Illini defense embracing ‘big challenge’ of stopping Fields, Buckeyes offense | Sports

CHAMPAIGN — Ohio State football is a known commodity. A college powerhouse. Forty-five alumni are currently on NFL rosters.

The Buckeyes churn out NFL draft picks and signees like McDonald’s sells hamburgers.

No doubt coach Ryan Day’s current roster, ranked third in the nation, has at least a few among its ranks.

That’s especially true on offense.

Ohio State is averaging 45.3 points per game, the best mark in the Big Ten. Its next opponent is the conference’s seventh-ranked defense by points allowed. Illinois (2-3) brings that metric and a two-game win streak into its 11 a.m. kickoff on Saturday at Memorial Stadium with the Buckeyes (4-0).

“It’d be mental to me,” Illini defensive end Owen Carney said Monday afternoon of his approach to facing the vaunted Ohio State offense. “Hand placement, staying in your gaps, just not trying to go over and beyond because we’re playing Ohio State. It’s the little things that got us on this two-game winning streak, and it’s the little things that’s going to make us successful on the field Saturday.”

Heading the Buckeyes’ seemingly relentless offense is quarterback Justin Fields. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound junior is a reigning Heisman Trophy finalist and entered the 2020 season as an Associated Press preseason second-team All-American.

What has Fields accomplished since receiving the latter accolade? He’s merely completed 90 of his 113 passes — good for a 79.6 percent clip — for 1,208 yards and 13 touchdowns on top of rushing for three more scores. He didn’t toss an interception in his first three games, but did throw three in this past Saturday’s 42-35 win against then-No. 9 Indiana.

“Justin Fields is as good a player as there is in college football,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “He so happens to be one of best athletes in college football also, so he can hurt you moving around to buy time to throw the football. When you have a guy like that leading the offense, it opens up everything.”

The Buckeyes’ offensive prowess doesn’t end with Fields.

Sophomore running back Master Teague III is averaging 5.2 yards on 73 carries and has found the end zone six times. Receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave each boast four touchdowns on the back of 31 and 26 catches, respectively. And the offensive line is keyed by senior Thayer Munford, who played in 38 of 42 games over his first three seasons.

“We expect them to have one of the best lines around, and their tackles are outstanding players,” said Smith, referencing Munford at left tackle and sophomore Nicholas Petit-Frere, a former five-star recruit, at right tackle. “Almost to a man they have an elite player at just about every one of the positions, and that’s what we’re dealing with this week.”

For its part, the Illini defense is coming off its two best efforts this year in holding Rutgers to 20 points, limiting Nebraska to 23 points and forcing eight turnovers across those two games.

“Probably execution, gelling together, just correcting little mistakes,” Carney said of the unit’s approach to improvement. “Week by week we grow, we get stronger and we move some pieces around. It’s a chess game. When we get it all going, you see what happens: plus-five takeaways (at Nebraska).”

The defensive line putting additional pressure on its last two opposing quarterbacks has proven important.

Carney notched five tackles, 11/2 sacks and 11/2 tackles for loss in the two victories. Roderick Perry II (seven tackles, half sack, half tackle for loss), Isaiah Gay (five tackles, one sack, 11/2 tackles for loss), Johnny Newton (six tackles), Seth Coleman (two tackles, half tackle for loss) and a returned-from-injury Jamal Woods (two tackles at Nebraska) have all carried their weight as well.

“As a whole this season, I feel like we still haven’t had a dominant game,” Carney said. “Saturday was our best game as a group, but as a whole group I feel like each of us has the capability to go off and really put everyone on notice.”

And Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium isn’t just a chance for the Buckeyes to add to their impressive offensive statistics. It’s an opportunity for Illinois’ defense to put their names on the map against one of the nation’s top outfits.

“This is a great game for our team,” Carney said. “If you want to see what type of team you have, this would be the game to know. As for me, this game could be life-changing. It could set up my life for the next couple of years.”

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