Despite violations, Ohio State still presents challenge

Vic Koenning has sympathy for Ohio State.

The Illini defensive coordinator doesn’t know what a recruiting violation feels like and he intends to never find out.

“You have some regrets for them … and other times you don’t because you live in the same world,” Koenning said. “There’s been a lot of opportunities to do things or not do things, and you choose to do things because it’s the right thing. I’ve got a couple of father figures. My dad and my father-in-law both, told me, ‘If you do right, right will follow.’”

Before the Sugar Bowl last January, five Ohio State players were hit with suspensions for accepting improper benefits. This weekend on the road against the Illini, Ohio State will return offensive lineman Marcus Hall, defensive lineman Melvin Fellows and the Buckeyes’ leading rusher last season, Dan Herron. Last Friday, senior wide receiver DeVier Posey — 53 receptions for 848 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2010 — was suspended for an additional five games for accepting too much money for a summer job. He will not be eligible to return until Nov. 19 against Penn State.

“Until you live it, you don’t know,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “You can speculate, but until you live it, you really don’t know. (Ohio State head coach Luke Fickell) has had a lot of things come from a lot of different directions. They’ve done a good job.

Sometimes you don’t know who you’re going to have, and all the controversy and so forth and all the other things that have gone wrong. It’s probably pretty hard to focus on football.”

After further developments arose over the summer about violations against Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State’s star quarterback left the program for the NFL. The murky situation with Pryor’s violations led to the resignation of Jim Tressel, who had been head coach of Ohio State for 10 seasons. Fickell, Ohio State’s assistant coach at the time, replaced Tressel.

“It’s bad for college football when that stuff happens,” Zook said. “It’s bad, obviously, for the Big Ten. … You understand that there’s a lot of things out there we all have to be very, very careful of. You try and learn from other people’s mistakes, and hope and pray that your guys make the right decisions.”

True freshman quarterback Braxton Miller is listed as the starter against the Illini on the Ohio State depth chart. He suffered a sprained right ankle in the third quarter of the Buckeyes’ loss against Nebraska last weekend. Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus said from what he’s seen of Miller, the freshman is getting happy feet in the pocket and doesn’t look comfortable, a sign of inexperience.

“They can bring back whoever they want to,” Mercilus said. “They can have Terrelle Pryor. Not to be cocky or anything like that, but the thing is a lot of people probably would be saying if they had Terrelle Pryor, Illinois would probably not be able to beat them. They can bring back whoever they want, thing is we’re going to play our butts off.”

Illini running back Troy Pollard watched the drama surrounding the Buckeyes on ESPN as it unfolded this summer. While he said he didn’t know much about the situation, he heard some teammates talking about the scandals in the locker room.

“I didn’t follow it, I saw it,” senior offensive tackle Jeff Allen said. “I mean, everyone saw it. It’s an unfortunate situation, but you just have to keep going, keep fighting through it.”

Ohio State enters Saturday’s contest without a win in the Big Ten.

At 3-3, the Buckeyes are unranked for the first time since 2004. They were in the top 25 for 103 straight polls until their Sept. 17 loss to Miami (Fla.). Despite their struggles early in the season, Zook called Ohio State by far the best rushing team the Illini have seen all season.

“I know some people said that Ohio State is having kind of a down year,” junior bandit Michael Buchanan said. “They’re still Ohio State. You still have to play them like it’s a bowl game. It’s always going to be a very good program, so we have to take this game very seriously.”