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Illinois looking to improve to 7-0 with victory against Ohio State

Nathan Scheelhaase

Nathan Scheelhaase

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

CHAMPAIGN — Can Illinois
really do this?

With the pressure on to stay
unbeaten against wounded but dangerous Ohio State on Saturday, can the No. 16 Illini muster their best effort and improve to 7-0?

Yes. For all the nitpicking about its schedule, Illinois (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) has the ingredients to keep rolling along. But it will need to shore up some nagging problem areas and be successful in some uncertain territory.

The Illini’s top priorities will be not to commit major mistakes and to keep a lid on the Buckeyes’ running game.

They can’t dig holes the way they did in their first two Big Ten games, when they were down 28-10 at home to Northwestern and 10-0 on the road to Indiana.

They’ll have to improve their special teams, which gave up a
99-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff at Indiana and are ranked last in the Big Ten in punting, punt returns, kickoff returns and kickoff coverage.

And, of course, coach Ron Zook can’t have any more gaffes like the one at Indiana in which he called for a two-point conversion with Illinois leading 20-13 in the second quarter.

This also will be a different kind of test for the defense. Although the Illini are allowing only 79.7 rushing yards a game (second in the Big Ten), they’ve been seeing a lot of spread-it-out passing offenses.

Running back Carlos Hyde, who ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday at Nebraska, and quarterback Braxton Miller, who ran for 91 yards and passed for 95 before suffering an ankle injury in the third quarter, will be joined in the Ohio State backfield by running back Dan Herron, who will make his 2011 debut for the Buckeyes (3-3, 0-2) after missing the first six games to suspension.

On the positive side, Illinois has a potent offense and a defense that has handled every challenge to date. The Illini also are developing a winning spirit.

‘‘If there’s a comparison to the ’07 team,’’ Zook said, mentioning Illinois’ surprise Rose Bowl entry, ‘‘it’s that these guys are
allowing the coaches to coach them. They’re demanding and pushing and not getting their feelings on their sleeves. .  .  . They’re going out and trying to do what the coaches tell them to do.’’

And they’re keeping things in perspective.

‘‘It’s a great feeling [to be 6-0],’’ said defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation with 81/2 sacks. ‘‘But we can’t get complacent now.’’

NOTE: Fans are asked to ‘‘stripe the stadium’’ by wearing orange if they are seated in odd-numbered sections or in the north end zone and by wearing blue if they are seated in even-numbered sections.

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