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.

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