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November 8, 2007

Talented Illinois bunch could test Buckeyes


Saturday's games
Overview: The Big Ten office likes to boast that 10 of its 11 teams are on the verge of qualifying for bowl eligibility. With one more victory, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State will reach the six wins necessary to be considered for bowl participation. In that case, the Big Ten's only team definitely out of the postseason picture would be Minnesota. That's a nice note, but the real point of interest is whether Ohio State can remain the top-ranked team in the nation and Michigan can stay in BCS bowl contention before next week's clash that will decide the conference championship. The Buckeyes were doubted because their unbeaten record was forged against a perceived weak schedule. Consecutive wins over Penn State and Wisconsin were viewed as validation victories. But the Buckeyes are facing Illinois, which also beat the Lions and Badgers. Real validation may depend on this week's game. Meanwhile, Michigan would be an attractive pick for a BCS bowl even if the Wolverines don't win the Big Ten championship. But to maintain that status they need a victory at Wisconsin. Michigan is 19-4-1 all-time in Madison, but lost 23-20 in its last appearance at Camp Randall Stadium in 2005.

Best matchup: Illinois TB Rashard Mendenhall vs. Ohio State run defense. Mendenhall, who has rushed for 1,314 yards, needs 17 to break Illinois' single-season rushing record. He has six 100-yard games this season and will set a school record with another. He'll definitely have to earn his 100 yards this week. Ohio State allows an average of 65 yards per game to rank third in the nation in run defense. The Buckeyes have held seven opponents to fewer than 90 rushing yards and allowed just one player to rush for 100 yards Washington QB Jake Locker managed 102 the Buckeyes in the third game of the year.

The pressure is on: Purdue's offensive line. It allowed four sacks in last week's loss to Penn State, and it is without G Jordan Grimes. The team's best linemen is hobbled by a sprained ankle. To complicate matters, the Boilermakers face Michigan State, which boasts one of the nation's best pass rushes led by DE Jonal Saint-Dic. The Spartans have 34 sacks to rank eighth in the country. Saint-Dic has accounted for 10 sacks. Who's hot: Ohio State sophomore TB Chris Wells has rushed for 523 yards and four touchdowns in the past three games. He's averaged 6.8 yards per carry in that stretch. Michigan WR Mario Manningham keeps adding to his All-American resume. He has five consecutive 100-yard receiving outputs. In his past five games (he sat out a victory over Eastern Michigan), Manningham has had 40 catches with eight going for touchdowns.

Who's not: Three weeks ago Northwestern QB C.J. Bacher was flourishing with nine touchdown passes in two games. Now, he's floundering. Bacher has completed barely 50 percent of his passes and has thrown three interceptions in each of his last two games both losses.

Keep your eye on: Indiana WR James Hardy and QB Kellen Lewis will be looking to set or tie school records Saturday against Northwestern. Hardy needs two receptions and 29 receiving yards to set school career records in those categories, while Lewis needs five touchdown passes to tie Antwaan Randle El's school record of 42 career touchdown passes. Northwestern ranks 89th in the nation in pass defense, so Hardy figures to reach his records without much trouble. Lewis' will require more effort, but Northwestern allowed five touchdown passes earlier this season in an overtime victory over Minnesota.

Ohio State6-010-0
Penn State4-37-3
Michigan State1-55-5
Numbers game: Illinois has 34 sacks this season, which ranks 10th in the nation. The Illini need seven more to break the school record, set in 2001. Illinois is 3-14 all-time against the nation's top-ranked team. Purdue leads the nation with three kickoff returns for touchdowns. Two of them have come on the game's opening kickoff. Ohio State's defense has allowed just seven touchdowns all season. Penn State LB Dan Connor set the school's career tackles record with 379.

Freshman to watch: Redshirt freshman TB Evan Royster was given a season-high 21 carries for Penn State in its 26-19 victory over Purdue last week and he responded with a career-high 126 yards and a touchdown. That performance figures to earn him more carries this week against Temple, which last week gave up 219 rushing yards to Ohio University. Given sufficient carries, Royster could post back-to-back career-bests.

Injury update: Indiana WR Terrance Turner (knee) is expected to miss the rest of the season. CB Leslie Majors (undisclosed), DT Joe Kremer (leg) and G Pete Saxon (shoulder) are questionable. C Matt Moses (knee) is doubtful. Iowa CB Adam Shada (ankle) is questionable. Michigan State CB Chris Rucker (eye) is questionable. Minnesota C Tony Brinkhaus (concussion) is questionable. Northwestern TB Omar Conteh (sprained ankle) is questionable. Ohio State LB Ross Homan (toe) is questionable. Penn State LB Dontey Brown (arm) is questionable. Purdue G Jordan Grimes (leg) is doubtful. Wisconsin OT Eric VandenHeuvel (leg), TB P.J. Hill (leg), LB Jaevery McFadden (elbow) and G Andy Kemp (hand) are questionable. CB Allen Langford (knee) and DT Jason Chapman (knee) are out.

They said it:

"It seems like every year that I've been here when we go play (Ohio State), they are No. 1 in the nation. But if you want to see how good you are, then you have to compete against the best, and obviously they are the best team in college football."
Illinois coach Ron Zook

"They want to mock us? I'm telling them it's not over. So they can print all that crap all they want all over their locker room. It's not over and it will never be over here."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio in response to Michigan players kneeling in a "moment of silence" after beating the Spartans last week and Wolverines running back [db]Mike Hart[/db] comparing the Spartans to little brothers.

Bowl implications: Ohio State remains No. 1 in the BCS standings and on pace to play for the national championship if the Buckeyes win their final two games. Michigan still is in contention to play in a BCS bowl, either as Big Ten champion or as an at-large team. Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin have shots at New Year's Day games, and the others are playing for bowl "positioning."

Etc.: Ohio State has scored on its opening drive in eight games this season, including its past six in a row. Buckeyes DE Vernon Gholston established school records with four sacks for 32 yards in losses in last week's victory over Wisconsin. Illinois sophomore WR Jeff Cumberland, who moved from tight end earlier this season, had four catches for 53 yards and a touchdown in last week's win over Minnesota. Going into the game, he had just one catch all season. Two of the 15 trophies for which Big Ten teams play are at stake this weekend. Illinois and Ohio State view for the Illibuck, a wooden replica of a live turtle that was the winner's prize until it died in 1927. Meanwhile, Iowa and Minnesota compete for Floyd of Rosedale, a bronze statue of a pig. A Michigan tailback has rushed for 100 yards in every Wolverines game this season. Iowa is on pace to set a school record for fewest turnovers in a season. The Hawkeyes have committed nine (four interceptions, five fumbles). The school record is 15 turnovers, in 1963.


Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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