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With the Urban Meyer Era fewer than 40 days aways from kicking off in Columbus, we at Buckeye Grove- along with some help from our friends in the Rivals.com network- have decided to take an in-depth look at each of Ohio State's opponents for the 2012 season. Today, we'll be examining the Buckeyes' 10th opponent of the season: the Illinois Fighting Illini. You can see yesterday's preview of the Penn State Nittany Lions by clicking here.
With the way that Ohio State's schedule has shaped up for 2012, it is likely that the Buckeyes will be underdogs in no more than one of their first nine games. In the even that the Buckeyes make it to November and their 10th game of the season with an undefeated record intact, their next test will come in the form of the visiting Illinois Fighting Illini.
Much like Ohio State is with Urban Meyer, the Illini are entering the season with a new head coach at the helm of their program in former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. Having served as Ohio State's cornerbacks coach in 2005 and 2006, Beckman is expected to interject some much needed life into an Illinois program that leveled off in recent years under former coach Ron Zook.
"Coach Beckman brings a lot of youth and energy to Illinois. He really gets it in terms of building up things by building the fan base, he's done a really good job of recruiting," Doug Bucshon of OrangeandBlueNews.com said. "They're fifth or sixth in the Big Ten right now and top-25 nationally in recruiting. They have 15 commits already to the class of 2013."
Returning at quarterback for the Illini is senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound signal-caller had an up and down 2012, throwing for 2,110
yards, 13 touchdowns, and interceptions, while leading the Illini in rushing with 624 yards and six more touchdowns.
"He was really good during the first half of last season when the Illini were 6-0, but things kind of fell apart for him in the second half of the season. He didn't complete a lot of passes and he threw a lot of interceptions," Bucshon said of Scheelhaase. "The big question mark for the Illini going into the 2012 season is with the new offense under Tim Beckman that they're going to run is a spread offense and that's the offense that they ran in the first year that Nathan was there, but then they kind of changed things up and went to a different offense."
Although Illinois' new offense may suit Scheelhaase better than its previous one did, he now finds himself searching for a new favorite target after A.J. Jenkins was selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Without an established go-to receiver on its roster, expect the Illini to attempt to utilize more than just their wideouts in the passing game.
"They're really thin at wide receiver. They return three guys who played in Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford, and Spencer Harris, but those guys are really unproven. We've waiting for Millines to really blow up the last couple of seasons but he's had some injury problems," Bucshon said. "What they're going to do is throw the ball a little more to the tight ends, they're going to get the running backs involved in the passing game, like Josh Ferguson who's a real quick kid who can play in the slot or play tailback. They're going to spread things around. Last year, Scheelhaase kind of zeroed in at A.J. Jenkins on just about every passing play, so he's going to have to spread the wealth around a lot more this year."
Making things easier for both Beckman and Scheelhaase this season, however, is a defense that has a chance to not only be one of the best in the Big Ten, but also the country.
"They have a really good defense again. They were ranked the top-10 last year in defense. They lost some good players obviously in first round draft pick Whitney Mercilus, who was really the heart and soul of their defense. He was a premiere pass-rusher, one of the best in school history," Bucshon said. "They return seven starters on defense. You're looking at guys like Akeem Spence on the interior defensive line. Linebacker Jonathan Brown is an all-conference linebacker. Terry Hawthorne is a senior cornerback who can be really good. They should have a solid defense. Defense really is not going to be their problem."
The stout Illini defense could spell trouble for a young Ohio State offense that's in its first year in Meyer's system.
"Ohio State's passing game is still a question. They have a really good young quarterback in Braxton Miller. He's a phenomenally talented athlete at quarterback," Bucshon said. "Ohio State's always going to be Ohio State, whether they're eligible for a bowl or not. They're talented on the roster, they still got some of the best recruits in the country, but if there's one thing you could probably look at, it's the Ohio State passing game."
It's not difficult to sense a newfound energy in the Illini program heading into fall camp, and that begins and ends with Beckman. But in order for Illinois to sustain that energy into November, it's going to take more than charismatic press conferences and a new emphasis on tradition in Champaign.
"He brings a lot of energy and you're going to just have to wait and see what they do on the field," Bucshon said. "To really turn the corner, Illinois has to win football games. They're looking at winning seven or eight games and build on the excitement that they've already established here since he was hired."
A kickoff time for the Nov. 3 game between the Buckeyes and Illini has yet to be announced.
You can follow Doug Bucshon on Twitter @IllinoisRivals.
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