When it comes to strange happenings, you might think of Roswell or the Bermuda Triangle or Stonehenge.
And if you’re an Ohio State fan, you can add your own personal Twilight Zone, Champaign, Illinois to the list.
Although the Buckeyes have won their last three games against Illinois by a combined score of 167-71, there are still enough close calls on the road in recent memory to wonder what it is about the 294.2 mile journey to Memorial Stadium that guarantees games that are so memorable.
In 2000, Ohio State would hang on to win 24-21. Games in 2002 and 2006 were decided by a touchdown.
Heck, with as lopsided as the last trip to Illinois was, there were still some nervy moments in 2013, as the Illini rallied from down 28-0 to pull it to within 35-21 before the Buckeyes raced away 60-35.
And this year’s squad has the tools, if not to pull off the upset, to at least ensure some degree of craziness.
Consider that Illinois is 7th nationally in blocked punts this season with two, and leads the country in blocked kicks with 5. They force almost 8 tackles for loss per game, which is good enough to rank them 13th in that category, and they are +5 in turnover margin. They have two fourth-quarter comebacks in 2015.
Plus, they are highly motivated. Illinois is one win away from bowl eligibility. They have an interim coach in Bill Cubit who is so desperate to win the job on a permanent basis, that he teared up after ending a three-game skid with a 48-14 win over Purdue.
Something that victory over the Boilermakers illustrated is that Illinois can run the ball…if they are healthy. Josh Ferguson returned from a three-game absence due to a shoulder injury, and alongside freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, they combined to carry the ball for 313 yards, which is more than twice the team’s season average of 144.3 yards/game (98th ranked nationally).
Despite the time he’s missed, Ferguson has 514 yards and is averaging 6.2 yards/carry. He’s also a pass-catching back with 50 receptions each of the past two seasons, and another 18 this year, including 6 this past week. Meanwhile, Vaughn shined as part of a running back combo, but didn’t really standout when he was asked to handle the job alone.
Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt does not contribute much to the run game. In fact, he has yet to have a game this year where he finishes the contest with positive rushing numbers. In other ways, though, he’s like the signal caller Ohio State saw last week in Mitch Leidner.
Lunt tends to throw short. The Illini are ranked 122nd in yards/completion, and his long this year is 53 yards. However, his completion percentage is still a middling 55.8 percent. At the same time, he is 6’5″ with 2,000 yards and a respectable 12:4 touchdown ratio.
Lunt’s main target is 6’4″ Geronimo Allison, who is averaging a little over 6 catches a game, and has 3 touchdowns.
The offensive line, anchored by 6’6″, 300 pound left tackle Austin Schmidt out of Galena, Ohio, is giving up a mere 1.44 sacks/game.
On defense, the Illini have shown quite a bit of improvement from a year ago. They have gone from being the team which gave up 55 points to OSU in 2014 to the 33rd ranked scoring defense in the country.
They are especially tough on 3rd down. Teams convert less than 30 percent of the time. Only 5 other teams in the FBS can claim to be more formidable.
Clayton Fejedelem leads the team in tackles with 100. Indeed, since the start of Big Ten play, he leads the conference in tackles/game. Normally, a defensive back registering those kind of numbers would be alarming, but not the way co-defensive coordinators Tim Banks and Mike Phair use him, by bringing Fejedelem up close to the line.
Other standouts on defense? Groveport, Ohio native Dawuane Smoot has six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. Taylor Barton has 4 interceptions while Spence Eaton has contributed another 3. Orrville’s own Mason Monnheim provides a heady presence at linebacker. The senior is a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar.
But no summary of Illinois would be complete without mentioning Cleveland’s V’Angelo Bentley. He has 36 tackles, including an 11-tackle day against Wisconsin. He has 3 tackles for loss and 6 pass break ups. Not bad, considering he’s also busy returning kicks, and he’s played a bit of offense this year as well. (He has 2 carries, and attempted a pass.)
Bentley is actually one of three Illini players to play on both sides of the ball this year as backup safety Caleb Day saw some time at wide receiver, and backup offensive lineman Nick Allegretti was moved to defensive tackle to help Illinois once injuries hit.
Ohio State plays Illinois this Saturday at noon on 97.1 The Fan.