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.