an atmosphere that’s crazy, you’re going to have a fan base that will be out here cheering us on.”

A year ago, only a small orange and blue cheering section made the trip to the legendary Horseshoe, but having a home-field advantage after a mediocre season is something the team is relying on.

Aside from the change in venues, the Illini and Buckeyes have a variation in records from 2007. Illinois entered the game with a 7-3 overall record and a 4-2 record in the Big Ten. OSU was a perfect 10-0, with six of those victories coming against conference opponents.

The times have changed and both teams have seen their fair share of struggles in 2008.

The Illini are currently .500, with a 5-5 overall record and a 3-3 record in the Big Ten. No. 11 Ohio State is not on top of the BCS chase, but instead is trying to inch its way into a primetime bowl game with an 8-2 overall record and 5-1 conference mark.

Although both teams have had more up-and-downs than last season, the Illinois coaching staff has been conducting practice the same way it did just a year ago.

“I think (practice) is about the same (as last season); we’re preparing to play a good team and we’re trying to take care of ourselves during practice and do the things we can do,” said defensive lineman Doug Pilcher. “I think it’s the same, you know, they’re a great team and they’re ranked and we just got to do our best and be ready for them.”

The Buckeyes are not looking past the Illini, either. After getting upset at home, OSU head coach Jim Tressel knows Ron Zook and company will be ready come Saturday’s kickoff.

“I think as I watch them on film they look every bit as good or better today than they did a year ago, so we know what the challenge is going to be,” Tressel said at his weekly press conference.

Quarterback Juice Williams’ epic fourth quarter drive against the Buckeyes last season is still prominent in Tressel’s mind. He has been preaching respect to his Buckeye team, and regardless of the final outcome, Tressel promises his players will be full of energy.

After three seasons without losing a Big Ten road game, Tressel does not want to break the streak now.

“We talk a lot about the difficulty of winning on the road and that it does take maybe a little bit more focus because you don’t necessarily have that energy that that home crowd brings,” Tressel said. “We do talk about the fact that it just takes a little bit more to overcome the energy that can be manufactured by the home crowd and that it’s going to take a little bit better performance, but it will take that this week.”