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.