Big Ten: Ryan Matthews

The Illinois offense is cooking for the second consecutive game, though big mistakes continue to hurt Ron Zook's team.

The Illini have more than twice as many yards as Fresno State early in the second quarter but had to rally from a 14-7 deficit after a Juice Williams interception was returned for a touchdown. Williams has been better with his feet than his arm, and he and running backs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford are finding room in a vulnerable Bulldogs defense.

Ryan Mathews has a touchdown run, but Illinois is doing a decent job on the nation's top rusher so far.

The Illini are dominating time of possession but remained tied at 14-14.

Illinois prepares for senior sendoff

December, 2, 2009
12/02/09
11:15
AM ET
This isn't how Illinois defensive end Doug Pilcher envisioned his final collegiate game taking place.

For starters, Pilcher, like the rest of his Fighting Illini teammates, entered the season fully expecting to play beyond Saturday's contest against Fresno State (Big Ten Network, 12:30 p.m. ET). Illinois had both talent and depth, and was widely projected to end up back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus.

But nothing went according to plan, and a senior class that has endured an unusual tenure in Champaign will receive its sendoff Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

“The season didn't go as well as we'd hoped," said Pilcher, who ranks second on the team in both sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (7.5). "We had high expectations. But you can’t really change it. It is what it is. Right now, we just focus on Fresno State and working hard to get that win. We want to go out with a bang."

The fourth-year seniors were part of head coach Ron Zook's first full recruiting class to Illinois. Juice Williams, a raw but talented quarterback from Chicago, headlined the group, along with other heralded prospects like Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt, Chris James and Jeff Cumberland.

Illinois fourth-year and fifth-year seniors were part of the team's surprise Rose Bowl run in 2007. They also have experienced plenty of losing. Remove the 2007 season, and Illinois has gone 12-34 since Zook's arrival.

"They've done an awful lot of good things and an awful lot of bad things," Zook said this week. "One thing this class has done is show us where we can be and where we need to get back to. When they came here, it wasn't necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that. As I told our football team after the [Cincinnati] game, they basically recruited everybody in this room.

"We owe it to them to do everything in our power as a football team and as a coaching staff to do everything we can do to win this game."

Zook recited the play-every-play-like-it's-your-last cliché during a team meeting Monday, but he further explained his point.

"Why do you think you talk about playing every play like it's your last play?" Zook said. "Because eventually it's going to be, and as I said, for some of these guys this is it. You will never play football again. ... The only thing they're guaranteed is one more game."

Though Illinois is playing strictly for pride Saturday, Pilcher doesn't expect any letdown. Fresno State boasts the nation's leading rusher in junior Ryan Matthews (149.1 ypg), who is cleared to play after missing the Bulldogs' last two games with a concussion.

"It’s always great to compete against the best," Pilcher said. "Everyone's fired up to play. It's important for us to get this win and send the underclassmen out on a high note."

Big Ten lunch links

November, 30, 2009
11/30/09
12:00
PM ET
I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving. I finally finished my 2009 wedding tour (belated congrats to Alex and Dina!) and look forward to the final week of the regular season.

  • Wisconsin running back John Clay has no plans to bolt for the NFL, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. For Clay's backup Montee Ball, college football at Wisconsin is a family affair, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times.
  • Charges and lawsuits could stem from the on-campus fight that allegedly involved Michigan State football players, Joe Rexrode writes in the Lansing State Journal.
  • Despite continued courtship from other schools, prep quarterback Devin Gardner remains committed to Michigan, annarbor.com's Dave Birkett writes.
  • Illinois wraps up its season against Ryan Matthews and Fresno State, Mark Tupper writes in The (Decatur) Herald & Review.
  • Penn State's new ticket policy really hurts the fans, Terry Casey writes at statecollege.com.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There aren't any Case Keenums or Ryan Matthewses (is that a word?) in the Big Ten this year, as the league has been dominated by defense. Some of the Big Ten's top big-play threats were relative unknowns entering the season, while others entered the fall with high expectations.

Here's a look where the top Big Ten player(s) rank nationally in several statistical categories recorded by the fine people at ESPN's Stats & Information group.

Passes of 20 yards or longer

Passes of 30 yards or longer
  • T-4th -- Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi, 18 passes
  • T-14th -- Minnesota QB Adam Weber, 14 passes
Receptions of 10 yards or longer
Receptions for 20 yards or longer
  • 3rd -- Minnesota WR Eric Decker, 16 receptions
  • T-11th -- Michigan State WR Blair White, 14 receptions
Rushes of 10 yards or longer
Quick thoughts: Stanzi might have driven Iowa fans nuts with his interceptions, but he was the Big Ten's top big-play quarterback this season. ... It has been a bit of all-or-nothing for Weber this season, as he has been able to hit on big plays at times but has seen his completion percentage drop to 54.2. ... I'm amazed that Decker, who has missed the last two games, remains the Big Ten's leader in receptions of longer than 20 yards. ... Purdue is still a big-play offense despite losing almost all its starting skill-position players from last year's team. Both Smith and Bolden have been weapons this fall behind quarterback Joey Elliott. ... No Big Ten player ranks among the national leaders in runs of longer than 15 or 20 yards. It speaks to the league's struggles at the running back position as well as the strong defenses we've seen. ... The fact that Pryor leads the league in rushes of 10 yards or more shows me that he should be running the ball at least 15 times a game, ideally 17-22 times.

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