Stakes dramatically different for Buckeyes, Illini

Stakes dramatically different for Buckeyes, Illini

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) To outside observers, it looks like a mismatch.

No. 6 Ohio State is 10-0, can clinch a share of the title in its Big Ten division and can keep alive any flickering hopes of being the last unbeaten standing when the final poll votes are cast.

Illinois (2-6) has lost its last five games and in conference play is 0-4 this year with a 10-game losing skid. With problems on both sides of the ball, the Illini are four-touchdown underdogs.

For both teams, the opponent isn't as important as how each team plays.

The Buckeyes' Urban Meyer doesn't want any letup as his team cruises into its bye week before two last, pivotal games to end the season.

``Here's the thing: How good are we?'' Meyer said. ``That's the question to ask ourselves.''

The Buckeyes, despite their flawless record, have been less than stellar at times. They've played sporadically all year on both offense and defense, surrendering big points and yardage (a 42-39 win over Indiana) and at other times gutting out a low-scoring struggle (17-16 at Michigan State).

As the wins have added up, the Buckeyes say they don't feel any weight of the expectations.

``No pressure, no pressure. We felt we could win every game, we said it at the beginning of the season, So why not? Why give up? Why stop right now?'' cornerback Bradley Roby said. ``There's no pressure. We're putting pressure on ourselves, but there's no pressure from the outside.''

It's a different kind of pressure at Illinois. Coach Tim Beckman, a former Meyer assistant, is seeking a sign of hope in an otherwise dreary season.

``We understand Ohio State is a good football team,'' he said. ``The only thing we can control is what we do. Those are the things that we talk about every day that we step there on the practice field or in the meeting rooms - how can you improve yourself today? That's what we ask our players to do.''

The Illini figure if they can put things together for a change it just might be enough. After all, Illinois has won seven of the last 11 meetings at Ohio Stadium.

``They're undefeated so we're going to have to go up there and play our best game,'' Illini defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. ``We can't make stupid penalties, we can't turn the ball over and we can't give up big plays. I think if we do that, we can slow them down.''

All week, Ohio State's coaches have been showing clips of Illinois highlights, stressing how talented the Illini are rather than how poorly they have been playing. They are last in the Big Ten in most offensive and return categories.

The point is trying to get the Buckeyes to not look past the Illini to the bye week, to not look ahead them to the upcoming battles at Wisconsin and at home against rival Michigan to close out the season.

``That's everybody's mindset, that we can't be complacent or bad things will happen,'' Ohio State left tackle Jack Mewhort said. ``I think everybody knows that.''

Ohio State, led by run-first quarterback Braxton Miller, is averaging roughly 100 yards more per game on the ground (248) than the Illini are giving up (153). So expect the first punches to be thrown up front on the line.

Miller is one of the first few names mentioned among the favorites in the Heisman Trophy race. He admits he's getting excited by all the talk.

``With the offensive style that we've got ... you win awards off of things that you do in this offense,'' he said. ``It's supposed to make big plays.''

His counterpart at Illinois, Nathan Scheelhaase, has struggled through a season of injuries and mistakes. The Illini rank near the bottom in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks allowed (almost 4 a game), scoring (18 points per game) and total offense (just 317 yards a game).

He's got an idea of what lies ahead on Saturday.

``It's a tough test. They're playing as well as anyone in the country right now,'' Scheelhaase said. ``For sure you're not always going to be favored in those games, but that's why they play (them).''

Beckman was the head coach at Toledo a year ago and nearly pulled off a stunner in the Horseshoe. His Rockets had the ball late in the fourth quarter, trailing by five points, but were unable to pull off the upset.

After much success as a head coach and an assistant - he coached defensive backs on the Ohio State team in 2006 that was unbeaten and No. 1 before being walloped 41-14 in the BCS title game by Meyer's Florida team - for the first time he is dealing with losing.

``You learn how to take defeats. I hate losing, but it's just how to react to the players after continued defeats, I think is very important,'' he said. ``I guess (I've learned) how to continue to motivate and continue to push your football players to be the best they can be.''

That's the goal for both sides, regardless of each team's record.


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Redskins G Arie Kouandjio likely out for the seasons

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Redskins G Arie Kouandjio likely out for the seasons

The news about Arie Kouandjio’s quad injury didn’t sound good when NBC Sports Washington broke it a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t sound any better when Jay Gruden said that they were seeking a second opinion. 

And now we have word that Kouandjio will be out for the season, per multiple media reports. While there was some initial hope that he might be able to play at some point this season, he is likely to be put on injured reserve soon. 

The corresponding move is expected to be the signing of guard Isaiah Williams, per JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington. He spent training camp with the Redskins in 2016 and 2017 before being released in the final cuts. Last year he also spent time with the Chiefs and the Colts but he has yet to appear in an NFL game. 

At worst, the Redskins have lost their starter at left guard. Kouandjio was set to compete with Shawn Lauvao for that job. Lauvao, who has been the starter at left guard going into the season for each of the last four years, would have been tough to unseat, but the 26-year-old Kouandjio may have had the inside track.

And at best, the Redskins lost experienced depth. Last year, when injuries hit hard along the offensive line, Kouandjio was re-signed and he started six games. It’s tough to lose experienced depth before the players even put pads on.

We will see if the Redskins make a move to shore up the guard position. Over the next couple of weeks, teams will be evaluating their veteran players and their rookies to see if they have younger and cheaper options. That could lead to some serviceable players getting released or some quality options being put on the trading block. 

The Redskins likely are set to get four compensatory draft picks in 2019, which would give them a total of 11 selections. They certainly could afford to deal one of those picks if they are offered a chance to upgrade at left guard. 

More 2018 Redskins

- 53-man roster: Player one-liners, offense
- Tandler’s Take: Best- and worst-case scenarios for 2018
- The draft: Redskins should get 4 additional picks in 2019 draft
- Schedule series: Gotta beat the Cowboys

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.

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Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby has been largely overshadowed in the headlines of the Eastern Conference Final by Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

After two games, Vasilevskiy was one of the bigger storylines for how poorly he played in giving up 10 goals in just five periods. The next three games after that, the storyline changed to how well he was suddenly playing and how he had helped the Lightning steal two wins in Washington and take a 3-2 series lead after Game 5.

Holtby was not mentioned much. His play was not the reason the Caps went up 2-0 or the reason they went down 3-2.

But if the Caps hoped to force a Game 7, they needed him to at least be a reason why they won Game 6.

Holtby responded in a big way. With his team facing elimination, Holtby registered his first shutout of both the regular season and the playoffs.

"It's a perfect time," Devante Smith-Pelly said after the game. "He's been great all year. Obviously an up-and-down year for him personally, but the way he's bounced back, he's been amazing all throughout the playoffs."

Holtby is now just the seventh goalie in NHL history to record his first shutout of the season in a game in which his team faced elimination.

Holtby, however, was not concerned with the stats or the shutout.

"The only reason it’s good is we won," Holtby said of his shutout performance. "Aside from that, it’s just good for [the media], I guess you can write about it. But for us it’s just that W."

Vasilevskiy made a number of jaw-dropping saves, especially in the first period, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled for the first goal. With the score knotted at zero, Holtby made a toe save on Anthony Cirelli on a 2-on-1 opportunity to keep the Lightning off the board. He really upped his game in the third period as Tampa Bay made a late push to tie it. He turned aside 10 shots that frame including a nifty snag on Nikita Kucherov and a glorious glove save on Ondrej Palat.

Holtby's performance ensured the Caps would live to fight another day...for now.

As the series shifts back to Tampa Bay, Washington will again be facing elimination. This time, however, so will their opponents.

Anything can happen in a Game 7. In a winner-take-all game, it may come down to who has the better goalie on Wednesday and Holtby seems to be picking a good time to up his game.

"Braden has been the backbone of our hockey club," Barry Trotz said. "You can’t go anywhere without goaltending and he’s been solid. ... Braden is a true pro, he works on his game, he finds ways to make a difference and he does."