Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Wishes - Illini Style

As the holidays come and go, it is a time to get together with family and exchange gifts with one another. Not to be outdone this year, I have a few wishes of my own, from an Illini perspective. So, without further adieu, here are my holiday wants for the Illini:

1) a shooting guard for the Illini basketball team. Bruce Weber probably never envisioned something like this happening to his squad, but with the recent events of the past year in the rear view mirror, it has become apparent that the Illini are sorely missing a perimeter shooter that can hit the mark consistently. Trent Meacham seems to be the most accurate these days, but perhaps the best shooter on the team is not even playing this season. Jamar Smith, who is suspended for the 2007-08 season for his actions in a traffic accident back in February, continues to shoot lights out in practice, but cannot take that marksmanship into game action. Chester Frazier is in a funk this season, and the shots that he does take are not good percentage ones. Help is on the way, though, as Alex Legion, who transferred to Illinois from Kentucky early this week, will become eligible for spring semester of 2009. Yes, that's a year away, but the Illini will also have Smith back by then (if all goes well), and hopefully the woes that have befallen Illinois in the past few games will be a distant memory.

2) a Rose Bowl victory for the Illini football team. I would like to lift a glass of egg nog in honor of Ron Zook, and the transformation that he has given the football program since his arrival in 2005. Sure, the road has been a rough one, but the players on the team persevered and kept the future down the road in their view, and now that time has come. The Fighting Illini are Pasadena bound, and by the time you read this blog entry, should have landed in sunny Southern California and will begin preparing for what amounts to the biggest game in most of these players' lives. Zook is a mastermind from a recruiting standpoint, and he keeps bringing players into the program, now able to pick and choose from a stellar list of prospects. With this team having come so far in just a short time, what else is there to wish for? Maybe a national championship in 2008?

3) some respect for Jolette Law. The new leader of the women's basketball team is beginning to turn heads, but not turnstiles just yet. All Law has done has propelled the women to an 8-3 non-conference record as the team heads into conference play on Thursday night at Northwestern (7:00 pm, Big Ten Network). Sophomore forward Jenna Smith has been anything but average so far this season, garnering her third Big Ten player of the week honor this past week. To get that honor, she had another monster game against Missouri, scoring 19 points and pulling down 16 rebounds for a solid double-double. Smith's play is just one of the reasons why this installment of women's basketball is one to take notice of (they are plain good, folks). See for yourself this coming Sunday, when they take on Wisconsin after the men's game that day. Your ticket for the men's game is good for admission to the women's game, so
that's another good reason to check them out.

4) an NCAA tournament bid for both basketball teams this year. Normally this isn't an issue with the men's team, but for reasons previously discussed, this season nothing is a given. The Big Ten is down this year, and the clear cut favorites are Michigan State and Indiana. After that, it's anyone's guess as to how it will play out. The Illini finally got that marquee win, a 59-58 win over Missouri in the Braggin' Rights Game in St. Louis last Saturday, their eighth straight in the series. However, they have some clunkers on their resume too, namely a loss to Miami of Ohio last week at the Assembly Hall. For the men to get in, they will have to get it done within the conference. As for the women, they are in much better shape, and if they keep their noses clean in Big Ten play, an invite on selection Monday should be forthcoming.

There, that about covers it, doesn't it? Not too much to ask, don't you think? I hope everyone got what they wanted for Christmas, and we'll see you in 2008!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Shootout At The Hall showcases future Illini talents

On a snowy day in Champaign-Urbana, the Assembly Hall was lively, as the second annual News-Gazette Shootout At The Hall displayed some of the talents that could soon be donning the orange and blue. With coach Bruce Weber and the entire Illini basketball team in attendance, the shootout got off to an explosive start with the second game of the day, in which the Centennial Chargers defeated the Rich South Stars 62-60. Crandall Head, younger brother of former Illini and current Houston Rockets player Luther Head, scored 34 points to almost take the Stars to victory. Head, a 6'3 sophomore, was running and shooting all over the court, and displayed some excitement for the many Illini fans in attendance. In the next game, two Illini recruits went head-to-head, D. J. Richardson, a 6'2 junior guard against Joseph Bertrand, a 6'5 junior. Richardson plays for Peoria Central, while Bertrand plays for Sterling. Even though both players had their share of good plays, remember that they are still only juniors, and that their games could bet even better next year. Still, it is a thrill for these players to take the court where they will be playing their college basketball. Just like current Illini players Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole, who both played in the shootout last season, the experience gets them used to playing in this atmosphere, which is often different than their high school games normally are. Personally, I think that Richardson's game is a little better than Bertrand's at the moment, but Bertrand does show some potential to be even better, so the roles could be reversed next season. Nevertheless, under the watchful eye of Weber, these players hopefully instilled
the confidence that they are being worth followed.
In the next game, another Illini recruit, Brandon Paul, took the floor for Warren Township in Gurnee against New Trier. Paul, who is a 6'2 junior, has pretty good skills now, and with another year of seasoning, should be a nice addition to the Fighting Illini family. New Trier has a 6'4 sophomore, Alex Rossi, who the Illini are looking at. Assistant coaches Wayne McClain, Gary Nottingham and Jerrance Howard were all milling around during this game, watching the action. What impressed me in this game was not Paul or Rossi, but the outside shooting of guard Jack Boehm of New Trier. Don't get me wrong, Paul looked good, but this Boehm kid was lights out for the Trevians. Boehm, who plays along with his twin brother Peter, had 13 points at the half, and finished with 27 points. Brandon did get things going in the fourth quarter, and at the end of the first half, he banked in a shot that was estimated at about 55 feet at the buzzer.
I mentioned earlier that there were a lot of Illini fans in attendance, and orange was present all over the Assembly Hall. The next game featured even more orange, as the Peoria Manual Rams took on the Waukegan Bulldogs and yet another recruit for Weber, 6'6 sophomore Jereme Richmond. Richmond was the player that indicated interest in Illinois before his freshman year. Richmond is quite a player, and if he works on his game, he should be quite a player when he hits the collegiate ranks.
Not forgotten by any stretch of the imagination is the football team, who continues its preparation for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on New Year's Day. The Illini, who finished the regular season at 9-3 overall, are the only team to be in the BCS with 3 losses. This fact is not getting them much love from the national media, which is not surprising. And, to some extent, can you blame them? After all, this is a team that won just 4 games in the past 2 seasons, and here they reel off 5 straight to elevate themselves to the upper echelon of the Big Ten standings. I'm sure they would like to have the Iowa and Michigan games back, because this could be an even greater story if that were the case. Ron Zook, who grew up in Ohio, always dreamed of coaching in the Rose Bowl, but until this year, had never been given the opportunity to do so. Zook credits the dedication of the upperclassmen for persevering through some bleak times to get over the hump. But, emphatic as he is on the topic, insists that they still are not where they need to be. The number and quality of recruits that he is bringing in shows proof of that. The bar has been set higher, and the Illini will strive to get over that bar next season. They will finish up practice this week and then the team will spend Christmas with their families before re-convening after the holidays to fly out towards California on Christmas night. Regardless of the outcome, this is the feel good story of the year in Illini athletics and Illini Nation should enjoy the ride that this team is giving them.
While the basketball team was idle for 9 days for final exams, it gave them a chance to regroup and focus on the task at hand, which is winning ballgames. So far in the 2007-08 campaign, the Illini have only taken the Assembly Hall floor for 2 regular season games, but that is set to change in the next couple of weeks, as the Illini play 6 of their next 7 games at home. The barrage of home cooking begins on Monday night, when the Catamounts of Western Carolina come to visit (7:00 pm Central time, Big Ten Network), followed by a Thursday evening tilt against Miami of Ohio (6:00 pm, Central time, BTN). Then, the Illini are off to St. Louis to play in the annual Busch Braggin' Rights game against Missouri at the ScottTrade Center. With the flurry of activity upcoming, Coach Weber hopes that this will give his guys some continuity, despite playing only 1 game in the past 2 weeks. Senior Shaun Pruitt is coming off a career high in points with 24 in the loss to Arizona back on December 8, and for the Illini to become a team to be reckoned with in the Big Ten Conference, they will need more of the same from Pruitt, as well as veterans Brian Randle and Chester Frazier. Randle is once again battling the injury bug, and Frazier needs to find his shot once again. The Illini enter play with the Catamounts at 5-3 overall.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Preparing For Pasadena

Rewind a little bit with me for a minute to October 22, 2005, a night that Ron Zook would love to forget. The scene is Memorial Stadium at halftime of a game that Penn State is running away with 56-3. After the Marching Illini and Chief Illiniwek exits the field, there is a mass exodus out of the stadium, as the crowd has seen enough. Coach Zook told his team that night that it was the lowest point of his coaching career, and this would be the worst that it would ever get for the players on the field that night. Zook later said that Penn State "took everything but the equipment" that night, but something else happened that night, unbeknownst to everyone but perhaps the coaching staff. It was that evening that Juice Williams and Vontae Davis committed to the Illini, and Chris James was persuaded to jump on board as well. It seems hard to believe that just a little over two years later, Zook has his team preparing to play in the Rose Bowl, the "granddaddy of them all". Yes, there are people out there that believe that the Illini sneaked in the back door to the BCS, and those are the same people that are clamoring a playoff system like the one that the FCS, or the old Division 1-AA uses. Still, it is Illinois that will be matching up against the USC Trojans on New Year's Day, a true matchup of Big Ten vs. Pac-10, the way the Rose Bowl was set up to be. This year's team has been besieged with awards, and they continue well into the layoff leading up to the most anticipated football game that Illinois has played in many years. I believe this even foreshadows the Sugar Bowl back in 2001, mainly because it has been 24 years since the Illini have played in Pasadena. As the Illini continue to get ready for the Men of Troy, the recruiting continues to shine. The number of recruits totals 24 as of Tuesday, with A. J. Jenkins the latest to give a commitment. Jenkins is a receiver that will complement Arrelious Benn very nicely. What makes this one especially sweet is that we beat out Florida for A.J.'s services. With the high level of recruits coming in for next year, it seems a good bet that the Illini will be very much in the national title hunt. So what do you think? Did Illinois sneak their way into the BCS? I would be interested in hearing what everyone has to say on this.
What a difference a year makes for Bruce Weber and his Illini basketball team. If last Saturday's game against Arizona at the United Center is any indication of how this season will go, then it might be a long year for Weber and his crew. The Illini were defeated by the Wildcats 78-72 in overtime, and once again, it is a game that for all intensive purposes should have gone in the win column. The Illini started off really well, getting out to a quick 12-0 lead. However, free throw shooting has been a concern for the Illini over the past couple of seasons, and it pretty much cost them the game against the Wildcats. That and the erratic play of Chester Frazier, who seems like he is winging shots with reckless abandon, not knowing where they will end up. Shaun Pruitt, who was listed as questionable with an ankle injury, ended up playing and had the game of his career, scoring a personal high of 24 points on 10-11 from the field. The level of play needs to step up for the Illini, who fell to 5-3 with the loss. The 3 losses on the season are all to formidable opponents, but they need quality wins to boost their NCAA Tournament resume, right now void of a such victory. The Illini get to hit the books this week as final exams invade the campus. Then, next week it is a busy one, with games at home against Western Carolina and Miami of Ohio, then the annual Border War game against Missouri on December 22. Hopefully the rumblings about Weber and the Illini won't get too loud to ruin anybody's holiday. So, I pose this question to all of you readers out there. What do you think of the Illini basketball team this year? Do you think they are an NCAA tourney team at this point? Please let me know what you think.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Smell The Roses, Illini Nation!!!

The speculation is over, so let the journey begin! The Fighting Illini football team found out on Sunday evening that they will be heading to California for the holidays to play in the Rose Bowl Game, presented by Citi. Thought to be a glimmer of hope as late as two weeks ago, things just started to magically fall in place, and the Illini were being mentioned for BCS inclusion. Then, on Saturday, the unthinkable happened. For the Illini to be considered for Pasadena, three outcomes needed to occur. First, Boston College needed to lose to Virginia Tech, which happened. Next, West Virginia needed to be defeated by Pitt, which also took place. Finally, the Illini needed Oklahoma to defeat Missouri in the Big 12 Championship game, which would more than likely put Ohio State in the national title game on January 7th. The Sooners were able to get the job done, and all that was really left was the official announcement, which was handed down on Sunday evening. It has been 24 years since the Illini have played in the Rose Bowl, and the last visit wasn't very memorable. The Illini were defeated by UCLA 45-9, and it wasn't much of a contest from what I remember. This time around, the Illini will be facing Southern Cal, who is one of the better teams in the country and is playing that way. In a telephone interview on Sunday evening, Ron Zook was asked about the Trojans and he simply stated that "you want to have a chance to go against one of the nation's best, and we will get that chance, because USC is one of the best teams in the country". Aside from the fact that the Trojans play just minutes from the Rose Bowl gives them an edge right from the start. However, Zook thinks that there will be plenty of Illini orange in the stands, given the strong alumni representation in Southern California.
This is a remarkable story, mainly because it has taken Zook just 3 years to turn this program around and now has them in a BCS bowl for the first time since 2001. The seniors on the football team deserve this, and I am very happy for them. Now the fun begins, with alumni and season ticket holders trying to scrounge to get tickets for the game. The university will get an allotment of 25,000 tickets, which probably will get snapped up rather quickly. Then, add to the fact that airfare and hotel accomodations will not be cheap, puts the average fan to watching it on television. However, the diehards will find a way to get there, even if it breaks the bank for them. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most, and having been at the last BCS appearance for the Illini in New Orleans on New Year's Day 2002, I know the feeling. Sadly, I'll be sitting this one out, for reasons that I have already talked about in previous blog entries. I will, however, be covering as much as I can in the weeks that lead up to the game itself. As always, I welcome you comments and questions, football, or anything Illini.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Uncharted Territory

It seems a little strange to be talking about the college football bowl season already, but tis' the season. Even more peculiar is that the talk involves the Fighting Illini this year. Not that anyone around Illini Nation is totally shocked about this revelation, seeing that Ron Zook has essentially turned around the Illinois program in three years' time. Given the fact that Zook's first two seasons were ones to forget, this season has given everyone associated with the program a breath of fresh air. Now, the destination of the Illini is yet to be determined, but we know that it will be either the Capital One Bowl or the Rose Bowl. Yes, I said the Rose Bowl! Due to the fact that some of the top teams have been getting knocked off, this has propelled the Illini into BCS talk, and with the Rose Bowl being one of the BCS bowls, the Illini have entered the picture. Especially if Ohio State somehow gets into the national championship picture, the Illini right now are the #2 Big Ten team, and they would be destined for Pasadena. But, since the Rose is a BCS bowl, they do not have to take a Big Ten team if they don't want to. Orlando would love to host the Illini, and if the analysts are correct, then Zook may be facing his old team, the Florida Gators. The selections are announced on Sunday, so the picture will be much clearer then. Stay tuned.
Congratulations to J Leman, who was named an All-American on Thursday by the American Football Coaches' Association (AFCA). Leman was one of three linebackers chosen for the honor, and the first Illini since Simeon Rice in 1994. This should give the Illini its distinction back as Linebacker U, and cement Leman's name with the likes of Howard, Butkus and Rice.
After a grueling nine day road trip to the Hawaiian Islands and Maryland, the Fighting Illini basketball team is back at home, ready to get back on the winning track. Not that the trip to Hawaii was a bad one, quite the opposite. They went 3-1 on the islands, the only blemish to Duke, who is head and shoulders better than the Illini. After a quick trip home to re-pack, the Illini were back off to the east coast to play Maryland in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland. The ACC had the upper hand in most of the contests, including this one, as the Terrapins defeated the Illini 69-61. Calvin Brock, who continues to impress everyone, led the Illini in scoring with 13 points, while Rodney Alexander and Shaun Pruitt each scored 10. Some home cooking in front of the Orange and Blue faithful is hopefully just what the doctor ordered, as they welcome the Weber State Wildcats on Saturday afternoon (4:05 pm, central time - Big Ten Network). The Illini are 4-2 on the season, while Weber State comes in at 2-3.
Jolette Law has the Fighting Illini women playing well in her short tenure as head coach, and excitement is once again alive with the women's program. Law has the Illini out to an early 5-2 record, with a tournament championship in the Florida International Thanksgiving Classic. Jenna Smith and Danyel Crutcher both had good showings, with Smith garnering Most Valuable Player honors for the tourney. The Illini were upended by North Carolina State 61-47 on Thursday night in Raleigh, North Carolina in the inaugural Big Ten/ACC Women's Challenge, but a 5-2 record is nothing to be ashamed about at this point. The Illini will return home on Sunday to face Illinois-Chicago, then will host

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Lot To Be Thankful For

As we draw ever so closer to Thanksgiving Day, I want to deviate from the norm of talking about Illini sports, and change course a little bit and write about things that I am thankful for. First and foremost, I am thankful for my wonderful family. I have been blessed with another son, Caleb Addison, who is a perfect complement to big sister Elena and big brother Austin. My wife of 15 1/2 years, Susan, is also near and dear to my heart, and if it weren't for her, I don't really know if I would be writing this today. It's sort of a long story, and one that I do not want to get into at the moment. Once you start covering sports, you covet any family time that you come across. This beat doesn't send me on the road all that often, but I am quite certain that if we weren't busy having this final piece to the Cotter family, I would more than likely be typing this from the island of Maui in Hawaii.
I am thankful for Coach Ron Zook, and the spark of rebirth that he has given to the Illinois football program. When Zook was hired in 2005 to replace Ron Turner, the cupboard was pretty much desolate, and it has taken Zook only three years to rebuild the program and put them in position for a New Year's Day bowl game. His record at Florida was not terrible (23-14 in 3 years), and when he was fired, it was a mystery to me because he had led them to two straight bowl appearances. We were genuinely blessed when Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther chose Zook to lead the resurgence of the Illinois football program, and even though his one downfall was his ability to coach, we are seeing that this, too, may have been grossly overstated. The man is a recruiting dynamo, bringing in talent such as Vontae Davis, Aurellious Benn, Isaiah "Juice" Williams, among others. The list of potential recruits continue to mount, and next year, the team should be even better next season. I am especially happy for the group of seniors, who have endured a very tough 4 years as Illini players. Guys like J Leman, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison, and DuJuan Warren, among others, deserve this success, based on their past. Nothing makes me happier than to see smiling faces on these guys, who, despite their struggles, kept a positive attitude through the entire ordeal, knowing that they would turn it around.
I am also thankful for Bruce Weber, who may not be the best recruiter around, but the man can truly coach. Given a plethora of talent when Bill $elf bolted for Kansas and his cushy office on Naismith Drive, Weber played off that success with a final four run, albeit losing out on some major recruits along the way. But, this year has seen a change to that pattern, as Weber has received verbal commitments from four top notch recruits over the next couple of years. However, these verbal commitments are soft ones, and can change at a moment's notice (see Gordon, Eric). Whereas it seems that Weber always gets the most out of any player that he gets, this latest coup of players will hopefully keep Illinois as one of the top teams in the country for many years to come, and we will be talking about national championships, instead of just Big Ten Championships.
I am thankful for Jolette Law, new women's basketball coach at Illinois. When Theresa Grentz resigned earlier in the year, it was probably a move that was way past due. However, when the little coach named Law was announced as the successor to Grentz, she decreed that she would recruit the Chicago area, as well as nationwide, to get the best level of talent that she could. Her attitude is contagious, and she is off to a 3-1 start with the current team. She is the type of person that can get the job done, and I think that she will back up that talk with action.
I am thankful for the Big Ten Network, and the way that the channel has covered the conference thus far. With the first football season now completed, the network delivered blanket coverage of all 11 schools, both on campus and on the field. With the lineup of basketball games that have already been on so far, and those that will follow in the months ahead, here's hoping that the cable companies wake up and offer the channel on their packages. The fans deserve it.
Finally, I am thankful for you, the readers of this blog each and every week. I know sometimes that I ramble on about certain things, but your comments have been great, and I appreciate hearing from you, good or bad. If there is anything that you wish to have covered that is not currently offered, I would like to know that as well. I want you to know that I enjoy doing it each time I knock a new one out.
I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving and a chance to spend it with family and friends. I know I will.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Week of changes.........

What a week this has been, sports related and otherwise. First off, I became a dad for the third time on Monday, and after a short stay in the hospital, the family is back at home and all is well. One thing that I did realize while staying at the hospital with my wife and new son, Caleb Addison, is that Carle Hospital has cable television, and that means, no Big Ten Network. So, how did I arrive at the name Addison? If anyone knows me, then I don't have to explain. He is aptly named for one of the streets that border Wrigley Field, the shrine of the legendary Chicago Cubs. So, I was without the network for a couple of days, but thank goodness for wireless internet in the rooms! It kept me up to date with everything during those downtime sessions. The week got off to a great start last weekend, as the Fighting Illini football team pulled off one of the biggest wins in the history of the program, as they upset the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes 28-21 before a stunned crowd at The Horseshoe in Columbus. The game didn't start out on the right foot, as the Buckeyes went down for the game's first score very early on. However, the Illini mounted a drive of their own, capped off by an 80 yard run by Daniel Dufrene to set up the trying score. As victories go, this was especially sweet for Ron Zook, since he is an Ohio native. It was also the first time in 51 years that the Illini had knocked off the number one ranked team in the nation. The Illini up their record to 8-3 overall and 6-2 in Big Ten play, ahead of their final home contest of the 2007 season, Senior Day against Northwestern (11:00 am central time, ESPN). A wn over the Wildcats would almost guarantee the Illini a New Year's Day bowl game, and if the national pundits know what they are talking about, a date with the Florida Gators looms. It was Florida that fired Zook back in 2004, and a matchup that I'm sure that Zook is not dwelling on. He just wants the guys to get focused on Northwestern, and the rest of it will take of itself. If it does happen to be Florida that the Illini end up playing, the national media will be all over the story. We all knew that Zook was a good recruiter, and in his three years at Florida, amassed a pretty good record that I still question why he was let go, let alone why so many people wanted him to leave Gainesville. But, getting back to the Ohio State game for a minute, the play that sticks out in my mind was the fourth and one late in the game that sustained the Illini drive. Zook was prepared to punt, but Ohio State had too many men on the field and called time out. Juice Williams came over to Zook and pleaaded with him to go for it, and whatever was said between the two, Zook let him try to get the necessary yardage, which he did, and well, you know the rest of the story. I cannot remember a bigger win for the Illini, and I'm sure it ranks up there with the top wins of all-time in school history.
By the time you read this, Bruce Weber will have his team in tropical Hawaii gearing up for their week of basketball in paradise. Late Friday evening, the Illini battle Hawaii in Honolulu (12 midnight, central time) , then the Illini hop a transport to Maui, where they will play 3 games in the Maui Invitational. The Illini open up with Arizona State on Monday night. The Illini opened up their season last Sunday with a less than impressive win over Northeastern 63-55 at the Assembly Hall. It looked as if it would be another rout, as the Illini jumped out to a 10-0 lead very early on, but the Huskies kept chipping away at the lead, and the Illini only led 22-19 at the break. In the second half, the Illini looked to pull away again, but pesky Northeastern kept coming back. Brian Randle led the Illini with 14 points, while Shaun Pruitt recorded a double double, scoring 12 points, but grabbing a career high 17 rebounds. Here's hoping the we can see the true Brian Randle this year, the one that doesn't have injuries beset any of his season. As past experiences in Hawaii have shown. Weber will need to make sure that his guys are hydrated, or else things like this (see picture at right of Paul Davis for Michigan State a few years back) may occur. The Spartans ended up losing that game, as several others, including Davis , left the game with cramps due to the climate change.
In a related note, Bruce Weber received a letter of intent signing from Stan Simpson of Simeon High School in Chicago, who will follow such standouts as Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Bryant Notree, and current Illini player Calvin Brock to wear the Orange and Blue.
Illini women's hoops coach Jolette Law has her troops out to a good start on the young season, but they lost their first game of the season on Wednesday night to Alabama-Birmingham
69-56 at the Assembly Hall. Danyel Crutcher (pictured at right) led the Illini in scoring with 13 points, while Jenna Smith tallied 12. The Illini are 2-1 on the season and next face Southern Illinois on Sunday, November 18 at the Assembly Hall.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Jonesin' For Hoops

I got to tell you, I'm loving the Big Ten Network now that college basketball season has begun. The fact that most of the exhibition games have been televised in the first week of action, with many more games to be aired throughout the course of the season. Actually, even though these games appear to be meaningless, and for the most part, tuneups for Division I teams for their seasons, try telling that to Ohio State and Michigan State. Both the Buckeyes and the Spartans dropped their opening exhibition games, and these games had the feel of an early round March Madness NCAA Tournament game. Just because these teams are Division II squads, doesn't mean that they are taken lightly. Quite the opposite, in fact, for the upstarts. Take Michigan State, for example. Grand Valley State, their opponent, was ranked third in Division II, and throughout the game, they outplayed the Spartans, and came away with the victory. The same holds true for mighty Findlay College, who beat the Buckeyes on Tuesday night in Columbus. Maybe they were overlooking their opponents? Whatever the case, one thing remains true; these games were seen only on the Big Ten Network. Yeah, I'm back to this again. Cable customers in the Champaign-Urbana area are missing out, but it is not your fault. Which is why so many of you are going the satellite route with either Dish Network or Direct TV. Insight Communications is being acquired by Comcast, and they are not wanting to play ball with the Big Ten. Earlier in the year, I had a chance to sit down with Mark Silverman, the president of the Big Ten Network, and he said that Comcast was still in the early negotiation stages, and that no progress was being made. Dish Network came on right after I dropped them for Direct TV, but what the big issue continues to be is this is a Big Ten town with a major player in the conference within the boundaries, and so many people cannot see the games. For instance, the Illini's game with Kentucky Wesleyan on Tuesday evening was on the network, so the only way to see the game if you have cable was to either get to the Assembly Hall, or go to your favorite watering hole and watch it there. It was a pretty good showing for the Illini, as they dominated their guests 76-39, behind Trent Meacham, who scored 12 points. Bruce Weber certainly has a dilemma on his hands, as he attempts to find out who should redshirt for the upcoming season. Two likely candidates early on, Bill Cole and Mike Davis, have been playing well, so that makes the decision even harder. One person that I personally think should sit out this season is Brian Carlwell. Since his accident in February, he has not seemed like the same person that he was beforehand. Sure, he was seriously injured, but he just doesn't act like himself, and it may call for him to sit out a year and recover even further. Weber stated after the win over Kentucky Wesleyan that he may not redshirt anyone to start off; he may simply not play certain people until others prove that they do not fit the mold of the offense. He has plenty of players this season, and minutes may be hard to come by for everyone to be happy. This should get interesting, as the regular season begins on Sunday afternoon when the Illini host Northeastern at the Assembly Hall.
I'm sure most of you had heard that Michael Jordan was on campus last month to film a spot for the Today Show with Matt Lauer. Well, this spot will air on Friday, November 9 at 8:30 am. So, set your DVRs and watch a legend roam the Ubben Basketball Complex. I have some sweet pictures of MJ's ride that was forwarded to me, and his Ferrari was just proof that he is doing alright. Hopefully this season I will be fortunate to meet him, because after talking with his son Jeff at media day, he is a really nice young man that is excited to be at Illinois. Here's hoping that his father likes what he sees.
Ron Zook's Illini football squad officially secured themselves a bowl berth with their victory over Minnesota last Saturday in Minneapolis. The 44-17 rout was satisfying in more ways than one, mainly because Rashard Mendenhall had another superb rushing performance, gaining 201 yards on the ground. Mendenhall should break the all-time single season rushing record, held by Antonieo Harris this week. Speaking of this week's game, it doesn't get any better than this. The Illini, who are 7-3 overall and 4-2 in Big Ten play, venture to the Horseshoe in Columbus to take on #1 Ohio State. This will be the sternest test of Zook's in this, his turnaround year. The game will kickoff at 2:30 pm central time, and yes, the entire nation will be able to see the game, as it will be televised on ABC. The notoriety of the Illini continues to be spread, as J Leman, Vontae Davis, and Jason Reda are all semi-finalists for awards given out at the close of the college football season. Leman is nominated for the Chuck Bednarik award, given to the top defensive player in the nation, while Davis is in contention for the Jim Thorpe award, which is given to the best defensive back in the country. Reda is up for the Lou Groza Award, which is awarded to the top placekicker. All three awards will be announced on the Home Depot College Football Awards Show, which will be televised on ESPN on December 6.
As the basketball team heads into the regular season and a trip to Hawaii to play in the Maui Classic, while the football team solidifies their bowl placement, alas, I will be watching on television. We are set to welcome our son into this world on Monday, so my nights for a while will be dedicated to nurturing him and introducing him to the world of college sports, of course, most of which will be on the Big Ten Network. Hoops junkies unite!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bowl eligible. Those two words say an awfully lot, especially if you are an Illinois football fan. Given the last few seasons in Champaign-Urbana, there hasn't been a whole lot to cheer for during the fall months. However, this season, Ron Zook's third at Illinois, things are much different and there is actually an air of excitement around campus and the state. On Saturday, the Illini reached the magical 6 win plateau with a somewhat convincing 28-17 victory over the Ball State Cardinals, a team from the Mid-American Conference. Rashard Mendenhall returned to his old form, rushing the football 28 times for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns. But it wasn't just Mendenhall who gave the Cardinals problems on the ground. Quarterback Juice Williams missed the 100 yard mark by 1 yard, rushing for 99 on 17 carries and a couple of scores himself. With the performance, Williams went over the 1000 yard plateau for rushing in his career at Illinois. However, the elusive sixth win wasn't as easy as it might have seemed. The Illini kept Ball State's signal caller Nate Davis in check, which was one of the reasons why they won the game. At Zook's weekly gathering with the media on Tuesday, he stated that just because they have six wins, that doesn't guarantee them a bowl. It just makes them bowl eligible at this point, and he stressed that they still have a lot left to play for, and each win from this point forward puts the Illini in position for a better bowl. That journey begins this Saturday, when the Illini travel to Minnesota to play the Golden Gophers (7:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network), a place that Illinois never seems to play well in. Minnesota is in the process of having a new stadium built, and it will be ready in time for the 2009 season. The Golden Gophers are coached by Tim Brewster, who played his collegiate football at Illinois. Last year, Brewster's son, Clint, verballed to Zook, but when his father took the job at Minnesota, he opted out and joined him in Minneapolis. Brewster's style of coaching is rather aggressive, and on more than one occasion, he has tried to win a game at the end, only to have it backfire and instead, hang a loss on the Gophers. Michigan defeated Minnesota 34-10 last Saturday in Ann Arbor, and the Gophers come into this game at 1-8 overall and 0-5 in the Big Ten. Zook likens the struggles that Minnesota is going through to what he had experienced his first year at the helm of the Illini. He says that they are getting better, and whereas they play a lot of young guys, those players will get more experience and keep getting better year after year. Hmmmm, that sounds very familiar, doesn't it?
Even though football season is still going strong, basketball season also begins this week, as Bruce Weber's squad takes to the court for its first exhibition game of the season against Quincy College on Wednesday at the Assembly Hall. (8:00 pm, central time, Big Ten Network). Illinois, who will be a younger team this season, only have 2 seniors on the team, Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt. At the Orange and Blue Scrimmage on Sunday afternoon, it was time for Weber to see what the players have accomplished thus far in practice. Judging from what I witnessed, the Illini are going to have to find a way to get the ball in the basket. They have a lot of scorers on the team, but those guys are going to have to find their range and make it happen on the court. Guys like Trent Meacham, Steve Holdren, and Demetri McCamey will need to step it up. Weber talked about how it is nice to finally be able to play against someone other than themselves, and also a chance to have some of the young players make a bid for playing time. There is also the business of redshirting, and decisions regarding who should, versus who should not, will need to be made during these games as well. Weber has hinted at Brian Carlwell possibly doing just that, because he still isn't all the way back from his near fatal accident last February. Weber stressed to Carlwell that he needs to be able to use him, and if he cannot, then sitting out a year is an option. Stay tuned.
I'm also excited about women's basketball starting up this season. New Illini women's bench boss Jolette Law has given new energy to a stagnant program, and her enthusiasm for success is much needed. Not that her predecessor didn't have that vision, but the program streamlined the last few years, and if Law's bark is as good as her bite, then the Illini will once again be dancing come March. The Assembly Hall needs to be a place to be reckoned with for the women, as well as the men, and I think Jolette Law is the person that can take them there.
Are the Illini men poised for another NCAA Tournament run? Will the women finally get back to the dance? I welcome any comments about anything Illini, so please let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Step Backward

This is my favorite time of the year. The time when the sports seasons overlap and you literally have something going on every night. With meaningful football still being played into October and the start of basketball season just around the corner, things are beginning to pick up on campus. The first question of the day would have to be what has happened to the football team? After the early loss to Missouri, the Illini reeled off 5 straight wins and it was looking like a New Year's Day bowl game was in the offing. Well, that's where the problem begins. Looking ahead like that and not paying attention to the bumps that lie ahead on the road (Iowa, Michigan) can sometimes come back to haunt you. This past weekend, the Illini and Wolverines did battle in the national spotlight, and if you can coin the phrase "beating yourself", then that would apply to the Illini on this given night. It looked very good early on for Illinois, as they got in the endzone early against Michigan. The Illini actually led 14-3 before the Wolverines began to chip away. But just like a dollar bill, you need four quarters to make a dollar, and the Illini have been having trouble sustaining their momentum the entire game. It seems that whatever is going well in the first half is abandoned in the second, and more often than not, it is difficult to win games when this occurs. Rashard Mendenhall carried the ball 18 times for 85 yards, but did not find paydirt this weekend, the second such week that he has not scored. What may be more puzzling is the quarterback situation, although Ron Zook does not think he has a quarterback controversy. Juice Williams only completed 8 of 14 passes for just 76 yards with a touchdown pass to Jacob Willis, but also was picked off once. Backup signal caller Eddie McGee also saw action, but didn't exactly light it up either, completing 6 of his 12 passes for just 46 yards. So, the question that begs asking is this: would it make a difference if McGee started in place of Williams? I'm not sure the answer to this, but McGee has a way of moving the Illini down the field that Juice does not. Perhaps we will get to find out this weekend, when the Illini step out of conference to host the Ball State Cardinals for Homecoming at Memorial Stadium (11:00 am, CT, Big Ten Network). One thing is for certain coming into this game; the best quarterback on the field will probably be wearing red. According to Zook, Cardinal quarterback Nate Davis is probably one of the best all-around players in the midwest, and if the Illini aren't careful, he could torch them. Yes, the Illini are in a bit of a rut right now, but Zook like the attitude of the players after another tough loss. In his weekly address to the media contingent, he said that the team was down, but ready to bounce back in front of the alumni. Plus, Zook went on to add that the Illini still have a lot to play for, and at 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten, are still only 1 win away from being bowl eligible. Regardless of what happens, the Illini will be okay in the end. The talent is there; they just need to play to their potential and quit beating themselves.
Fans looking for an alternative to parking congestion and construction woes can breathe s collective sigh of relief. The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has a program that they have been doing all season that can alleviate some of this. For $1, fans can park their vehicles at the parking garage at the corner of University and Goodwin Avenues and board an MTD shuttle that will take them to the stadium (don't worry, it will take you back to the garage after the game, as well). According to Kent Brown, the service has been a success, but would like to see even more people take advantage of it.
It seems hard to believe, but basketball season is almost upon us. This Sunday marks the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage, which signals the official start of the season. The Illini will be a veteran team, but with only 2 seniors on the roster, still have a lot of youth. Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle are the lone seniors, and will be expected to take on the leadership role with junior Chester Frazier, a task that all three say they are ready to undertake. If there's one thing that Bruce Weber has this year that he lacked last season, it is the abundance of bodies available on the court. Several redshirt candidates loom, including freshmen Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole and Mike Davis. Players never want to hear the "r" word, because they all come to college to play basketball and not sit out. But for some, redshirting is more needed than you think. Just think if Warren Carter would have taken his. He'd be back this season, ready to lead the Illini into battle. Some players are just not physically ready for the rigors of the Big Ten, and need a year to get stronger and more physically fit. Oh yeah, then there's that Jordan kid. Probably the most hyped walk-on at Illinois in some time, Jeff Jordan has looked pretty good in practice, and may actually see some playing time. His famous father, Michael, was on campus last week filming a segment for "The Today Show", and rumor has it that he is in the market for a house in west Champaign. But all of this aside, Weber has taken plenty of heat regarding recruiting and missing out on the big names, but even that tide seems to be turning. Weber will have a lot of decisions to make in the next couple of weeks, because the exhibition season begins next Wednesday at home against Quincy University. Good times indeed.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Time To Regroup

It's back to the drawing board. Just when you thought that the Illini football team had it going, to be specific, consecutive wins over top 25 teams for the first time in ages, a modest five-game winning streak, and momentum heading into a hornet's nest known as Iowa City, the Illini stubbed their toe and dropped a 10-6 decision to the Iowa Hawkeyes last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. What was most discouraging about this loss was not the fact that it happened, but how it happened. First of all, Iowa had come into the contest at 2-4, and was winless in the Big Ten so far in 2007. Secondly, the Illini had not beaten the Hawkeyes in several years, and all signs pointed to that streak coming to an end. Coach Ron Zook had eluded to that very fact the week before, and warned of Iowa being a very good team that should not be overlooked. As a whole, the Illini didn't play that bad of a game, it was the mental mistakes that spelled defeat for them on this day, both by the players and the coaching staff. The Illini were held out of the endzone the entire game, but actually did score a touchdown, only to have the play called back because of a penalty. The play was a thing of beauty, with reserve quarterback Eddie McGee throwing an 83-yard spiral to Joe Morgan in the fourth quarter. Well, when plays of this nature are conducted, you always fear the worst, that elusive penalty flag. This incident was no exception, as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was called for being an ineligible receiver downfield. In all actuality, it was the receiver lined up to the left side that had caused the "Hooman" to be lined up illegally. The Illini never really recovered from there, but that wasn't the only questionable call on the day.
Earlier in the contest, the Hawkeyes were faced with third down situations not once, but twice, and penalties on each play by the Hawkeyes prompted Zook to take the penalties and force Iowa to run another play instead of setting up fourth down. Well, to make a long story short, Iowa capitalized on one of those plays for a touchdown, and sent the Illini down to defeat. It just goes to show you that sometimes you are second guessed and the results can be devastating. In a week that saw the Illini's first Top 25 ranking in nearly seven years and a chance to become bowl eligible before November hit, all that has been temporarily placed on hold.
Is the news all bad? Not at all. The Illini are still 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference, they are still near the top of the conference standings, and they have a huge game this Saturday against Michigan (7:00 pm CST, ABC). The Wolverines have righted the ship that temporarily sunk on opening day when they were upset by Appalachian State, and they bring in a 5-2 overall mark, but are unblemished so far in league play at 3-0. This game will mark the first time in recent memory that the Illini have been given the prime time slot on ABC, which will be a national broadcast. This also means that every Illini fan will get a chance to see the game, since it will not be on the Big Ten Network. The game is a sellout, and Zook expects that the crowd will be more than fired up by the time the opening kickoff ensues. Preparing for Michigan this week will ne tough, because they may be without their star tailback Mike Hart, who was injured a week ago. Quarterback Chad Henne will start however, and it will be time for the Illini defense to step it up another notch.
Is there a quarterback controversy brewing at Illinois? According to Zook, there is not. Juice Williams continues to be his guy, although he did say that McGee would probably see some action, although he didn't speculate when this would occur. He has also hinted that he has considered using Juice and Eddie in the same offensive set, but didn't elaborate on the idea from that point on. Whatever you want to make of it, this will be a huge game for both schools, and an electric atmosphere is expected under the lights at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. It should be a good one.
All the talk about Bruce Weber not being able to recruit has been pushed to the back burner with the recent string of verbals to the program for the 2008-09 season. Besides last week's
coup of juniors, Weber added another one early this week with the announcement that Stan Simpson from Simeon High School will be wearing Orange and Blue next season. The basketball season officially began on Friday night with the annual "Illini Madness" event, this year taking on a different scene, as the Assembly Hall was painted pink for breast cancer awareness, a cause near and dear to Weber's heart. To date, over 20,000 of the pink shirts have been sold, letting the nation be aware that the University of Illinois is setting the standard in the Coaches vs. Cancer debate. The madness event itself was rather disappointing, since there was not much basketball played that evening. There were different groups that performed dance routines, clearly for entertainment purposes only. I'm not really sure if that actually fit into a event like this, but it was entitled "Illini Madness" after all, so I guess anything was possible. Before the Illini scrimmaged, Coach Jolette Law addressed the crowd and displayed her enthusiasm for being at the University of Illinois. Coach Law played her collegiate basketball at Iowa, but now says that she "bleeds orange and blue". She has a dynamic personality and a high level of excitement, and if she can back up the talk that she is giving early on, then I think the Illini women will be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten this season. Later on this fall I will devote an entire blog to covering the women and their outlook for the upcoming season.
Homecoming, a tradition that started on the Illinois campus many years ago, begins in earnest this week, with the Big Ten Network's Friday Night Tailgate show originating from the soccer complex, ahead of the Illini's senior night match against Indiana. The Illini are 8-4-1 on the season, and are coming off three straight shutouts, with a 0-0 tie also mixed in there. Seniors Ella Masar and Lindsey Carstens will be playing their final match at home, along with 4 other seniors.
Finally this week, the loss to Iowa pretty much derailed any chance of ESPN's College Gameday coming to campus, but with the big matchup on tap against Michigan, ESPN Radio's Game Day will be on hand for most of the day, setting up a makeshift studio near the Assembly Hall. They will be covering the day in college football from Champaign-Urbana, getting everyone ready for the Illini-Wolverines tilt. Yes, it will be a busy weekend on campus, and hopefully, one that many many will be talking about for months to come.

Friday, October 12, 2007

High Times in Champaign-Urbana

It's great to be an Illini fan these days. Everywhere you go around town or campus, people are talking about Ron Zook and the football team, or starting talk about Bruce Weber and the basketball team, which begins practice on Friday night with their "Basketball Madness". Ever wonder what a giant eye with pink-eye looks like? Well, head over to the Assembly Hall and see for yourself, or better yet, if you can get it, watch on the Big Ten Network to catch it as well. Bruce Weber, for years a Coaches vs. Cancer backer, has organized a unique promotion to help fight this debilitating disease. He has organized the "pink out", where admission to the event is a pink t-shirt. $2 from every t-shirt sold will go towards "Coaches vs. Cancer". This should be quite a sight to behold, as the Hall will tun pink for one night from its traditional orange, and hopefully make a statement nationwide. Speaking of statements made, if you haven't caught the news yet, Coach Weber has landed some verbal commitments for the 2009 recruiting class. On Thursday morning, it was announced that guard D. J. Richardson of Peoria Central would be playing for the Illini and within hours after that announcement, guard Brandon Paul of Warren Township also announced for the Orange and Blue. Given the spate of good news in such a short time frame, you would think that was the end of the favorable fodder. Well, good things come in threes, and late on Thursday night, Joseph Bertrand of Sterling High School also picked the Illini as his team of choice. Call it anything that you want, but it seems that the arrival of Jerrance Howard as an assistant coach has really sparked recruiting for Weber and his gang. It was just a few short weeks ago that many people were calling Weber under the bus for the lack of his snagging the big name recruits such as Mario Little, Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon. But, this recent run may be the tide that turns the ship around in the right direction. Oh sure, you say, these guys are only juniors and people have said they were coming to Illinois, only to renege and change alliances due to coaching switches (gee, wonder who I'm referring to here?). I've said all along that Weber just needed the right fit in as an assistant coach, because we all know that the man can coach with lesser talent than those other guys, it's just you need a great recruiting system to bring the big boys in. Apparently, Tracy Webster, who went to Kentucky to be on Billy Gillispie's staff and apparently took a recruit with him, wasn't the answer after all. But with Jerrance, it's much different. He's a local guy that has played for the Illini, so selling his alma mater is much easier than Webster, who played at Wisconsin. I'm not going to analyze the apples to apples debate between the two, it's just I feel we got the better of the two on the staff at Illinois. So, go ahead Kansas, Kentucky, Memphis, Indiana and whoever else wants to wander into our recruiting territory; there's a new boy in town, and I think he means business. I'd be curious to know what everyone has to weigh in on regarding recruiting. Let me know! But now, I feel a little pink inside..............

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

On The Way Back Up

The times, they are a changin'. At least, it seems that way for Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini football team, who saw their stock take a meteoric rise on Saturday, with an impressive 31-26 wn over the fifth ranked team in the country, the Wisconsin Badgers. The win marked the second consecutive week that the Illini beat a top 25 team, and that should certainly get them in the Top 25 this coming week, a place they haven't been since the Sugar Bowl season of 2oo1. But what has come about to bring this success, you ask? Personally, I think it has been a lot of patience for Coach Zook, who has endured a tumultuous first two seasons as Illini head coach, but the win over the Badgers gives the Illini a 5-1 overall record, and 3-0 in the Big Ten. They seem to have a leg up on the league now, as they stand near the top of the standings. In talking to some of the players after the game, they seem very excited about what is happening in Champaign, and believe that the nation will begin to take notice after they see what the Illini did to the Badgers. Of course, this is exactly what Zook has been talking about, but he knows that they are not there yet, but after a convincing win against a top 5 opponent, you have to think that they are getting close. So, let's take a look at the numbers from the game, shall we? Rashard Mendenhall continued to set the pace by carrying the ball 19 times for 160 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Mendenhall also caught a touchdown pass from Juice Williams, who ended up leaving the game late in the fourth quarter with an apparent hyperextended knee. Enter Eddie McGee into the game, and he made an immediate impact by scampering 5 yards for the game clinching score. Juice didn't have a bad game, completing 12 of 19 passes for 121 yards and the touchdown to Mendenhall, but he also rushed for 92 yards on 14 carries. Williams doesn't need to always have a good day through the air, because as he has shown time and time again, he runs the option very well and can run for quite a bit of yards. But the fact that McGee can come in and not miss a beat says a lot about his versatility. Offensive lineman Ryan McDonald told me that it really doesn't matter who is behind center, because either of the two players can make it happen. When asked if he was ever a relief pitcher in high school, McGee kind of laughed that comment off. It is an added bonus to have someone that can come in to a ballgame like McGee can, and if given the chance to play an entire game, I believe that Eddie could get the job done. He is taller than Juice, and therefore, can see over the line a little better and make the decisions if he sees routes or pockets open. Aurrelious Benn only caught 5 balls for 51 yards, and he left the game with an injury as well, apparently re-aggravating the shoulder injury that he sustained at Camp Rantoul earlier in the fall. Still, it is very comforting to see the renewed excitement by not only the players, but the fans as well. In a season that is marred by stadium construction, the Illini are once again back in contention for a Big Ten title.
So what does this all mean, you ask? With the Illini win on Saturday, they are tied with Ohio State at 3-0 atop the conference standings, with Michigan, who stepped out of conference to take on battle Eastern Michigan, lurking one-half game back at 2-0. The Illini take to the road again next week when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes, who were defeated by Penn State on Saturday 27-7. A road win next Saturday would go a long way and also set up a potential showdown with Michigan in two weeks, in prime time. But everything is still not okay, especially the punting game. Yes, Anthony Santella is better than Kyle Yelton, but he shanked one against the Badgers that could have ended up much worse than it did. Santella did get a few booming punts, but consistency needs to occur if the Illini wish to keep this winning streak alive.
Yes, times are much better for the Illini these days, but it can still get a whole lot better. Just ask Ron Zook; he'll tell ya!
So what do you think of the Illini's success thus far this season? Surprised? Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Making Progress Little By Little

Well folks, they're halfway there. Unlike the Bon Jovi song of the 1980s, they are not living on a prayer. I'm talking about bowl eligibility, something that hasn't been talked about in these parts in several years. The Fighting Illini began their 2007 Big Ten portion of their football schedule on the road at Bloomington, Indiana, looking for their elusive third victory of the season, something else that has not happened in a few years for the Orange and Blue. Before this game, the Illini had lost 14 consecutive conference openers, a statistic that is not one to be proud of. But, as Coach Ron Zook keeps saying, they are making progress, and if Saturday's 27-14 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers is any indication, Zook might know what he is talking about. It was once again the running prowess of Rashard Mendenhall that sparked the Illini, as the junior tailback scampered for 214 yards on 27 carries and 1 touchdown. Mendenhall also caught a touchdown pass from Juice Williams, who had another lackluster day behind center. While we're on the subject of Juice, it remains to be seen how consistent he can actually be. In the opener against Missouri, he was injured and left the game, and something tells me he hasn't been the same since. Eddie McGee did a good job filling in for him in that game, and whereas I'm not calling for a quarterback change right now, the possibility certainly exists that maybe McGee could do a little better at the helm. At Zook's weekly press gathering on Tuesday, he was asked the question about Williams, and Zook's reply was simply "he just needs to relax and be Juice". Easier said than done, right? Williams has had trouble finding some of his receivers, and when he does find one open, they often have a hard time hanging on to the ball. Witness wideout Joe Morgan on Saturday, who dropped a sure touchdown pass with nobody covering him. Freshman sensation Aurellious Benn is beginning to show signs, although he still has yet to catch a touchdown pass. Williams does scramble good, as evidenced by his numbers thus far this season on the ground. For the second straight week, Williams got the tight end involved in the scoring, as sophomore Michael Hoomanawanui, the name that radio personalities love to hate, scored on a 2 yard pass. Jeff Cumberland caught a touchdown the week before at Syracuse. One injury note of interest to pass along. Freshman running back Troy Pollard injured his knee on Saturday, and had to be helped off the field. He is being considered for surgery, and his season might be over. He might be able to redshirt, since he probably hasn't played enough to justify it. Zook knows that they still have a long way to go, and he wants the players to understand that as well. But, it was sure a nice sight to see the players walking off the field on Saturday, smiling and waving to friends and family in attendance. The Illini even had some Big Ten awards this week, as Mendenhall was the conference offensive player of the week, while Will Davis, the converted tight end, recorded 4 sacks to earn the defensive player of the week honors. Most players don't get 4 sacks in a season, let alone in one game! Here's hoping that Davis' play continues throughout the season. Zook even gave the sign that finally things are beginning to turn around. After all, this week's opponent, the Penn State Nittany Lions (11:00 am CT, Big Ten Network), dealt the Illini one of the worst losses in the history of the program just 2 years ago. If you remember (and ask yourself, why would you?), the Illini trailed 56-3 at the half, a game that Zook recalled was the low point of his coaching career. He told the players after that game that this was the worst it ever was going to get, and so far, he's been spot on with that prediction. Zook also lamented at his press conference that Nittany Lions coach, the legendary Joe Paterno, could have made it much worse and set a scoring record for Division 1 football, but being the class act that Paterno is, called off the dogs early in the second half and slogged to a lopsided 63-10 victory. I remember it well, because all fans waited for that night was the halfime appearance of Chief Illiniwek, and then there was a mass exodus out of the stadium. There couldn't have been more than 2,000 people in the stands by the time the game ended. Most people left that night wondering what this Zook character was, but I think we are all starting to see what he is made of and why he had such success at Florida, before being fired down there. It still remains to be seen what type of a game coach Zook is, but, the man can flat-out recruit. Zook mentioned that after the Penn State disaster, the next day Vontae Davis committed to the program. Also, I believe Juice committed somewhere in that time frame as well. So, I guess it all boils down to having patience, and seeing where this program heads for the remainder of this season. Yes, they are halfway to being bowl-eligible, but the schedule gets a lot tougher from here on out. After Penn State comes in, Wisconsin pays a visit before the team goes to Iowa. Then there are two more home games, with Ball State and Michigan, before the team jaunts to Minnesota and Ohio State. It is still possible, but with the reduction of scholarships to major schools, the smaller programs like Ball State are reaping the rewards and getting very close in the talent pool. We shall see what happens next.
So, what do you think about the season thus far? Is Zook on track to take the team bowling in 2007, or is he still a year away? Any burning issues that you would like me to address to Zook? I'd be interested in any comments that you have.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Orange You Glad That You're An Illini Fan?

Now that was a lot of orange on Saturday! The Fighting Illini ventured to upstate New York to battle the Orange of Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, a venue that was literally only half-filled by the time the game started. The Orange are struggling mightily this season, and if the outcome is any indication, it certainly didn't help them any against the Illini. After getting shellacked by Iowa 35-0 the previous week, things didn't figure to go much better for them against the upstart Illini. After all, Coach Ron Zook has been promising better things to come for the Illinois faithful, and last Saturday may have been the start of that. It was already evident that Rashard Mendenhall could run, and run he did against the Orange, to the tune of 150 yards on the ground with 3 touchdowns to lead the Illini to a 41-20 victory. In the first couple of games, the Illini passing attack has not been evident, and against the Orange not much changed, except for the fact the Juice Williams exhibited some of his running prowess, himself rushing for 90 yards and a score. Freshman Troy Pollard also got into the act, rushing for 92 yards and making a believer out of Zook. It was nice to see tight end Jeff Cumberland get into the act as well, catching Juice's first touchdown of the game, a 22 yard pass to put the exclamation point on the first drive of the game. At Zook's weekly press gathering on Tuesday, he talked about this week's opponent, the Indiana Hoosiers, and how to prepare for them. When it was brought to Zook's attention that the Illini have not won a Big Ten opener since 1993, all the coach wanted to talk about was the fact that he is 0-2 against the Hoosiers and even though this is a road game, they need to prepare for the Hoosiers like they did last year, but play at the intensity level that they had against Syracuse last week. The Hoosiers will have heavy hearts coming into the game, after their coach last season, Terry Hoeppner, died from complications of a brain tumor that left him ill for quite some time. The coach who took over for Hep, Bill Lynch, coached at Ball State for several years before a short stint at De Pauw University in nearby Greencastle, Indiana. Lynch, who inherited a pretty solid team, led by quarterback Kellen Lewis and wide receiver James Hardy. If the name James Hardy sounds familiar, that's because he also plays basketball for the Hoosiers. Lewis earned the Big Ten offensive player of the week honors for his 199 yard rushing performance against Akron last Saturday, a game the Hoosiers won 41-24 at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Lewis, who is a scrambler, likes to find his favorite receiver, Hardy, who racked up 65 yards on 4 catches in the win over the Zips. However, Zook also mentioned the "secret weapon" for the Hoosiers, their punt returner Marcus Thigpen. Thigpen had one of the best days in the history of Indiana last year against the Illini, as he had 311 all-purpose yards, including running the second half kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown. Zook is well aware of what Thigpen can do, and will do their best to stop him from returning any kicks on Saturday.
The Illini will return to the Big Ten Network for the game against Indiana (11:00 am CST)
, and will mark their second appearance on the channel since its inception. This game is one that the Illini must win in order for them to even think about going bowling this year. The schedule get a lot tougher now that the conference season is upon us. With the likes of Penn State, Wisconsin and yes, even Michigan looming in the distance, building on the momentum sustained
in the Syracuse victory.
The Illini women's soccer team made their first appearance on the Big Ten Network last Friday, and came away with a 1-0 victory over #9 Florida. Before the second largest crowd in the history of the Illini Track and Soccer Stadium. Senior Ella Masar scored the game-winner in the 84th minute to propel the Illini to victory. The Illini conclude their pre-conference season this weekend with a pair of matches, playing Kansas on Friday and traveling to Indiana State on Sunday. They are currently 3-2 on the season.
The Illini volleyball team finished up their non-conference season with a pair of victories last week, defeating Southern Illinois (30-15, 30-14, 30-14) and at Toledo (30-26, 30-25, 25-30, 30-21). Led by freshman Laura DeBruler, the Illini are 8-2 on the young season. The Illini open up the Big Ten portion of the season Wednesday night at Huff Hall against #9 Wisconsin, the first game to be televised by the Big Ten Network. The Illini will also face #10 Michigan in Ann Arbor.
No word yet on the basketball assistant coach position, but all signs are pointing to a former Illini player as a possible candidate. Jerrance Howard, who currently is at Kentucky on Billy Gillispie's staff, looks to be the frontrunner at this time.
So, who do you think should get the job on Bruce Weber's staff? Someone who can hopefully recruit Chicago and get some of the in-state recruits to stay home? I welcome your opinions and comments.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Something To Build On......

Home sweet home... Well, sort of, anyway. The Fighting Illini opened up the home portion of 2007 by playing like the weather; gloomy and hazy. The stadium, which is currently under construction due to a major renovation, looks much different, especially on the north end of the stadium with the new stands firmly entrenched in place. For much of the day leading up to the game, it rained off and on, coming down rather hard at times. That made the footing in the construction zone, er, the stadium, a challenge at times. With the cranes overhead and the sight of bare steel in the west balcony, it is obvious that there is still much to be done. But, the addition of the stands on the north side and the scoreboard now being placed on the south end, it definitely presents a different look to the place that Grange, Butkus and Grabowski once called home. Now, back to the game itself. When it was announced that the Illini would be opening up with Western Illinois for the first game at home in 2007, one wouldn't have given it much of a thought that the game would be a struggle through and through. But, as the college football season has proven thus far, nothing should be taken for granted. (See Michigan vs. Appalachian State) The offense struggled for a good portion of the first half, and you have to give the Leathernecks credit for hanging in there the way they did. Most teams in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) do not get the recognition as their counterparts in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division 1-A), but just ask Michigan what they think now. I hate to dwell on the Wolverines and their loss to App. State, but the Mountaineers have won the past two Division 1-AA national championships, so they were no slouches to begin with. Western Illinois came into their game with the Illini ranked #23 in the 1-AA poll, and really had nothing to lose and everything to gain in this one. I'm not really sure what is wrong with Juice Williams, but he really hasn't been the same since he went out of the Missouri game with that injury. It was some unsung heroes that propelled the Illini to victory, one in particular being sophomore running back Daniel Dufrene. Dufrene ended up with 59 yards, 32 of those coming on a touchdown run that opened up the scoring for the Illini. Rashard Mendenhall was the key back in the win, breaking free for 139 yards and also scoring a touchdown. But absent was arm of Juice, who only threw for 124 yards, connecting on only 12 of 24 attempts. Williams did have a 9 yard touchdown run, but for the Illini to be successful, the passing game will need to improve.
Probably lost in all of this is the much heralded freshman receiver, Aurellious Benn. Benn has won practically all of his life, and it is apparent that he wants the ball. Williams needs to look for Benn whenever possible, because I believe special things can happen as a result. Benn said after the game that he felt good out there and that is was nice to get the win, but he wants this feeling to continue, because after all, he came here to win games and catch passes.
The Illini take their show on the road this coming weekend when they travel to Syracuse to face the Orange (11:00 am CST, ESPNU) at the Carrier Dome in upstate New York. It was Syracuse last year that came to Champaign and defeated the Illini, so Ron Zook would like nothing more than to return the favor this time around. The Orange, who come into the game at 0-2, was defeated at Iowa 35-0. This appears to be a very winnable game on paper, but as we all know, they don't play games on paper. We shall see.
The Illini women's soccer team has begun the season playing some of the better teams in the country. Although they haven't won all of these contests, the exposure that they are getting speaks volumes. Their recent trip to California resulted in a split, a 4-0 defeat of Cal State-Northridge, and a loss to #7 UCLA 4-2. This Friday, the Illini face their first real test at home when they host #9 ranked Florida (5:00 pm, Big Ten Network). The Illini are 2-2 on the season and according to Coach Janet Rayfield, the exposure on the national stage will be just what they are looking for to showcase the talent that this team has. I think that the purpose of the Big Ten Network in general was to give some of the lesser sports more exposure.
So, were you at the first Illini football game? What did you think of the stadium renovation so far? I'd be interested in hearing your comments. Until next week.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The season didn't begin the way Ron Zook envisioned it to go, and he was very animated at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, as he lashed out at some of the veterans. Now, mind you, Zook is in his third season as Illini head coach, and would like to see some positive results with the stash of recruits that he has assembled. Going back to the Missouri game for a moment, redshirt freshman Eddie McGee did a great job filling in for the injured Juice Williams. McGee completed 17 of 31 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown strike to Kyle Hudson, but it was the two costly fumbles that doomed McGee and the Illini. One of those fumbles was ran back 100 yards for a touchdown, and that ended up being a momentum killer. Zook has reason to be fired up, because he is expecting results this year, as are some of the guys that have been around for 3 to 4 years. Players like J Leman, Brit Miller and Kevin Mitchell are hungry for success, and hopefully that trend begins this Saturday when the Illini host the #23 rd ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Western Illinois Leathernecks. Now, if you have never heard of the FCS, that is what Division 1-AA is now called. Western Illinois won their first game of the season, 29-26 in overtime, over South Dakota State. The quarterback for Western Illinois, Matt Barr, is a freshman that can be labeled as a dual threat. He came off the bench in the win over South Dakota State to rush for 114 yards and pass for 128 more yards. Barr, who expects to start this weekend against Illinois, will be the first freshman quarterback to start for Western Illinois since 1990.
Fans that were able to see the Big Ten Network last weekend were treated to a day of football, including one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. Appalachian State, the two-time FCS national champion, stunned Michigan in the "big house" in front of a sellout crowd expecting a blowout. If the Illini can learn one thing from this game, it is not to take any team, even Western Illinois, lightly. What happened to Michigan can, and probably will happen again in the not too distant future. While we're on the subject of the Big Ten Network, Dish Network signed on to carry the network, thereby giving more fans in Big Ten country access to the network and all of its programming. So, now that you have had a chance to see some of what the Big Ten Network has to offer (DirecTV subscribers, I'm talking to you about this), what do you think about what you've seen? I would be interested in hearing what comments you have about this.
Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini basketball team finished their Canada trip 3-1, and according to Weber, looked pretty good. Some players did not see action due to the redshirting rules, but those who did will use the experience for the upcoming season. Weber also got some discouraging news earlier in the week when it was announced that assistant coach Tracy Webster is leaving the program to take a similar position on Billy Gillispie's staff at Kentucky. Webster, who was a good recruiter and had some good ties to the Chicago area, will be missed, and here is hoping that whoever Weber brings in to the program can recruit the Chicago area as well as Webster did. These days, it is imperative with all of the national coaches getting their feet into the same areas. So, let me know what you think! Football, basketball, whatever is on your mind, I would love to hear your comments.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's Game Week!!!!!

School is in session, the Illini have been practicing, and those three little words signify that the football season is about to start: It's Game Week!! On Saturday afternoon, the Illini will raise the curtain on year 3 of the Ron Zook era, his most promising season yet, when they take on the Missouri Tigers at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The Illini, who are coming off a 2-9 season a year ago, have brought in some quality players and as this season begins, renewed hope abounds in all directions. Coach Zook met the media for his first of many weekly press conferences, and gave an update on several hot topics thus far. Chris James, who was injured at the Camp Rantoul scrimmage earlier in the month, is set for surgery next week and is more than likely out for the season. He keeps telling Zook that he'll be ready for the Northwestern game and a bowl game (did I just say that??), if the opportunity presents itself. Other notable injuries for week 1 are minimal, with fullback Russ Weil and defensive back Justin Sanders questionable, but both gametime decisions at this point. Zook is excited about the prospects of a successful season, and says that the team's mindset is much different this time around than last year. The defense returns virtually intact from last season, and for players like J Leman, Antonio Steele and Chris Norwell have been on another level in pre-season practices. Normally in the past, the Illini have had multiple backs behind the quarterback, but this season Rashard Mendenhall will be doing the bulk of the carries, with brother Walter expected to see action as well. Aurellious Benn is back and healthy, and although only a freshman, exhibits some stellar qualities. Juice Williams is much more ready as this season begins, and according to Zook, "is like a sponge, soaking up any advice he can to make himself better". The one thing that concerns Zook more than anything is the special teams, which was a nightmare a year ago. There is no clear cut favorite for the starting punting job, but Zook says he will take a pair of kickers down to St. Louis and see what happens from there. The opponent on Saturday, the Tigers, are coming off an 8-5 season in 2006, which included a 39-38 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl. The Tigers are led by quarterback Chase Daniel, whom Zook compares to New Orleans Saints and former Purdue signal caller Drew Brees. Daniel was 5th in total offense in the country a year ago, and Zook also knows that the Tigers have an explosive offense that can put a lot of points on the board. They are a well-coached football team and will make you beat them in order to be successful. In other words, they are not a team that makes the kind of mistakes that beat themselves. Game time on Saturday is set for just after 2:30 pm and it will be televised by ESPN2.
Ticket sales for the State Farm Arch Rivalry have been brisk in the last 10-14 days, and they are expecting around 60,000 for the contest. According to St. Louis Convention & Visitors' Bureau representative Jack Crogan, there are a lot of other events going on around the football game. There is a blues fest near Laclede's Landing, and the Cardinals will be playing all weekend at Busch Stadium. All in all, it should be a fun-filled time for everyone that makes the trip down to see the Illini in action.
Basketball season doesn't officially begin for another couple of months, but already Bruce Weber has some personnel issues to deal with. Last week the Jamar Smith verdict was handed down, and the decision was made for Smith to redshirt the 2007-08 season, stemming from the DUI in February that seriously injured teammate Brian Carlwell. Weber's news got a bit worse when it was announced that freshman Quinton Watkins will not be enrolling at Illinois for the fall semester, due to some academic issues. Watkins, who was on campus this summer, returned to his native California to sort out his issues. This leaves Weber thinner at the guard spot, and he will rely on Chester Frazier to lead the charges. The Illini have been practicing as a team for the past week and a half because this weekend they will be making a short trip to Canada to play in a tournament. This tournament will give Weber a chance to see some of the new players in action, but unlike most pre-season events, players that are candidates to redshirt may not play in the tourney. If a player sees action in Canada, they are not able to take a redshirt for the upcoming season. This may affect such players as Mike Tisdale, who still is mulling the decision. Fellow freshman Bill Cole will not play in the tourney due to injury. Cole hurt his shoulder in practice and is expected to miss 2 weeks. Other than players being sore from conditioning drills, everything seems fine and with more bodies present this year, practice time should be more plentiful for everyone.
Well, with the launch of the Big Ten Network this week, it appears that the fall sports season is in full swing. Please feel free to leave any comments about the Illini and their first game against Missouri. I would be interested in hearing what people have to say about this year's team.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Let's Get It Started!!!

What a difference a week can make. Last week, the Illini were beginning Camp Rantoul with a healthy group of players, which were showing signs of growing on the field. Then the annual Rantoul scrimmage took place and just like that, the injuries began to mount. First Arrelious Benn went down, which sent a hush to the crowd in attendance. Benn, the much heralded freshman receiver that has been impressive early on, left the field in an ambulance, but returned later on with his shoulder in a sling. The early word on Benn is that he will be okay and should only miss two weeks at the most. The news was not so promising for fellow receiver Chris James, who may be out several weeks with a possible knee injury. Other notables getting hurt in the scrimmage were Josh Brent, the huge defensive lineman from Bloomington. It was a much different look at practice on Monday evening without James and Benn, but the other receivers will be asked to step up in their absence until they can get back on the field. One wonders if these star players should take it easy in camp, or even don the red jerseys that the quarterbacks use to shield themselves from being hit in practice. Of course, I'm just kidding, but it is a thought.
While the first game of 2007 is still 2 weeks away, it is also nearing time for the Big Ten Network to officially launch. Still working out negotiations with several cable companies, the commissioner of the Big Ten, Jim Delaney and president of the network, Mark Silverman, plan to make a stop in Champaign on Thursday to speak to the local media about the launch of the network and possible programming issues related to the opening of the sports season. I plan to ask my share of questions about these issues. After having switched from Dish Network to Direct TV over the weekend, my problem with seeing the network when it launches has been solved.
Even though it is football season, basketball continues to draw its share of headlines. The 2007-08 basketball schedule was released on Tuesday, and it promises to be a challenging non-conference schedule that could see the Illini lose several games early. The highlight of the front portion of the schedule is a trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. However, before Maui, the Illini will play Hawaii, a trip that Bruce Weber needs to talk to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo about. It was Izzo's Spartans that made a similar trip a couple years ago and fell flat against the Rainbows before faltering in the Maui Invitational as well. Yes, the Hawaii game is a trap game, and the jet lag from traveling such a great distance can affect a team's play. Other highlights on the schedule include the annual border war game in St. Louis against Missouri and Arizona at the United Center. We all know what happened the last time these two teams met in the Windy City. No news yet on Jamar Smith, but a decision should be forthcoming in a few days.
On the recruiting trail, it looks as if Bruce Weber has lost out on yet another player, this one being Scott Suggs of Washington, Missouri. Suggs, who had narrowed his choices to include the Illini, ultimately chose the Washington Huskies to play his college ball at. One wonders if the name had anything to do with the decision. Weber did get another commitment for the 2007-08 class in Mike Davis from Alexandria, Virginia. This brings the class of 2008 to 7 players, those being Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole, Demetri McCamey, Quinton Watkins, Rodney Alexander, preferred walk-on Jeff Jordan, and Davis. Davis should get everything in order and arrive on campus in time to start classes next week. While it is still too early to throw Weber under the bus for missing out on all of these recruits that choose other places to play, this year will be a tell-tale sign. If the Illini falter out of the gate early, fingers will be pointed. Stay tuned.
Back to the schedule for a minute. Illini fans will be circling February 7, 2008 on their calendars. This is the day that Eric Gordon will make what will likely be his only Champaign Assembly Hall appearance. Gordon, who originally committed to the Illini, but soon changed his mind from family influence and a coaching change at Indiana, will be met with a reception that will make Kelvin Sampson's welcoming last season seem tame.
That's about all for this installment of the Illini Guy blog. I welcome your comments about all things Illini, and if you have any questions regarding the football program, please comment on those as well.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

2007 Fighting Illini Preview - Part 2

Greetings from Camp Rantoul! After a few sweltering days in central Illinois, this morning's practice was not bad at all. Amid cloud cover and a fairly steady breeze, the Illini suited up for their first of two paractices on the day. Offensively, the Illini look as good as ever with signal caller Isaiah "Juice" Williams running the team. Juice, who seems to be the clear-cut favorite right now, could eventually get some competition from Eddie McGee or Billy Garza. Mark Venegoni and true freshman Phil Haig are mired too far down the depth chart to warrant any consideration at this time. It was Haig, you recall, that was brought in at the last moment when Clint Brewster was granted a release from his letter of intent, due in part to his father, Tim, becoming the head coach at Minnesota. Running the ball should not be a problem for the Illini this year, as the Mendenhall brothers, Rashard and Walter, return to anchor a back corps that are going without E. B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas, both lost to graduation. Charles Bailey and fullback Russ Weil figure to get some touches as well. What may have impressed me the most though, was watching freshman Troy Pollard scamper. Pollard, who is not very big, can move pretty well and warrants watching this season.

On the receiving end of things, the Illini figure to be in great shape as well. The recieving nucleus centers around true freshman Arrelious Benn, who seems to be adapting to the offense well. If you have not seen this kid play, then it may be worth the price of admission just to see him in action. Benn brings speed and agility that has not been seen at Illinois since the days of David Williams. He has great mobility, as well as great hands, only missing a couple of balls thrown his way in the early practice. Benn reminds me of an NFL receiver already with the way he moves and sees things upfield. Sophomore Joe Morgan, as well as DuJuan Warren and Marques Wilkins also are looking good early on. Will Judson, Jacob Willis, and Frank Lenti Jr. also should get their share of attempts, as will Chris James and two-sport star Kyle Hudson. In talking with people this morning, it appears that Benn may also line up in the backfield, as well as possibly even taking a direct snap or two. Lining up at the tight end position, the two clear-cut favorites right now have to be sophomores Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoowanamanui, the two main players at the position last year. Tom Sullivan and former basketball player C. J. Jackson may also see time at one point or another.

The offensive line has been an issue in the past few seasons, and figures to be much improved this season over last. Although no position is safe according to Zook, Randal Hunt, Ryan McDonald, and Jon Asamoah were running with the first team today, while Martin O'Donnell should also figure prominently as well. Akim Millington and Charles Myles, two players that logged a lot of minutes a year ago, filled in, but was not with the regular group.

Defensively, the Illini hope to be much stronger than in past seasons, as their front line became porous, allowing teams to run wild on them. Anchoring the defensive line are veterans Chris Norwell, David Lindquist and Derek Walker, as well as Doug Pilcher. Daryle Ballew, freshman Josh Brent, Will Davis and Clay Nurse may also see some action to spell the front-liners. At linebacker, the Illini once again appear very strong, as they return a lot of players at the position. Brit Miller and J Leman anchor the linebackers, with Anthony Thornhill and Kevin Mitchell seeing quite a bit of action as well. Keep an eye out for Martez Wilson, another of Zook's much hearalded freshman class. Tez, who is built like a rock, is starting to see some playing time in practice, and could become a factor sooner rather than later. In the defensive backfield, some new faces join some veterans to hopefully turn around a crew that gave up more than their share of long plays last season. Chris Duvalt, Justin Harrison, Sam Carson III and Justin Sanders will be the prominent pieces, but look for newcomers Antonio Gully and Bo Flowers to make some noise as well. Dere Hicks and Trayvon Bellamy will also see their share of action early in the season.

Special teams are an integral part of football, and for the Illini to effectively turn the corner like they want to, the punting game needs to improve, and get better fast. So many times last season, the punting tandem of Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch took the Illini out of games by their poor punting averages. This year, however, freshman Anthony Santella looks to be the frontrunner, and if watching him in practice is any indication, things may in fact get better in a hurry. Placekicking duties will still be handled by Jason Reda, but Matt Brandabur might be called on for situational kicking duties.

In watching practice this evening, it appears that the Illini are "hungry", as evidenced by several scuffles between the offense and defense. A couple of these melees had to be broken up by Zook, and after practice he said that "where sometimes these fracases are good, you don't want to see them get out of hand". Personally, I think that the Illini are growing tired of the mediocre performances, and want to make the move onward. Zook also said that the team got better this evening, but there is always room for improvement. In observing practice, I tend to agree with him that the Illini are definitely on the road and headed in the right direction. So have you been out to practice yet? Tell me what you think!