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.