CHAMPAIGN — The police escort for opposing football teams when they’re driving around Champaign-Urbana is common.
The four team buses carrying Ohio State coaches, players and personnel pulled into the Holiday Inn parking lot in Urbana shortly before 6 p.m. Friday.
Wherever the Buckeyes go or whatever they do is a big deal in Ohio. Hence the multiple Columbus television stations waiting for Urban Meyer along with a handful of other fans standing outside the Holiday Inn waiting to greet the Buckeyes.
Ohio State did not have a walkthrough at Memorial Stadium before settling in for a team dinner and meetings.
Ohio State had its second bye week of the season last Saturday, and the Buckeyes have not lost coming off a bye week since 2004.
“I like what we’ve done all week,” Meyer said, standing outside the Holiday Inn on Friday night. “The bye week kind of came at, I don’t want to say a bizarre time, but a different time. I just hope we didn’t lose our rhythm because we were playing pretty good before the bye week.”
So good that Ohio State fans have most likely become ardent supporters of Mississippi State and Syracuse on Saturday. Alabama and Florida State, the two teams ahead of the Buckeyes in the BCS standings, play those conference foes Saturday.
Meyer deflected talk of worrying about what happens when it relates to the national championship picture.
“We’re just trying to get better,” he said. “We’re dealing with some banged-up players. It’s a little bit of a grind right now, so we’ve just got to play well.”
He isn’t worried, either, about the Buckeyes getting distracted by a second consecutive game on the road.
“We’ve been pretty good about that,” Meyer said. “These kids are playing with a purpose. We’re a purpose-driven team. We can stay pretty well focused.”
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After two consecutive road games, Illinois conducted its usual walkthrough late Friday afternoon at Memorial Stadium before having dinner at the Champaign Country Club and settling into team headquarters at the Hawthorn Suites in Champaign.
“It’s always good to be back home and to be at the place you’re accustomed to,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “The last two games on the road have been hard, but you look at this team compared to where it was a year ago, we weren’t even close in any of those away games. We feel like we’re making progress.”
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The Illinois captains Saturday are Dillan Cazley, Steve Hull, Tim Kynard and Mason Monheim. Players vote on the Illinois captains every Thursday before a game. This is the fourth captaincy honor this season for Kynard, third for Hull and first for Monheim and Cazley.
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Austin Schmidt should make his first career start Saturday. The true freshman from Galena, Ohio, who enrolled at Illinois early, will replace Simon Cvijanovic at left tackle. Cvijanovic’s string of 20 consecutive starts will end after he suffered a high ankle sprain to his right ankle in the first quarter of last Saturday’s loss at Indiana.
“There were some freshman mistakes, no question,” Beckman said of Schmidt’s first extensive playing time this season. “There were a couple line calls that the tackles need to make, and maybe one or two of those (weren’t called). All in all, he graded out close to the percentage that we ask our offensive linemen to do, so it wasn’t that he was that far off. To step in there as a true freshman and get the number of reps, he’s just going to get better and better. He’s got to because he’s going to be the guy in there.”
Beckman is cautiously optimistic that Cvijanovic could play next Saturday at Purdue.
“Simon’s injury is a little bit better than we were assuming,” Beckman said. “We didn’t think we were going to get him back as soon as we might.”
Schmidt had served as Corey Lewis’ backup at right tackle. Patrick Flavin now fills that spot.
“I just know as an older guy and as a leader, I’ve got to continue to do what I can to make sure mentally (Schmidt is) doing the right things,” Lewis said. “He wouldn’t be out there if the coaches didn’t think he could play. I was very proud of how he played (at Indiana). I don’t think he slowed us down one bit. It kind of reminded me of my true freshman year. Xavier Fulton got hurt in the second quarter against Iowa, and I had to go out against Adrian Clayborn and play a whole game.”
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Aside from Cvijanovic, no new names appear on the injury report that Illinois released this week, although freshman defensive tackle Bryce Douglas (neck) is listed as out for the season. Beckman said previously he planned to redshirt the Plainfield Central product and son of former Illinois basketball standout Bruce Douglas.
Wide receiver Ryan Lankford (shoulder), center Tony Durkin (shoulder) and linebacker Henry Dickinson (leg) are also out for the season, while backup kicker and punter Ryan Frain is out for the third consecutive game while he recovers from a hip injury.
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Ohio State and its sixth-ranked offense will attempt to vault up that list Saturday. It has a good chance to do that because Illinois is 114th in total defense. Only Indiana, at 120th, prevents Illinois from having the Big Ten’s worst defense.
“It’s obviously tough,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We’re all disappointed when things don’t go well, but I hold myself to a higher standard than probably anyone else can. I know what I’m capable of doing. I know what these kids are capable of doing. Unfortunately, it hasn’t went quite the way we’ve wanted it to go.”
Illinois will have nine starters back on defense next year. Only linebacker Jonathan Brown and Kynard will graduate. That’s a good or bad scenario, depending on your outlook. Banks takes the optimistic approach.
“The future is bright,” he said. “It’s just being able to finish this year the right way and the way you want to finish it, but we think we’ve got a handful of good, young players that will make this program proud.”
Banks has tried his best to not let criticism of his unit get to him.
“The way I conduct myself, I take great pride in that,” he said. “I know the kids are watching and want to see how we’re handling adversity. We preach that to them, and if we can’t handle it, then what kind of role models are we?”
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It’s safe to say Illinois football recruiting took a backseat Friday given the news of Cliff Alexander picking Kansas and former Illinois commit Quentin Snider signing with Louisville. But a few high-priority targets in the Class of 2015 whom Beckman and his staff have closely monitored should be in attendance Saturday.
Benet Academy quarterback Jack Beneventi, St. Xavier (Ohio) defensive tackle Simeon Lane, Olentangy (Ohio) Liberty offensive lineman Hunter Littlejohn and Northville (Mich.) offensive lineman David Moorman are among the Class of 2015 recruits slated to attend. Class of 2016 running back Kentrail Moran of O’Fallon is expected to make the trip to Champaign as well.
A shocking win against the Buckeyes would not only help out Illinois this season but also on the recruiting trail.
“If we can win recruiting in this state, we’ll have a chance to (become like an Ohio State) if we can keep the best Illinois players in Illinois,” said Alex Golesh, Beckman’s recruiting coordinator. “We’ve got a great jump-start to that. We’ve got a big weekend ahead of us. I don’t think you can replace tradition, but you can certainly build excitement. I think the media builds it up as we’re second-fiddle to anybody. We didn’t come here to be second-fiddle to anybody. We came here to win and compete with the Ohio States of the world.”
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Aaron Bailey hasn’t thrown a pass in November. The last time the true freshman quarterback, who did not play at Penn State and was in for two rushing plays that netted minus-1 yard against Indiana, attempted a pass was nearly a month ago when he was 1 of 2 for 1 yard in the Wisconsin loss. A touchdown pass to tight end Matt LaCosse resulted in that game, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he had a Bailey pass in place against Indiana. Cubit opted for a run when he saw how the Hoosiers lined up.
“At that point there, we had them outgapped by two spots,” Cubit said. “If the outside guy came down like he was supposed to, there isn’t anything out there. To be honest with you, it probably would have been a touchdown. That’s why we have gray hair or no hair.”
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Illinois will honor veterans Saturday by wearing a special orange helmet. The navy blue Block I will be replaced by a navy blue outline of the state of Illinois, with 10 stars inside the outline to represent the 10 former Illinois players who died in wars.
The 10 players are Bruce Capel (Vietnam), John Berner (World War II), Tony Butkovich (WWII), Dick Good (WWII), Ralph Hathaway (WWII), James McDonald (WWII), Paul Milosevich (WWII), George Rettinger (WWII), Frank Rokusek (WWII) and Bob Wilson (WWII).
Beckman and the Illinois assistants also will wear special camouflage hats and visors.
“We’ve got 10 great former Illini that are veterans that we lost in (wars),” Beckman said, “so we’re going to pay tribute to them.”