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November 13, 2008

Big Ten: Inconsistency sinks Illini hopes

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

It isn't supposed to be like this for Illinois. The Fighting Illini are supposed to be a contender in the Big Ten, battling for a BCS bowl or at least a New Year's Day bowl.

Instead, Illinois is fighting for its bowl life.

Coming off the school's first Rose Bowl since the 1983 season, optimism was soaring in the preseason in Champaign. The Illini opened the season ranked in every preseason poll and were picked as high as third in the Big Ten. Some thought Illinois might be able to win the school's first Big Ten crown since 2001.

But look at Illinois now. The Illini are 5-5 overall and just 3-3 in the Big Ten. Rose Bowl? Forget it. The Illini will be fortunate to play in the Motor City Bowl. Then again, Illinois may not want to return to Ford Field in Detroit after last weekend's debacle in that venue that saw the Illini get unceremoniously dumped by Western Michigan, 23-17.

"It's frustrating to be this inconsistent," linebacker Brit Miller said. "It's not as bad as it could be. I've lost 10 games in a row in college and that's 10 times worse. But this is now and it still hurts."

What has happened? Quarterback Juice Williams has enjoyed a solid season, but he still is hampered by inconsistency. Williams' cause has been hurt by a line that has battled injury issues. And Illinois has missed running back Rashard Mendenhall more than anyone imagined. Turnovers also have been an issue. Illinois has committed 22, more than all but two Big Ten teams.

The defense hasn't done its part, either. The line hasn't played as well as expected after most felt the unit would be the strength of the defense. Illinois leads the league in sacks and tackles for loss but ranks seventh against the run (142.1 yards per game).

Add it all up, and you have a program fighting for survival. Ohio State will be in Champaign on Saturday to battle for the Illibuck Trophy. The Buckeyes will have revenge on their mind after getting dumped 28-21 by Illinois last season when they were the No. 1 team in the nation.

If Ohio State needs any more motivation, it knows Penn State's stunning loss at Iowa last week means it can claim at least a share of its fourth consecutive Big Ten championship if it beats Illinois this week and Michigan next week. The last Big Ten team to win at least a share of four league titles in a row was Michigan, which won five in a row from 1988-92.

The stakes aren't as high for Illinois but they are every bit as important. After playing host to Ohio State, the Illini finish the season at Northwestern (7-3). The Fighting Illini must split those two games just to get to 6-6 and qualify for the postseason. Illinois hasn't been to the postseason in consecutive seasons since going to bowls five years in a row from 1988-92.

"It's going to be a challenge," coach Ron Zook said. "We've kind of slipped back a little bit. We can be a good team, but we're going to have to put a lot of things aside and put the team first and see if we're the type of people we think we are."

  • BEST MATCHUP
  • THE SCHEDULE
    Saturday
    Northwestern at Michigan, noon
    Indiana at Penn State, noon
    Ohio State at Illinois, noon
    Purdue at Iowa, noon
    Minnesota at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m.

    Michigan's offense vs. Northwestern's defense. The Wolverines' offense has come to life the past two weeks, tallying 42 points at Purdue and 29 last week at Minnesota. Even more vital, the Wolverines beat the Gophers to end a five-game losing streak. The Wolverines are playing for pride, which makes them a dangerous foe for Northwestern. At 7-3, the Wildcats already are bowl eligible. But an eighth victory will improve their postseason prospects. Northwestern's defense was the story early season, but the unit has struggled a bit down the stretch by allowing 21 or more points in four of the past five games. Can the Wildcats' defense cool off a hot Michigan offense in Ann Arbor?

  • PLAYER TO WATCH
  • Penn State QB Daryll Clark. Let's see if Clark has a hangover from his poor performance in last week's 24-23 loss at Iowa that likely ended the Nittany Lions' national title hopes. Clark was just 9-of-23 for 86 yards, and threw an interception late in the fourth quarter that led to the Hawkeyes' winning field goal. Clark suffered a mild concussion in Penn State's previous game, a win at Ohio State. The good news: Indiana is coming to Happy Valley. It's vital Clark and the Lions get back on track with a resounding victory before Michigan State comes to State College to close out the regular season on Nov. 22. Penn State needs to at least earn a trip to the Rose Bowl to salvage the season.

  • WHO'S HOT
  • Iowa RB Shonn Greene has 13 rushing TDs. As a team, the Hawkeyes had 11 last season. Greene is the first Iowa player to rush for 100 yards in 10 consecutive games. Big Ten teams are 17-17 in league road games. Teams haven't finished better than .500 in conference road games since 1999 (23-21). In 2007, Big Ten squads were 17-27 on the road in league action. Ohio State has won 14 Big Ten road games in a row, the second-longest streak in conference history. Michigan won 17 Big Ten road games in succession from 1988-92. Indiana DE Jammie Kirlew is sixth nationally in sacks (10.5) and second nationally in tackles for loss (18.5). After being sacked 10 times in his first four starts, Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor has been sacked only four times in the past three games. He also has tossed just one pick in the past four contests.

  • WHO'S NOT
  • Minnesota has scored more than 20 points just twice in six Big Ten games. Purdue's loss at Michigan State means the Boilermakers won't go to a bowl for only the second time in Joe Tiller's 12 seasons in West Lafayette. Indiana never has beaten Penn State (0-11). Iowa is last in the Big Ten in sacks (1.5 per game). The Hawkeyes also have recovered a league-low five fumbles. Wisconsin hasn't won consecutive games since Sept. 6-13, when the Badgers beat Marshall and Fresno State. The Big Ten has struggled against the MAC. Illinois (Western Michigan), Indiana (Ball State, Central Michigan) and Michigan (Toledo) have been whipped by their "little Midwestern brothers."

  • WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
  • "Not as fast as Pat. Pat's fast, fast, but Justin can run. The thing about Justin, he loves to play. He's a strong guy. You notice he's a strong runner, and that's why we think he'd be really good in the slot position and be a real good special teams guy." Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, comparing freshman QB Justin Feagin with Pat White.

    "I want to apologize to the whole Penn State nation for my game play today. I just keep having that turnover recurring in my head over and over. I can't get it out of my head." Penn State's Clark, following a 24-23 loss at Iowa that saw him throw a late interception that led to the Hawkeyes' winning field goal.

    "The only thought I have on that is you can't be 10-2 until you're 9-2, and being 9-2 is going to be a challenge." Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, on if a 10-2 Buckeyes team deserves to go to a BCS bowl

  • ETC.
  • Michigan State is off this week. The Spartans finish their season Nov. 22 at Penn State. If Michigan State wins, it will claim at least a share of its first Big Ten crown since 1990. Northwestern QB C.J. Bacher is listed as probable for this week's game against Michigan. He has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. Mike Kafka has started in his place. Michigan QB Steven Threet is questionable. He missed last week's win at Minnesota with a concussion. RB Brandon Minor is questionable with rib, shoulder and wrist issues. If QB Curtis Painter is over a shoulder injury that has kept him out of the past two games, he'll start for Purdue at Iowa. If Painter can't go, Justin Siller will make his third consecutive start. QB Juice Williams needs 326 yards to break Illinois' single-season total-offense record. Illinois and Ohio State have split the past 18 meetings. Before giving up just six points to Minnesota, Michigan had allowed a total of 129 points in its previous three games. Wisconsin and Minnesota will battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. The Badgers have won the past four meetings and 11 of the past 13. The Big Ten (Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State) has as many ranked teams in the AP poll as the Mountain West (Utah, TCU, BYU). And Air Force is ahead of other Big Ten teams in "others receiving votes." Purdue hasn't won in Iowa City since 1992. Indiana has lost three starting defensive backs to season-ending knee injuries. The offensive line also is a mess because of injuries, starting different combinations each of the past five weeks. Purdue RB Kory Sheets eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark (1,017), making him just the second player in the Tiller era to reach that plateau. Joey Harris in 2002 was the other.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

    Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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