With a straight face, he said they couldn't

By Rusty Miller Associated Press Published:

With a straight face, he said they couldn't afford to think ahead to next Saturday's annual showdown at top-ranked Michigan.

"How can Illinois win this game?" Cooper repeated, hiding any trace of a smile. "They can win this ball game if we go out there and get sloppy and turn the ball over and don't play well and don't tackle and make mistakes in the kicking game.

"Anything can happen. But I don't expect that to happen."

Neither does anyone else, since Illinois has lost its last 15 games and the Buckeyes are ranked fourth in the nation with a week left to the big game in Ann Arbor, Mich.

How bad is it for Illinois? The school's sports information staff even had the team's record wrong at the top of its weekly release. For the record, the Illini (0-9 overall) are 0-6 in the Big Ten, not 0-5.

Back when Woody Hayes was the coach at Ohio State, he would ignore a team such as Illinois the week before the showdown with "that team up north." Back then, so overwhelming was Hayes' obsession with the Wolverines that the Buckeyes played what amounted to a long, long exhibition season. There was only one game that mattered.

But Cooper said his staff will spend as much time this week on Illinois as it did five weeks ago on Penn State. Besides, he said, it's all a matter of fine-tuning this late in the season anyway. And once the game begins, nothing would be better than a quick knockout.

"Ideally, we'd go out there and play well early and put them away and rest some players who need to be rested and some players who are a little bit banged up," he said.

The goals are decidedly different at Illinois. First-year coach Ron Turner has no illusions of grandeur about the Illini shocking the football world. But even he, like Cooper, has pondered what it would take for the Illini to win.

"What we're going to talk about is just going out and doing the best that we can do and try to be a little bit better," he said. "Fly around, make some plays. And you never know what could happen. Crazier things have happened in the game of football."

Oddsmakers would disagree. They've established Ohio State as a 39-point favorite.

Not so long ago, the Illini had Ohio State's number. In his first five years with the Buckeyes, Cooper lost every time to Illinois. The last two years, however, Ohio State has romped by a combined score of 89-3.

Turner calls this year's Buckeyes the best team the Illini have played. The former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator gushed about Ohio State, calling the Buckeyes' team speed "the best I've seen in a long, long time." He added, "I haven't seen a defense run and play this well since last year getting ready to play the world-champion Green Bay Packers."

He added, "They've got the best secondary that we've seen by far. Their linebackers are outstanding. Their team speed up front is incredible. ... I think they have the two best receivers in the nation."

The Buckeyes have played like the Packers recently, winning its last four games by an average score of 37-6 _ holding three victims to under 200 yards of total offense.

Cooper doesn't disagree with the assessment that his teams have not played as well in November as in September _ at least until this year.

"Last year and the year before we were so talented and we played well early. Everything sort of happened for us," Cooper said.

"We were not that good to start this year. We had a lot of young football players. I'm not sure how good we are now, to be honest with you, but I think we're getting better."

Ohio State will be seeking its 700th victory, going 699-274-53, in its 108th year of intercollegiate play.

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