Illini looking to limit Boilermakers’ options on offense

While the Big Ten Conference has been criticized recently for not living up to its football pedigree, there is no doubt the conference still houses some of the best programs in the country.

With programs like Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan on the conference schedule almost every year, maintaining success within the conference can be a tall task for head coaches.

However, one school has given Illinois head coach Ron Zook even more trouble than any of those traditional football powerhouses — Purdue. In three meetings since coming to Illinois in 2005, Zook has yet to defeat the Boilermakers, the only Big Ten opponent he has yet to take down.

“I think if you go back and look, this is a team that we have not had a lot of success with since we’ve been here,” Zook said.

While the Illini enter Saturday’s contest confident after an impressive showing against Indiana last weekend, Zook acknowledged his team can’t overlook the Boilermakers, who come to Champaign with a 2-1 conference mark.

“(We have a) team coming in here that actually has a better record than us (in the Big Ten),” Zook said. “It is going to be a game that our guys are going to have to continue to do the same things that we have done. And that’s prepare, play 60 minutes … play with the same intensity and the same emotion, and trying to do all the things that the coaches are implementing and go from there.”

“It’s going to take everyone. We are looking forward to, once again, another great challenge,” Zook added.

Illinois will look to meet that challenge with a defense ranked third in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing just over 315 yards per game. While Purdue’s offense currently ranks last in the conference in total offense, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said his unit will still be tested.

“Their offense is a nightmare (to defend),” Koenning said. “It’s one of those, I’ve already started laying awake until four in the morning type stuff.”

Koenning’s “nightmare” is Purdue’s option attack; something the Illini have yet to face this season. To stop the Boilermakers, Koenning said he has had to teach his players a different philosophy from what they are accustomed to.

“If you’re a defensive lineman and you rush upfield against an option team, then you’re going to get creased pretty badly,” Koenning said.

“Because of what they do in their option game, that slows down your pass rush … It really changes the way you play, you can’t really attack. In option football, you’ve have to basically be read and react; and you gotta be assignment perfect.”

While the Illini defensive line will have to deal with that challenge, the Boilermakers will counter with a defensive lineman of their own that Zook called “a wrecking ball” in senior Ryan Kerrigan.

“Kerrigan is probably the best defensive lineman in the country, in my mind,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “That’s what people always say about him, is that he has a motor, and you can see it, especially when you break down film … There definitely isn’t anyone that plays harder than him, and that’s what it comes down to when you’re in a football game.”

Protecting Scheelhaase is high on Illinois’ list of priorities, especially after the quarterback suffered a long gash on the back of his throwing hand last weekend. However, Scheelhaase said the hand isn’t likely to bother him this weekend and that he is confident his offensive line will keep him off the turf.

“I think our linemen are looking forward to the task at hand and the challenge of playing against him,” Scheelhaase said. “He has presented a lot of trouble to some teams this year, but we know things that we can do to kind of get him slowed down and … throw different things at him.”