CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The annual battle between Ohio State and Illinois for the wooden turtle known as the Illibuck has in recent years been decided on the ground.
In 2007, the Illini upset the top-ranked Buckeyes with Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams combining for 158 yards. A year later, Beanie Wells returned the favor, grinding out 143 yards in a cold November win. And last season, Brandon Saine and Dan Herron sloshed their way to 156 combined yards in a 30-0 win.
The No. 2 Buckeyes (4-0) figure Illinois will stick to the script on Saturday. The Illini run on 69 percent of their plays, with most handled by athletic redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and tailback Mikel Leshoure, who is second in the Big Ten with 398 yards, 6.9 per carry.
"He's a very, very hard runner," Buckeye linebacker Ross Homan said of Leshoure. "You have to wrap him up, gang-tackle him. He's very, very quick and elusive as well. He's definitely one of the best backs we're going to face."
Something will have to give. The Illini (2-1) will face a defense that gives up just 71 yards a game on the ground.
"They're going to pack the box just like everyone we play," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "The running game, when I was with the Pittsburgh Steelers, sometimes it was the third or fourth quarter before it got on track, but you can't get away from it too soon and you have to have confidence that you're going to be able to make some things happen down the road."
Among the worries for Illinois is not just moving the ball, but hanging onto it. Ohio State has forced 13 turnovers in its first four games, including four interceptions in its only win over a ranked opponent, 36-24 over then-No. 12 Miami.
"Their offense has gotten a lot more possessions than normal because their defense has caused a whole bunch of turnovers and gave them some great field position," Scheelhaase said. "If you really watched that Miami game, that's what really hurt Miami. ... Ohio State's offense was really able to capitalize off of that and really get some points where they didn't have to make real long drives — two play, three-play drives."
Giving Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor more shots than necessary could doom the Illini.
He ran for 113 yards against Miami and passed for 233. And last week in a 73-20 romp over Eastern Michigan, he passed for 224 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 104 yards and another TD, and added a touchdown catch, too.
Against Illinois, he'll face a secondary hobbled by injuries. Starting safety Suppo Sanni is out for the season, and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne has yet to play because of an Achilles tendon problem. Hawthorne has been replaced by recently converted tailback Justin Green, who will be a tempting target for Pryor to pick on.
"Terrelle has enough confidence in his ability, he's going to sit back" and wait to see if he can throw rather than run, Zook said. "He can throw deep, he can throw short, he can throw touch, he can stick it in there, and I think they're allowing him to do that."
Some fans have said this might be the rebuilding Illini's bowl game. Zook doesn't put much stock in the power of emotion, but he will be hoping a packed house makes a difference.
"After the first five minutes or so of the quarter or the half it's what you line up and do because that emotion kind of goes," Zook said. "I got a comment from someone from Ohio, from my hometown ... he said I hope your crowd understands that this will take the whole state of Illinois. I think there's some truth to that."
Then again, the Illini have a history of playing Ohio State tough. The Buckeyes, though they frequently have a significant edge in talent and national standing, are only 14-11 in the last 25 meetings.
"Yeah, I remember when I was an assistant coach here, I mean, we had some wild games," coach Jim Tressell said. "So in our guys' lifetime, they've known full well that the Ohio State-Illinois game is a big deal and there have been battles."
AP College Football Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that Pryor ran for 113 yards against Miami, not 13.)