Get To Know: Illinois

This past weekend, Illinois became the first team this season to hand Minnesota a Big Ten loss. They would like nothing more than to do the same thing to Ohio State this upcoming weekend and prove their victory wasn’t a fluke.

As for the Buckeyes, they came uncomfortably close to losing against a team in Penn State that, given their scholarship limitations and their season’s recent trajectory, many believe they should have beaten handily. There’s nothing more the Scarlet and Gray would like to do Saturday than to prove that was a fluke.

That sets up the matchup at Ohio Stadium, but what else should we expect to see when Illinois and Ohio State collide?

The Fighting Illini started their season by winning three of their first four games. Then they went on to drop three of four.

During that rough stretch, Illinois lost starting quarterback Wes Lunt to a broken leg.

That has pretty fundamentally changed the way the Illini have been doing things. Up through the game in which Lunt was hurt, Illinois passed the ball about 61 percent of the time (248 pass attempts to 159 rushes). In the two games since, they’ve passed the ball 37 percent of the time (47 pass attempts to 80 carries).

Reilly O’Toole has taken the bulk of the snaps in Lunt’s absence, and he’s been fairly impressive. He’s completed 26 of his 40 passes (65 percent) for 214 yards (8.23 yards per completion). He’s also thrown 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. Those numbers look even better when you consider they came against Wisconsin and Minnesota, certainly no defensive slouches.

Aaron Bailey has seen some time under center, too. However, he has run the ball more than he has passed it.

Actually both O’Toole and Bailey will run the ball. O’Toole ranks third on the team in carries, with Bailey right on his tail. As O’Toole only averages 1.9 yards when he runs, though, Bailey has to be considered the more effective rusher.

Their ground game is paced by junior running back Josh Ferguson. He has 518 yards on 102 carries. He also has featured in the passing game, having at least two receptions in every game he’s played this year, and as many as ten (against Purdue).

Ferguson is a Naperville, Illinois native, as is the team’s leading receiver, freshman Mike Dudek. He averages 15.2 yards per catch and has three touchdowns. If Dudek gets 38 receiving yards against Ohio State, he’ll break the school’s record of 676 receiving yards by a freshman currently owned by Arrelious Benn, who made his mark in 2007. Meanwhile, 6’3″ receiver Geronimo Allison has chipped in with five touchdowns of his own, and had he not missed the game against Texas State, he could be the team’s leading receiver. Oh, and Dudek completed a pass to Allison last week, so that’s at least in their playbook.

Despite their experience, the offensive line is ranked 110th in the nation in sacks allowed. They’re giving up 3.13 sacks a game, which is only slightly fewer than Penn State. They’ve even had to move guys around. Michael Heitz started the season at left guard, went to right tackle and is now back at left guard. Two games ago, they went with a new starting right tackle as Christian DiLauro beat out Pat Flavin.

On the other side of the ball, Illinois has struggled. They are 104th in the nation in scoring defense. This is despite the fact that they are ranked 21st (one spot behind OSU) in tackles-for-loss.

Junior linebacker Mason Monheim out of Orrville, Ohio is their leading tackler overall, with defensive back Zane Petty not far behind him. Both are in the top 10 of the Big Ten when it comes to tackles.

Earnest Thomas III, who plays the star position (ie. linebacker/safety hybrid), leads Illinois in sacks. That tells you a little bit about where the team will bring the pressure from.

The most disruptive player for the Fighting Illini, though, might be defensive back V’Angelo Bentley out of Cleveland Glenville. He has 36 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, an interception and two fumble recoveries this season. He is the only Illinois player in school history to record a kick return, punt return, interception return and fumble return for a touchdown in his career. Ohio State fans might remember his 67-yard punt return against them last year.

Regardless of his athleticism, Bentley might not be the star of the club’s special teams. That’s because Justin DuVernois has been punting for Illinois for four years and leads the Big Ten. They made a change at place kicker after some early season struggles and David Reisner has taken over the job, but his long this year is 19 yards, and he’s missed an extra point.

Ohio State hosts Illinois at 8 p.m. with all the play-by-play airing on 97.1 The Fan.

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