Friday, October 14, 2011

GAME PREVIEW: BUCKEYES HOPE TO KEEP ILLIBUCK FOR FOURTH SEASON

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ohio State hasn't possessed a losing record since beginning the 1999 college football season 0-1.

If the Buckeyes (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) fall to No. 16 Illinois (6-0, 2-0) this Saturday afternoon in Champaign, that impressive 12-year run of winning excellence will be dust in the wind.

The Buckeyes looked to have finally gotten things rolling in the right direction early on in last Saturday night's showdown at Nebraska, jumping ahead of the Cornhuskers by three touchdowns midway through the third quarter. True freshman quarterback Braxton Miller was brilliant during the hostile road tilt, leading the Buckeyes to 27 points, 312 yards of offense and 13 first downs in the first 40 minutes of action, breaking down the 'Black Shirts' with both his arm and his legs.

However, with five minutes to play in the third quarter Miller would sprain his right ankle, forcing him to miss the remainder of the game. The Buckeyes would not recover from their young star's exit. Nebraska held the Ohio State offense scoreless the rest of the way and put up 21 unanswered points (337 total yards) — after Miller's exit — to rally past the Buckeyes for a 34-27 win.

"I've not been a part of something like that," OSU head coach Luke Fickell said. "(It was) a little bit of a snowball effect."

If the Buckeyes want to prevent the snowball from turning into a full-blown avalanche, they must keep from falling apart in Champaign on Saturday like they did in Lincoln a week ago.

Going up against the Fighting Illini's dynamic offensive duo of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and receiver A.J. Jenkins, makes the aforementioned task a whole lot easier said than done.

The sophomore Scheelhaase has been incredible this season for the Fighting Illini, racking up 1,585 total yards and 14 touchdowns with his dual-threat abilities under center. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound signal caller has become quite efficient as a passer this season, completing 80-of-120 attempts (66.7) for 1,238 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions, through six games.

Helping his progression as a passer is the explosive Jenkins out on the edge. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior has hauled in 46 receptions for 815 yards and seven touchdowns this season — all Big Ten bests — including 18 grabs for 450 yards and five scores in the past two games.

"He's a big playmaker, and that's the thing, if you see a big, long pass (on film) it's probably with A.J. Jenkins on it," Fickell said. "He's their go-to guy on big plays."

Fickell said that Jenkins' great play, though, begins with the man throwing him the football.

"It starts with the quarterback. He gives them the opportunity that people have to stack the box and do some things because (Scheelhaase) can hurt you in so many different ways," Fickell said. "And the guy that obviously has taken advantage of that the most is A.J."

Offensively for the Buckeyes, their performance will rely heavily on whether or not the freshman Miller can make it through 60 minutes after suffering the ankle injury a week ago. With Miller, the offense has another dimension, but without him ... it's appalling.

"When (Miller) got hurt — I think they've got a lot of confidence in him — it might have taken a little air out of their sails." Illinois head coach Ron Zook said.

Luckily for the Buckeyes, Miller is healthy and ready to go this Saturday against the unbeaten Illini.

The offense will also welcome back its leading rusher from a year ago, senior tailback Dan "Boom" Herron, who has missed the first six games of the season due to NCAA violations. Herron rushed for 1,155 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and will certainly be a huge part of the Buckeyes' offensive plans this Saturday in Champaign.

"Dan is a big part of who we are," Fickell said. "Not just what we've missed from him on the field, but in the locker room, off the field, in the huddle, just that personality, his passion, his confidence level.

"That's something that we are going to try and ride, and in order to do that he's going to have to have a hand in it and have a part of it, and he will."

Bottom Line

The outcome of this game is going to come down to two simple questions: Will Miller stay healthy? And will the offensive coaching staff allow him to continue playing in a dual-threat attack?

The second part is a no-brainer. It was apparent during the Nebraska game that the offensive staff finally realizes their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to turn their freshman quarterback — and biggest weapon — loose.

The first question, though, remains to be seen.

If the Buckeyes are to avoid their first losing record since the Clinton Administration, the training staff must wrap Miller's ankle up like a mummy.

I believe they will. Again, they have no choice.

The Illibuck Trophy will remain in Columbus for a fourth straight season.

Prediction: OSU 27-24