September 29, 2010

Zook notices Pryor's progression

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Illinois football team has a lot to prove and Illini head coach Ron Zook knows it. His job, some say, may even depend on it.

Coming off a season in which Illinois finished just 3-9 despite big expectations in the preseason, Zook's team has an opportunity to make a statement when it invites the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0) into Champaign on Saturday afternoon.

But for the Illini to be successful Zook understands his team must slow junior Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a signal caller Illinois' coach referred to as one of the best in the nation.

"Ohio State is a big week. Everyone is excited to be back. We are playing a great football team and arguably the best player in the country," Zook said in his weekly press conference. "It is going to be a great challenge and our guys have the ultimate respect for Ohio State. In the time that I have been here, they always enjoy playing this game."

Last season Illinois didn't play its typical game against the Buckeyes. Usually a hard-fought close battle between the two rivals, Ohio State knocked off Illinois 30-0 in the Horseshoe.

This season the Buckeyes seemed improved, but Zook has noticed a big change in the Buckeyes' offensive philosophy and it begins with the progression of Pryor as a quarterback.

"The biggest thing I would say is the way he's throwing the football. He's throwing the football 20 percent more," Zook said of Pryor. "Terrelle has enough confidence in his ability, he's going to sit back. He can throw deep, he can throw short, he can throw touch, he can stick it in there, and I think they're allowing him to do that."

Last season the Buckeyes relied more on their power running game to get them to their fifth consecutive Big Ten title, but with the progression of Pryor, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has seemingly shifted his offensive game plan.

Pryor - coming off a six-touchdown performance in the Eastern Michigan win - has already come on strong this season for the Buckeyes as a passer. Thus far this season, Pryor has completed 71-of-107 (66 percent) attempts for 939 yards and 10 touchdowns, throwing only two interceptions.

Unlike last year where the Buckeyes finished 104th in the country in total passing offense (173 yards per game), Ohio State is No. 29 in the nation in that category, passing for over 266 yards per game.

And even with the new focus on the passing game, Pryor has continued to keep defenses off balance with his unique ability to make big plays in the running game. Pryor leads Ohio State in rushing with 269 yards and has three touchdown runs.

That, Tressel said, also figures into what the Buckeyes are trying to do in the passing game. Last week Pryor rushed for 104 yards against the Eagles - including a 53-yard scoring scamper on the team's first possession - and only one of the plays were a designed quarterback run.

"we feel as if the step up and run part of the game is a huge part of our pass game. So however many yards we passed for, I think some of those run yards need to be credited to the pass game," Tressel said. "How have we been able to evolve to that? I think the more that the quarterback understands the whole picture, plus the better job we do protecting, good protection helps you get some of those what we call step-ups, and we've been fortunate thus far to have our linemen intact practicing.

"This is kind of like diametrically opposite to where we were a year ago where we were hardly ever on the field together."

Pryor has made plays with his legs all season, a lot of which came after being able to avoid the sack. A 6-foot-6, 230-pound quarterback with some of the best speed on the Buckeyes, Zook understands it won't be easy to slow down a much-improved Pryor from a year ago.

"You're not going to arm tackle him," Zook said, remembering Pryor's ability from last year's game in Ohio Stadium.

The Buckeyes remain unbeaten on the season and Illinois has suffered only one blemish through three games, a loss in a close game against Missouri in the season opener.

Coming off an open week, Illinois has had an extra week to prepare for the Buckeyes. Zook is confident his team will have the right mindset when playing against Ohio State in Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

"I think the mind set, if you want to compare, is much better obviously then it was last year," Zook said of his program. "We feel good about the direction that we are going as a football team.

"I thought the three days last week that we practiced were good because we really spent time on us," he said. "It was almost like three days of spring football. We went out there and got after it a little bit and we got better. Once again, I think the time off was good and hopefully we attacked them in the right way."

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for He can be reached at


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