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Illini face a tall task in Ohio State

Illinois+head+coach+Lovie+Smith+watches+his+team+from+the+sidelines+during+the+game+against+North+Carolina+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+September+10.+The+Illini+loss+48-23.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith watches his team from the sidelines during the game against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10. The Illini loss 48-23.

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith watches his team from the sidelines during the game against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10. The Illini loss 48-23.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith watches his team from the sidelines during the game against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 10. The Illini loss 48-23.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

While the Illini football players will tell you that they go into every week looking to win, even they will admit that this weekend’s matchup looks tougher than most.

While neither team’s season is going as well as their fan bases might have hoped, Ohio State (8-2) comes into this weekend as massive favorites to handle the Illini (2-8) in their backyard in Columbus.

The Illini travel to Ohio Stadium with an eight-game losing streak this season, and a conference losing streak dating back over a year to Dad’s Weekend of last season. The team is injury-ridden on both sides of the ball, and could be without starting quarterback Cam Thomas for the second-straight week.

The Buckeyes come off a 48-3 dismantling of Michigan State – who were the No. 12 team in the country at the time – but their blowout loss to Iowa the week before still looms large over their season.

Under other circumstances, the Illini might have hoped to catch the Buckeyes with their feet off the gas, but with Ohio State now on the outside of the College Football Playoff looking in, there is no time for them to relax.

“Ohio State on the road, it’s a tough one,” defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge and seeing how our guys will respond. Our guys made improvement last week, it just didn’t show up in the win/loss column.”

Ohio State now sits ninth in the official CFP committee rankings, and the Buckeyes will need to win out this season and get some help from the teams ahead of them to find their way back into the top four by the end of the season.

It will be an uphill battle all game long for the Illini, who on paper seem about as outmatched as they could be. The Buckeyes are led by long-serving quarterback J.T. Barrett, who has thrown 30 touchdowns this season and has rushed for seven more. By comparison, the Illini offense has scored 17 touchdowns all season, rushing or passing.

“He’s a very good football player and he has the ability to rise to the occasion and make things happen,” Nickerson said. “We want to keep him contained, keep him in the pocket when he’s passing the football. He’s a handful to deal with.”

Things won’t be any easier on the other side of the ball for Illinois, as Ohio State also boasts one of the most efficient defenses in college football.

As a team, the Buckeyes allow opponents just 310 yards-per-game, top-20 in the FBS. But the Illini offense has an even tougher opponent to overcome this week: themselves.

The Illini average just 302 yards-per-game and 16.4 points-per-game, making them one of the worst offenses in the FBS.

“It’s tough to get in a rhythm,” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “When you’re calling plays you’re worried about somebody making a mistake, so you’re more conservative than you want to be. But it’s part of the process.”

The Illini will face a challenge just from the environment this weekend. The Horseshoe is a part of what makes Ohio State one of the most storied programs in college football. This weekend it might not be at full capacity – over 104,000 – but the fourth-largest stadium in the world will certainly be the most challenging atmosphere these young Illini will face.

“The big thing is to keep these young guys level,” offensive lineman Christian DiLauro said. “It’s going to be the biggest and loudest environment we play in all year.”

@Jacob_Diaz31

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