Mason Monheim has avoided the sophomore slump. The linebacker is Illinois’ third-leading tackler behind likely All-Big Ten linebacker Jonathan Brown and Earnest Thomas III. What the Orrville, Ohio, native is yearning for, however, are wins. Monheim and his teammates have a tall task in front of them today with Ohio State coming to town. Monheim grew up a Buckeyes fan. Hard to blame him, considering his parents went to Ohio State and he spent his childhood watching and attending Ohio State games. He was even in attendance the last time Illinois beat the Buckeyes, which was six years ago during the 2007 season that saw Illinois make it to the Rose Bowl. No trip to Pasadena is on the line for Illinois this year. Before Monheim tries to help Illinois pull off a shocking upset, he opened up about his season, his favorite linebacker not named J Leman and the upkeep on his beard.
How do you feel your season’s going?
I’m frustrated a little bit. I don’t really care how my individual stats go if our team is doing what we need to do. When we’re struggling, and I feel like I’m letting the team down by struggling, it’s been hitting me pretty hard. The biggest thing I think I need to work on and helping the guys out is realizing we are truly blessed by God with our abilities and being able to play this game at such a high level. So many people wish they were in our position. We need to go out there every day and every week carrying that on our chest.
If I would have told you after the Miami (Ohio) game that you would lose the next five in a row, what would your response have been?
I probably would have said you’re crazy. I had confidence in my team then, and I still have confidence in my team now. Take away a few plays and we’re in so many games. It’s frustrating, as a leader of this defense, seeing us give up bigger plays. There’s not really much else I can say. It’s just frustrating.
Is it more frustrating because your team has been in more close games than last year?
Yes, and I think we’re a closer unit. We really came together this offseason. We worked hard. We’re struggling now, but I still think we can pull it together. We have three games left. We have to take each game one at a time. This next one is the biggest and greatest opportunity that we’ve had this season.
Do you get any grief from any high school friends this week since you’re playing Ohio State?
I don’t think anybody’s really saying anything. They don’t really like to talk trash to me about that. Maybe a few will say something, but nothing bad or anything.
How big an Ohio State fan base resides at Orrville High School?
I’d say a majority. There were always those outliers that liked Michigan or something like that and had to make it known. All my friends rooted for them.
I know you grew up an Ohio State fan. When did your allegiances switch?
I kind of switched when I was getting recruited. Growing up, that’s what I liked to watch. I’d watch A.J. Hawk and all those guys. When I got more involved in football and wanting to go to the college level, it kind of shifted away from that. I wanted to pick a school where I felt most comfortable and they wanted me there.
What about A.J. Hawk do you like watching?
He plays with great passion. He’s a great leader. He’s a great person on and off the field. You know he’s not the fastest or the biggest, but he’s out there making plays.
Your coach mentioned earlier this week that the defense was overrunning plays at Indiana. Why do you think that was?
I think there are times where the secondary is overrunning plays. I can help them out by doing a better job. I’ll take responsibility for that. A lot of that, at least personally, last year I was out there and didn’t think a whole lot because I didn’t know a whole lot. This year, I know a whole lot more, and at times, I feel like I’m overthinking things to make that perfect situation where you really just have to go out there and play.
What would it mean for you, the program, the university, the fan base and anyone else who cares about Illinois football to upset Ohio State?
It would be unbelievable. It would definitely turn the season around. It would uplift us. Really, though, I wouldn’t say it would come as a surprise to us. It might come as a surprise to the nation, but I know we think we’ll be able to go in and compete in this game.
Do you remember the 2007 Illinois-Ohio State game that Illinois won?
I was actually at the game. At the time, I was kind of frustrated because (Ohio State) lost. But now, looking at it from a different perspective, it’s awesome. I know I’ve talked to J Leman about it, and it really just changed their season. It’s great to look back at that and know we have to make history of our own.
Where were you sitting?
I think I was in C Deck, somewhere around the 30-, 35-yard line. I probably was in middle school.
How is the beard going?
I think it’s coming along great. I’m catching up to Spencer (Harris). I like having it at this time of year. I like hunting, and with the colder weather, growing a beard out helps.
How do you maintain it?
I don’t really know the last time I trimmed it. A few weeks ago. I haven’t been clean-shaven in I don’t know how long. I’ll let it go most of the winter and probably over break sometime is when I’ll re-evaluate it. Probably when my girlfriend gets tired of it. I don’t really care how it looks very much.
How much eye black do you wear on game days?
I put some on part of my nose and down onto my cheeks. The beard covers a lot of it up, but in high school, I didn’t wear any eye black. When I came here, one of the first games, I think it was Jonathan Brown. He got all of us linebackers together, and we all wore it. I guess it kind of just stuck.
Your girlfriend is cool if you answer this, so who’s your dream date?
My dream date is my girlfriend, Madison Ross. We’ve been together since freshman year of high school. She’s my rock. She’s my best friend, so she’s definitely my dream date.
A night on the town with Madison Ross or 10 tackles and a win against Ohio State?
I would take a win because I’m going to have a night on the town with her anyway, whether we win or lose.