September 25, 2009

Illinois offense stacked and ready

COLUMBUS - It doesn't matter what coach it was or what side of the ball he instructs, there was one common denominator that every Ohio State football coach spoke about during their time with the media this week.

Whether it was brought up in a question from a reporter of spoken about unprovoked, the Buckeye coaching staff wanted to make one thing clear: Illinois could be the most stacked offensive team they have seen or will see this season.

Where there is a trend, there is a meaning.

"We've been saying all along that this is going to be a tremendously challenging September and it certainly has been at that and it begins with the Big Ten," said Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. "I felt going into the Big Ten year that Illinois probably had as good a personnel as anyone in the league. The explosive ability they have over on the offensive side, the uniqueness they have over on the defense.

"It as an offensive team and just the ability that a guy like Benn brings and - Arrelious Benn and Juice Williams and their tight end who's a heck of a player and Jeff Cumberland out wide and Jarred Fayson out wide and all those running backs," Tressel added. "I think our defense is going to have a tremendous challenge."

What's scary is one of the best receiving tight ends wasn't even mentioned in Michael Hoomanawanui.

For whatever reason, since Illinois season-opening loss to Missouri in which the Illini was blown out 37-, the majority of the media and fans has written off the team. With that, the incredible explosiveness Illinois boasts has been overlooked.

But all that talent doesn't simply disappear due to a bad game, and backed by players like Williams, Benn, and Fayson, the Illini certainly hopes to light up the scoreboard in the Horseshoe in attempt to upset the Buckeyes in Columbus for the second consecutive time.

Tressel is fully aware.

"I think you can go back to some of the transcripts when I talked to you guys in the spring," Tressel said Thursday in his final meeting with the media before Saturday's game. "When we talked about the difficulty of our September schedule, I have said all along that (Illinois) is the most-explosive, dangerous team, in terms of guys that are returning, than maybe anyone else in the Big Ten.

"When you have two veteran guys behind center (Juice Williams and reserve Eddie McGee) and the explosive guys - whether it's receivers, tight ends, running backs - three of their linemen are back out of five. So, offensively they are extremely explosive."

In Illinois first two games it has lost two of its most important playmakers in Benn and Williams, respectively, so Illinois has yet to get fully going as a complete unit.

The team had the fortune of experiencing a bye-week last week to be fully healthy and play as a unit, and the entire squad is expected to be ready to go Saturday. Any notion that Williams won't make it for the game against the Buckeyes can be thrown out the window.

"He's full go. He was not limited in practice. He's fine," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said in his weekly press conference. "He's got a strained muscle. Obviously he has to rehab it every day, but I don't foresee it being an issue. He doesn't feel like it's an issue and the trainers don't feel like it's an issue. When he gets out there and starts playing, I don't think he will even remember."

With everyone back healthy, Zook is certainly hoping to see the team adjust to the game quickly and for the chemistry to resurface fast. Zook acknowledged it will be tough to face the Buckeye defense, which will be an even taller task given this figures to be the first full game that both Benn and Williams are on the field together.

"Hopefully those guys will able to connect and do the things we all know they are capable of doing. I think the good thing is that Juice understands we have another quarterback if God forbid something happens to him, and obviously Benn is the same way," Zook said. "The more weapons you have, the more chances you have to make things happen."

When a team suffers an early loss in the fashion that Illinois did, remaining focused on what can still be accomplished can be faded. But the fact of the matter is Zook feels his team is still right in the thick of things when it comes to competing for the conference crown.

Illinois will have its hands full Saturday against the Buckeyes, but the team has put the loss to Missouri behind it.

"That's what I told the team after the Missouri game. I'll be honest with you, I never thought we were going to go 12-0. The first thing out of my mouth after the game was that. That's a game that you learn from," Zook said. "I think it put a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, but as I told the staff this morning, I feel the same way about this football team as I did five weeks ago. I think we have to go play and we have to go prove that.

"That's why we play the games and that's why it is fun to be a competitor and compete. These guys will learn from that and bounce back. I think if you go back and look at the ISU game, we got better especially in the first half. There's not a whole lot of things you can change in the first half of that Illinois State game."

Say what you want about Illinois, but the team is healthy and ready to go. That's scary for any opponent, and for the Buckeyes, they're coming Saturday.

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for He can be reached at [email protected].

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