By David Mercer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill.: If Illinois was hoping No. 3 Ohio State might look past them this week, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has some bad news.
Ohio State, he said, is focused on the Illini, even if they haven’t won a Big Ten game in more than two years.
“No issue whatsoever. This is a very invested team,” Meyer said this week. “[There] will be a bomb go off if I start to see that or we all start to see that.”
The Illini (3-6, 0-5 Big Ten) look like little more than a speed bump for the undefeated Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0).
Illinois has given up an average of 43.5 points a game the past four weeks, including 52 last week to Indiana. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are scoring a bunch, 48.2 a game.
If Illinois has a hope, it probably rests with senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. A season after looking like perhaps the Big Ten’s worst starting quarterback while he battled through injuries, he’s now, at least statistically, it’s best. Scheelhaase is throwing for a Big Ten-best 268.9 yards a game, has 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
What’s the difference?
“The first thing, I think, he’s healthy,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “This year Nathan Scheelhaase is 100 percent. [And] I think the dedication he showed through the summer with building his arm strength continues to impress me.”
Five things to keep an eye on Saturday at Memorial Stadium:
Ohio State is locked in the third spot in the polls behind No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida State, giving the Buckeyes every incentive to roll up the score any time they can.
Meyer didn’t exactly put it that way this week, but he acknowledged that, to stay in the conversation, Ohio State needs to “play great.”
“I expect them to play, we all expect them to play, they expect to play, at a very high level, because you’re in the same breath with some very, very good teams,” he said. “And to maintain that status you have to play very well. Very well.”
Better than undefeated?
The 2012 edition of the Buckeyes went undefeated, but Meyer believes this year’s so-far undefeated team is better.
“We’re a better functioning team,” he said, pointing to his offense.
From a bottom-line point of view, he might be right. Ohio State is scoring 48.2 points a game, 11 points better than last year’s 37.2.
But Meyer believes last season’s defense, at least the one that finished the season, might have been a little better.
“Remember this time last year is when we hit the accelerator and we played excellent defense.”
In a word, weather
The last time Ohio State came to town, in 2011, the cold and the wind led the Buckeyes to keep the ball on the ground. Quarterback Braxton Miller, then a freshman, threw just four times in a 17-7 win.
Meyer, who wasn’t in charge for that game, said he watches the forecast closely. But he isn’t sure that the cold or the wind would force him to edit Miller’s arm out of the game plan this time.
“I can assure you that we’re in a much different place than he was two years ago,” Meyer said.
For what it’s worth, the forecast this time calls for a high in the low 60s, but rain and strong wind are possible.
Scheelhaase on the rise
For all that’s gone wrong with Illinois in the Big Ten season, Scheelhaase continues to roll. He threw for 450 yards and two touchdowns last week against Indiana.
And he has the Buckeyes’ attention.
“He’s definitely more of a QB than he was last year or the year before, watching him on TV when I was in high school,” sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry said. “Now he’s looking more, when he scrambles to throw the ball, instead of just taking off and running.”
It grows a little every week and is part of the discussion ahead of every Illini game. Illinois hasn’t won a Big Ten game in its last 19 tries, dating to October 2011.
Beckman obligingly fields questions on it from reporters every week. But he says he isn’t talking about it with his players.
“We’ve been stressing a lot of positive stuff to these players,” he said. “I think they understand, I don’t think it needs to be brought up.”