CHAMPAIGN – Setting foot on the turf at “The Horseshoe” in Columbus, Ohio can be an awe-inspiring moment. Luckily for Illinois, first-year head coach Tim Beckman’s had that moment before.
In his career Beckman, has been on both sidelines at Ohio Stadium, first as cornerbacks coach at Ohio State and later as head coach at Toledo. The environment, he said, is always fantastic, but it will not distract him from the challenge at hand.
“Been there, done it,” was Beckman’s response to questions about competing in the famed stadium. The Illini coach had much more to say about competing against his friend, Urban Meyer.
The two coaches met through a mutual friend while in college and continued to stay close as graduate assistants. Beckman would eventually become defensive coordinator during Meyer’s first head coaching stint at Bowling Green.
Beckman described Meyer as one of his close friends, but said the two have not communicated much since both took over Big Ten football teams last summer. He expects he’ll talk to his friend some before Saturday’s clash, but the conversation will be minimal.
“We’re very, very competitive…right before the game I might say a couple of words to him, but we won’t talk before the game other than that,” Beckman said.
Beckman and the Illini will instead keep their focus on surprising the undefeated Buckeyes in search of their first win since September 15.
The key to surprising OSU will be containing sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller has led the OSU team to nine consecutive wins and the No. 6 ranking in this week’s Associated Press poll. He has been a dual threat, rushing for 1,093 yards (the fourth best single season mark in Big Ten history with three games remaining in OSU’s season) and 12 touchdowns, while passing for another 1,527 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Coming from Toledo, however, Beckman has had plenty of chances to see just how good a player Miller can be, and he knows what to do to have a chance against the Buckeyes. He pinpointed containment of the 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year as a key to being successful against OSU this week.
“Braxton is a special player. He was fabulous at Wayne [High School],” Beckman said. “We’re going to need to know what he’s doing at all times, he’s very important to their offense…We’re going to need to have awareness of where he’s at and put pressure on him because he can beat you with his feet and his arm.”
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said his opposing number was vastly improved from last year to this year, and he expects a tough match-up on Saturday.
“He’s gotten way better throwing the ball, especially downfield…and, obviously, running the ball he’s one of the most dangerous players in the country,” Scheelhaase said.
Tackle Akeem Spence echoed Scheelhaase, calling Miller one of the best. The soft-spoken junior was not overly anxious about the match-up, however. He said his team just had to perform like they’re capable.
“Guys who have contain and guys who are assigned to him will have to get their job done and get him on the ground,” Spence said.
Compared to the man he replaced, Terrelle Pryor, Spence says Miller is clearly a more talented player.
“He’s a lot better than Pryor. He gets in the open field and he makes guys miss and he’s one of the best in the conference as a sophomore,” he said. “Braxton’s gonna make you miss, he’s going to run you over – he’s going to do it all.”
Despite all the talk of Miller and his ability to dominate the game, the Illini on hand Monday were calm and collected. Beckman and his players seemed ready to put in a hard week of practice and see what they can do against the Buckeyes this weekend.
“You come to the University of Illinois to play Ohio State or Michigan, to play those tough games. For sure, you won’t always be favored in those games, but that’s why they play the game,” Scheelhaase said.
-The injury situation for Illinois has become much more manageable since the bye week. Scheelhaase was roughed up late in the game against Indiana, but Beckman was confident his quarterback would be under center at OSU. Defensive back Steve Hull (shoulder) and running back Josh Ferguson (hip pointer), however, were still questions marks at Monday’s press conference. The Illinois coach said he would have to wait and see how the two responded in practice this week before making a decision about playing this week.
-Tommy Davis is out as punt returner for the Illini. After another fumbled punt and a questionable no catch decision against the Hoosiers, the senior was pulled in favor of Darius Millines. Millines and Terry Hawthorne will take over punt return duties this week, with specific personnel decided on a play-by-play basis.
-Illinois must win their next four games to be bowl eligible this season. When asked about that scenario, Scheelhaase shrugged off the pressure. “In my mind I don’t look at it as you have to win out to get to a bowl game, it’s more of how can I get as good as possible to be a better player today to benefit my team.”
-The friend who introduced Tim Beckman and Urban Meyer? Browns linebackers coach Bill Davis.