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Illinois, Ohio State exchange a few jabs before showdown

A.J. Jenkins

A.J. Jenkins

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Spotlight game

Ohio State at No. 16 ILLINOIS, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 7, 560-AM.

Records: Ohio State 3-3, 0-2 Big Ten; Illinois 6-0, 2-0.
The line: Illinois by 4.. Gould’s pick: Illinois 38-35.

Updated: January 23, 2012 3:48AM

You could sense the growing determination in Columbus and Champaign this week as the Buckeyes and the Illini zeroed in on each other.

“He’s a decent receiver, but he’s nothing special, really,” Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said of Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins, who leads the nation with 815 receiving yards.

“You have some regrets for them and some sympathy for them,” Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of the scandal that has rocked the Ohio State program. “Other times you don’t because you live in the same world. There’s been a lot of opportunity to do things or not do things. You choose to do things because it’s the right thing.”

The right thing for Ohio State and Illinois this week has been to concentrate on their own hopes and dreams.

It’s the time of year when seasons are made or unraveled, sort of like “moving day” on Saturdays at golf tournaments. You can’t win anything in mid-October, but you sure can lose it.

Embattled Ohio State, which is 3-3, including 0-2 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1992, must put aside any doubts quickly. After playing at undefeated No. 16 Illinois on Saturday, the Buckeyes take on undefeated No. 4 Wisconsin next week, and a season-ending trip to undefeated No. 11 Michigan looms.

There’s not much wiggle room there.

“We can’t look any further ahead than today,” coach Luke Fickell said. “You drive yourself batty trying to [look ahead].”

All-Big Ten runner Dan Herron will return from a six-game NCAA suspension. Ohio State could use three quarterbacks: mobile true freshman Braxton Miller, who’s coming off a sprained ankle; pocket-oriented senior Joe Bauserman, who has been ineffective; and redshirt sophomore third-stringer Kenny Guiton, who’s between them from a mobility standpoint.

What matters most, though, is the spirit of the Buckeyes, who blew a 21-point lead at Nebraska after nearly being shut out by Michigan State and are playing under the cloud of the scandal that ousted Jim Tressel.

“It’s amazing,” Fickell said. “I feel good about who they are. They’ve been through a lot, but these are the times when you find out how much faith you have in each other.”

On the opposite side of that is Illinois, off to a 6-0 start for the first time since 1951.

The Illini are eager to show people their big-strike passing game and cleverly deceptive defensive looks will hold up against the Buckeyes.

Because for all of Ohio State’s personnel woes, it still suits up a lot of agile bruisers who can run or smack you in the mouth, depending on the situation.

“They may be down a little bit, but they sure are not out,” Illini coach Ron Zook said. “They’re very talented. We’re going to get the best they’ve got. It’s going to be important that we play the same way.”

Asked if he’s curious to see how his team, which has faced spread-it-out teams this fall, can do against a power team, Zook bristled.

“We’ve played some power football [teams],” Zook said. “If you remember last year, we had a stretch where we played Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. We have to go do it [again]. That’s a challenge these guys’ll take.”

A seventh victory would keep an undefeated Illinois in line for all kinds of surprising goodies. And it would be another answer to critics of its schedule.

On defense, the key will be to stop a physical running game that will improve with Herron’s return.

On offense, the key will be whether Illinois can continue to spring Jenkins, who has made a Big Ten-record 18 catches for 450 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games.

“Yeah, we can. We need to,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “It might not be as easy. We can get open on them. It’s whether we can pass-block on them.”

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