Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Two improved units meet in Champaign
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
There's a natural hesitation to draw definitive conclusions before Big Ten play, but it's safe to assume two things about Saturday's matchup at Illinois' Memorial Stadium.
1. Ohio State's offense is better
2. Illinois' defense is better
This isn't exactly out-on-a-limb stuff.
Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is completing 66.4 percent of his passes, up from 56.6 last season.
In 2009, Ohio State finished a pedestrian 68th nationally in total offense (369 ypg) and 49th in scoring (29 ppg). Although the Buckeyes rushed the ball effectively, their pass offense ranked 103rd nationally (173.6 ypg). They eclipsed 30 points just twice in Big Ten play and had no players rank among the top 40 nationally in the major offensive statistical categories.
Illinois' defense was even worse, finishing 91st nationally in yards allowed (403.3 ypg), 96th in points allowed (30.2 ppg) and 100th against the pass (248.8 ypg allowed). The Illini had only one defender make the All-Big Ten roster -- end Clay Nurse -- and only as honorable mention. Illinois finished the year hemorrhaging points, 102 in its final two games.
Both units couldn't get much worse. But both units also have shown genuine improvement heading into Saturday's game.
Ohio State brings the nation's No. 8 offense to Champaign, a unit that comes off of a 73-point performance against Eastern Michigan, its highest points total since 1950. Junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who remains in the Heisman Trophy mix, accounted for six touchdowns in the game (4 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). Pryor ranks 13th nationally in both total offense (302 ypg) and pass efficiency (167.2 rating). Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher leads the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns (5), and both he and teammate DeVier Posey rank among the league's top 10 in receiving yards.
"They're a ton better," Nurse said. "The quarterback is throwing the ball a lot better, the receivers are better, the running backs are running hard, the offensive line is bigger and stronger. It's going to be a challenge for us."
Illinois seems more equipped to meet the challenge than it was a year ago, when it fell 30-0 to Ohio State. The Illini have allowed just 48 points in their first three games after surrendering 49 and 53 in their final two contests last season.
"I really like the quickness," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "They've always been a big, strong team. There's a couple of those guys you can see have trimmed down, and that's given them that quickness. Their pursuit is extraordinary, they fly around. They have tough kids, they play extremely hard.
"I would agree that their defense is a step ahead of perhaps where it was a year ago."
After being a run-heavy offense in Pryor's first two years as the starter, Ohio State didn't take long to show that things might be different this fall. The Buckeyes achieved a perfect balance of 16 rushes and 16 passes in their first half of the season opener against Marshall.
Pryor is more accurate and efficient, and the pass game has at times looked more polished than the run, as Ohio State keeps using a committee of backs.
"He's made the progress that you would expect," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "He was just as talented his first year, but now he's throwing the football probably 20 percent more, he's very, very accurate. The longer he stays in [the pocket], the deeper people get on the field and the further they've got to come if he does break contain.
"I've just been very, very impressed with his maturation process."
The same holds true for Illinois' defense, which has five players ranked among the Big Ten's top 15 in tackles average. Linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson both have been sound, and defensive backs Travon Bellamy, Tavon Wilson and Justin Green are making plays.
"Guys are more interested in each others' success," Nurse said. "You see guys doing their jobs. Guys are not trying to make every single play. If it's something where we need to funnel the ball, that's what we're doing. We're not taking chances any more."
Zook is pleased by what he's seen from Vic Koenning's group, but there's a lot more to prove, beginning Saturday.
"This will be the test," Zook said, "that we'll know exactly where we are defensively."