It's back to the drawing board. Just when you thought that the Illini football team had it going, to be specific, consecutive wins over top 25 teams for the first time in ages, a modest five-game winning streak, and momentum heading into a hornet's nest known as Iowa City, the Illini stubbed their toe and dropped a 10-6 decision to the Iowa Hawkeyes last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. What was most discouraging about this loss was not the fact that it happened, but how it happened. First of all, Iowa had come into the contest at 2-4, and was winless in the Big Ten so far in 2007. Secondly, the Illini had not beaten the Hawkeyes in several years, and all signs pointed to that streak coming to an end. Coach Ron Zook had eluded to that very fact the week before, and warned of Iowa being a very good team that should not be overlooked. As a whole, the Illini didn't play that bad of a game, it was the mental mistakes that spelled defeat for them on this day, both by the players and the coaching staff. The Illini were held out of the endzone the entire game, but actually did score a touchdown, only to have the play called back because of a penalty. The play was a thing of beauty, with reserve quarterback Eddie McGee throwing an 83-yard spiral to Joe Morgan in the fourth quarter. Well, when plays of this nature are conducted, you always fear the worst, that elusive penalty flag. This incident was no exception, as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was called for being an ineligible receiver downfield. In all actuality, it was the receiver lined up to the left side that had caused the "Hooman" to be lined up illegally. The Illini never really recovered from there, but that wasn't the only questionable call on the day.
Earlier in the contest, the Hawkeyes were faced with third down situations not once, but twice, and penalties on each play by the Hawkeyes prompted Zook to take the penalties and force Iowa to run another play instead of setting up fourth down. Well, to make a long story short, Iowa capitalized on one of those plays for a touchdown, and sent the Illini down to defeat. It just goes to show you that sometimes you are second guessed and the results can be devastating. In a week that saw the Illini's first Top 25 ranking in nearly seven years and a chance to become bowl eligible before November hit, all that has been temporarily placed on hold.
Is the news all bad? Not at all. The Illini are still 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference, they are still near the top of the conference standings, and they have a huge game this Saturday against Michigan (7:00 pm CST, ABC). The Wolverines have righted the ship that temporarily sunk on opening day when they were upset by Appalachian State, and they bring in a 5-2 overall mark, but are unblemished so far in league play at 3-0. This game will mark the first time in recent memory that the Illini have been given the prime time slot on ABC, which will be a national broadcast. This also means that every Illini fan will get a chance to see the game, since it will not be on the Big Ten Network. The game is a sellout, and Zook expects that the crowd will be more than fired up by the time the opening kickoff ensues. Preparing for Michigan this week will ne tough, because they may be without their star tailback Mike Hart, who was injured a week ago. Quarterback Chad Henne will start however, and it will be time for the Illini defense to step it up another notch.
Is there a quarterback controversy brewing at Illinois? According to Zook, there is not. Juice Williams continues to be his guy, although he did say that McGee would probably see some action, although he didn't speculate when this would occur. He has also hinted that he has considered using Juice and Eddie in the same offensive set, but didn't elaborate on the idea from that point on. Whatever you want to make of it, this will be a huge game for both schools, and an electric atmosphere is expected under the lights at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. It should be a good one.
All the talk about Bruce Weber not being able to recruit has been pushed to the back burner with the recent string of verbals to the program for the 2008-09 season. Besides last week's
coup of juniors, Weber added another one early this week with the announcement that Stan Simpson from Simeon High School will be wearing Orange and Blue next season. The basketball season officially began on Friday night with the annual "Illini Madness" event, this year taking on a different scene, as the Assembly Hall was painted pink for breast cancer awareness, a cause near and dear to Weber's heart. To date, over 20,000 of the pink shirts have been sold, letting the nation be aware that the University of Illinois is setting the standard in the Coaches vs. Cancer debate. The madness event itself was rather disappointing, since there was not much basketball played that evening. There were different groups that performed dance routines, clearly for entertainment purposes only. I'm not really sure if that actually fit into a event like this, but it was entitled "Illini Madness" after all, so I guess anything was possible. Before the Illini scrimmaged, Coach Jolette Law addressed the crowd and displayed her enthusiasm for being at the University of Illinois. Coach Law played her collegiate basketball at Iowa, but now says that she "bleeds orange and blue". She has a dynamic personality and a high level of excitement, and if she can back up the talk that she is giving early on, then I think the Illini women will be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten this season. Later on this fall I will devote an entire blog to covering the women and their outlook for the upcoming season.
Homecoming, a tradition that started on the Illinois campus many years ago, begins in earnest this week, with the Big Ten Network's Friday Night Tailgate show originating from the soccer complex, ahead of the Illini's senior night match against Indiana. The Illini are 8-4-1 on the season, and are coming off three straight shutouts, with a 0-0 tie also mixed in there. Seniors Ella Masar and Lindsey Carstens will be playing their final match at home, along with 4 other seniors.
Finally this week, the loss to Iowa pretty much derailed any chance of ESPN's College Gameday coming to campus, but with the big matchup on tap against Michigan, ESPN Radio's Game Day will be on hand for most of the day, setting up a makeshift studio near the Assembly Hall. They will be covering the day in college football from Champaign-Urbana, getting everyone ready for the Illini-Wolverines tilt. Yes, it will be a busy weekend on campus, and hopefully, one that many many will be talking about for months to come.