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Scouting Illinois: A look at the 2015 Fighting Illini

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North Carolina's Bug Howard (84) romps for 27 yards after a pass reception in the third quarter as Illinois' Eaton Spence (27) and Taylor Barton (3) try to bring him down on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

North Carolina’s Bug Howard (84) romps for 27 yards after a pass reception in the third quarter as Illinois’ Eaton Spence (27) and Taylor Barton (3) try to bring him down on Sept. 19 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

For the first time this season, the Ohio State football team will not be entering a game as the top-ranked team in the AP Poll. It currently sits No. 2 in the AP Poll and No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

But for the Buckeyes, that might be a good thing, because the last time OSU played its next opponent — the Illinois Fighting Illini — with a No. 1 in front of its name, the Scarlet and Gray were upset by the unranked squad, 28-21.

Granted, things are completely different now than they were back in 2007 when the Buckeyes were stunned by Juice Williams and company. But even so, Illinois will surely look back at that game — which also happens to be the program’s last win over OSU — for motivation when the defending national champions arrive in Champaign, Illinois, for Saturday’s game.

The Illini will enter Saturday’s matchup sitting at 5-4, but they are coming from their best win of the season, a 49-14 thumping of the Purdue Boilermakers. With interim coach Bill Cubit at the helm, expectations for this team were not very high to start.

The season has been filled with lows, like the 39-0 drumming from Penn State in Week 8, but also a few bright spots, such as the narrow loss to No. 5 Iowa and the aforementioned win over Purdue.

Here is a deeper look at Cubit’s team.

New dynamic duo?

Illinois’ offense had been struggling mightily heading into its game against the Boilermakers, putting up an average of just 11 points over the last three games. The unit was able to leave those woes behind on Saturday, though, mainly due to the return of redshirt senior running back Josh Ferguson.

Ferguson had been sidelined since Oct. 3, when he hurt his shoulder against Nebraska, and the offense missed his production.

With the Naperville, Illinois, native back in the lineup next to freshman running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn — who had been filling in — the offense clicked. Ferguson picked up 133 yards on the ground while also catching six passes for 41 yards.

“He definitely brings some energy to the offense,” OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of Ferguson. “I think he is a dynamic guy. He definitely brings some energy back and I think he brings some weapons back to their offense.”

Vaughn had himself a huge day, as well. The recently minted Big Ten Freshman of the Week had 180 rushing yards and two scores. He caught one pass for 23 yards, too.

The two backs provided a major boost to the offense, which racked up 595 yards — the highest total of the year. When some teams have running back tandems, one tends to be a power back while the other is a change of pace, speed back. But not with the Fighting Illini’s duo. They have game-changing speed that puts pressure on defenses.

“Them having the ability to have two tailbacks and use them both at the same time I think brings a lot of versatility to the offense,” Fickell said. “The more athletes you put out there, the more weapons you got, defenses have to account for that.”

OSU’s run defense churned in its best effort of the season in its last game against Minnesota, holding five different rushers to just 33 total yards, but the Buckeyes will definitely have their hands full with the duo of Ferguson and Vaughn.

Take note of Fejedelem

The Fighting Illini offense might be just starting to hit its stride after the 595-yard outbreak against Purdue, but the defense has been playing well for quite some time.

Sans the entire team underperforming against Penn State two games ago, the defense has been rather consistent. It ranks 31st in the country for total defense, while limiting teams to an average of just 202 passing yards per game.

A key cog to the secondary’s success, as well as the defense’s as a whole, is redshirt senior safety Clayton Fejedelem. The junior college transfer and former walk-on is second in the Big Ten in total tackles with 100.

Fejedelem is the definition of a ballhawk. Equipped with a high football acumen and a green light from defensive coordinator Tim Banks, the 6-foot-1 Lemont, Illinois, native is seemingly in on every tackle. In addition to his triple-digit tackles, Fejedelem has two interceptions and a forced fumble this season.

OSU’s offense will get redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett back, which means the unit will probably be back to its high-powered form. Still, it will have to account for Fejedelem roaming around, making plays.

Nine games are enough of a sample size to know that when the Buckeyes arrive in Champaign on Saturday, Fejedelem will be all over the field at Memorial Stadium.

Beyond the Buckeyes

After taking on OSU on Saturday, Illinois is set to go on the road to square off against Minnesota on Nov. 21.

One comment

  1. 1. Quarterback: It seems puzzling why it took Meyer as long as it did to decide Barrett is better. According to Meyer, Barrett wasn’t initially playing well enough to replace Jones after recovering from his injury. Barrett’s ability to run the zone read, makes Elliott more difficult to defend.

    2. Ranking: Buckeyes have won but haven’t beaten a ranked opponent or consistently won convincingly against lesser opponents. Playoff Committee has stated that they have not played their best football, so they believe the talent is there.

    3. Passing: However passing game has not been as good as last year (according to Meyer). Partly due to Jones’ inaccuracy and partly because no receiver has stepped up to replace Devin Smith yet. Marshall is presently the best deep threat. Miller and Samuel seem to be continuing to develop. Campbell has blazing speed but has been hurt. Thomas is the only WR that is excelling presently but does not have top end speed. Passing game will likely need to improve for Buckeyes to win another title.

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