- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - Illinois expected Ohio State to run the ball and then run some more last week. The Illini thought they’d see a few more passes than the four thrown by the Buckeyes.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has an idea why Illinois didn’t.

“The first four or five times they dropped back to pass, they got sacked,” he said, exaggerating only a little. “That might have had something to do with it.”

The Illinois defense and its two key pass rushers have had that effect this year.

The Illini (6-1, 2-1) have 26 sacks so far this year, fifth-best in the country. Between them, defensive end Whitney Mercilus (10) and bandit Michael Buchanan (five) have 15. They’re first and second in the Big Ten when it comes to sacks.

Mercilus is closing in on Illinois’ single-season sack record _ 16 _ set in 1994 by Simeon Rice. This was hard to predict a season ago when Mercilus had just one sack as a sophomore.

“Personally, I didn’t think I would be here, where I am,” the 6-4, 265-pound Akron, Ohio, native said Tuesday.

Illinois coaches have seen something they’ve liked in Mercilus for a long time.

Eric Wofford _ now the head coach at Youngstown State _ told Mercilus that, essentially, the sky was his limit when Illinois recruited him back in 2007, Mercilus says. And even last year, the staff was starting to see a star, coach Ron Zook said.

“People say, ‘Well where were they last year?’” Zook said. “I think last year we felt like (Mercilus) was our best defensive end at the end of the year, and of course Mike is just so talented.”

In the offseason, Mercilus said, he worked hard on technique, fitness and just, as Koenning is fond of saying, “flying to the ball.”

“Last year, I was more timid,” he said. “I was thinking a lot more, and this year it’s coming to me like second nature. … Throughout the offseason I worked my butt off trying to make the defense like second nature to me.”

A lot has been made of the fact that he lost the tip of one of his fingers during an offseason weightlifting accident. With 10 complete fingers, Buchanan joked, “He probably would have like 20 sacks.”

Buchanan said he doesn’t mind the attention his teammate is getting, and doesn’t feel like he’s chasing him in the sack standings.

“It’s not really about that,” said the 6-6, 240-pound Buchanan, who is from Homewood in the Chicago suburbs. “I’m not really worried about that.”

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