Tate: Illini still running in place
To make college wrestling fair, the grapplers are divided into weight classes.
The only variance is at heavyweight, and that’s why Ohio State’s two-time NCAA champion Tommy Rowlands was so special.
Smaller than most heavyweights, he had a habit of tearing apart bigger opponents. Rock hard, he did it with speed, technique and athleticism, his bouts often resembling Brad Pitt in “Fight Club” or movie versions of Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise overcoming huge foes they couldn’t possibly defeat in real life.
After college, Rowlands reduced to 211 pounds for several years, then rejoined the heavy class (264.5 and under) and, at age 26 in 2007, was the nation’s No. 1 freestyle heavyweight. In 2008 he finished second in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Here’s the football-related point. While we’re watching the quarterbacks and running backs, there are a half-dozen one-on-one “wrestling matches” going on up front. Every snap. And like Rowlands (or Pitt), you could replay them 100 times and they’d always come out the same. It isn’t who carries the most poundage over 300. The better athletes prevail.
Ground game missing
So it must be reported that, speaking offensively, Illini huskies are generally finishing second. During this two-year, eight-game Big Ten losing streak, the UI ground game has been stymied, showing an average of 110 yards (even with a mobile quarterback) and 10 points per game. Illinois has been held to seven points in three consecutive Big Ten outings.
In this era of high-scoring football, that isn’t even close.
Late last season when the offense was faltering, then-offensive coordinator Paul Petrino acknowledged line blocking put him in a play-calling bind. And just this week, when asked about offensive line efficiency, coach Tim Beckman replied: “What do you think?”
Later, Beckman said: “You have to establish the run. That’s the game of college football, whether it is one-back or two-back or with the quarterback. We are trying. We can hand it to anybody, but you better be blocking the guys up front.”
‘It all starts up front’
Chris Beatty, who calls UI plays, noted that besides seniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, both of whom have missed games with injuries, “we have some young guys who need to develop and get the experience to compete up front.”
Luke Butkus, first-year offensive line coach, calls it “a process.” Said Butkus: “Obviously, the running game is on us. It all starts up front, and we need to roll up our sleeves and get a lot better.”
Running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are clearly frustrated. Except for Young’s 52-yard first-quarter burst against Penn State, these two have had nothing of significance on their other 21 Big Ten rushes.
“We have to look at ways we can utilize them better,” UI QB Nathan Scheelhaase said, “but ultimately it comes down to execution.”
After six games, Illinois is 12th in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing, red-zone offense and sacks allowed, not to mention pass-defense efficiency and points allowed. Not a good combination.
Tough luck for Buckeyes
Alabama is better than everyone else on the Crimson Tide schedule. And so is Ohio State. No one else can say that with certainty.
Here’s the significance. Upsets happen. And if Nick Saban’s Tide is bumped along the way, most logically against LSU or in the SEC playoff, we might see the Buckeyes sitting unscathed while two one-loss teams compete in the national championship game.
When the Buckeyes escaped Michigan State 17-16 and laid 63 points on Nebraska, they moved into a favorable position. Their next four games are against Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois. They close out the season at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan, neither of which is close to 2011 levels.
Alabama next faces Missouri (0-3 in the SEC and minus its quarterback) and projects as the only eligible team likely to finish unbeaten.
Other AP-listed teams ranked ahead of Ohio State face multiple difficulties.
— No. 2 Oregon: The Ducks have the best chance but face USC, Cal, Stanford and Oregon State in their final four games and then a Pac-12 playoff game.
— No. 3 South Carolina: The ball coach’s Gamecocks won’t survive against an immediate lineup of LSU, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas, not to mention the finale against Clemson. They’ll stumble somewhere.
— No. 4 Florida: The Gators’ next four are Vandy, South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri, and they close against Florida State. And did I mention the probability of Alabama in the SEC playoff?
— No. 5 West Virginia: After Texas Tech, the Mountaineers get No. 6 Kansas State, followed in order by TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
— No. 6 Kansas State: As noted, Bill Snyder’s overachievers tackle West Virginia in two weeks and, if they somehow go unscathed until the finale, Texas will be waiting.
— No. 7 Notre Dame: The Irish defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the last three games against Michigan State, Michigan and Miami, and now faces three straight challenges against Stanford, BYU and Oklahoma. And there’s USC in the Nov. 24 finale.
See the picture. All these teams face difficult schedules, several are pitted against each other and, in some cases, conference playoffs await.
Ohio State has an easier schedule and no playoff game. Somebody better knock off the Buckeyes or ... just imagine the fuss.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.