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, 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.