CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Ohio State is still Ohio State to Illinois.
The Buckeyes may not have the record, ranking or players they’ve had in the past, but Illinois is treating Ohio State as if it was still on top of the Big Ten heading into Saturday’s game in Champaign.
“I told our team this is a very, very dangerous team,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said on Tuesday. “First, they’re a very, very talented team. It’s a well-coached team. It’s a team that’s got its back against the wall. We’re going to see everything they’ve got.
“Obviously, this is a storied program. They may be down a little bit, but trust me they sure aren’t out.”
As Illinois knows too from watching Ohio State’s game tape, the Buckeyes weren’t that far from being 2-0 in the Big Ten instead of 0-2.
Last week, Ohio State built a 27-6 lead on Nebraska before falling apart in the second half and losing 34-27. Two weeks ago, Michigan State pulled out a 10-7 win over Ohio State.
“They’re probably 2 1/2 quarters from being an undefeated team,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Zook believes Ohio State will be the most physical team the Illini have faced this season.
“If there’s one word you sum up this kind of game, it’s going to be a physical game,” Zook said. “Our guys are going to need to put their big-boy pads on to be ready to play.”
Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus has been prepared to play Ohio State since last year’s meeting. An Ohio native, Mercilus knows plenty of people who are Ohio State fans.
“This is my bowl game,” said Mercilus, who leads the country with 8.5 sacks. “I get lot of [stuff] from people from back home. They tell me Ohio State is this, Ohio State is that every single year, every single year. I hope we come out here and beat these guys, so I can rub it in their faces and tell them we’re good, too. This year is the year to do it, definitely.”
Mercilus later even guaranteed a win.
“When we do win, I’m going to try to rub it in their faces and tell them we are good,” Mercilus said.
Plenty of people already believe in Illinois. With a 6-0 record and No. 16 ranking, the Illini are starting to feel the buzz around town.
“You can tell people in Champaign, the Illini supporters are excited about what we’re doing,” Scheelhaase said. “We want them to be excited about what’s going on with our program. We feel we’re a team on the rise. Nationally, we want a little more publicity, but it doesn’t change what we do from a week-to-week standpoint, what we do in practice. We got come to come ready every week.”
Zook didn’t worry about Scheelhaase getting overconfident, but he couldn’t say the same about all of his players.
“I think anyone is vulnerable,” Zook said. “There’s a lot of it in particular when you’re having some success. People telling them how good they are and patting them on the back. That’s part of college football. This is not the NFL. This is college football.”