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.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Uncharted Territory

It seems a little strange to be talking about the college football bowl season already, but tis' the season. Even more peculiar is that the talk involves the Fighting Illini this year. Not that anyone around Illini Nation is totally shocked about this revelation, seeing that Ron Zook has essentially turned around the Illinois program in three years' time. Given the fact that Zook's first two seasons were ones to forget, this season has given everyone associated with the program a breath of fresh air. Now, the destination of the Illini is yet to be determined, but we know that it will be either the Capital One Bowl or the Rose Bowl. Yes, I said the Rose Bowl! Due to the fact that some of the top teams have been getting knocked off, this has propelled the Illini into BCS talk, and with the Rose Bowl being one of the BCS bowls, the Illini have entered the picture. Especially if Ohio State somehow gets into the national championship picture, the Illini right now are the #2 Big Ten team, and they would be destined for Pasadena. But, since the Rose is a BCS bowl, they do not have to take a Big Ten team if they don't want to. Orlando would love to host the Illini, and if the analysts are correct, then Zook may be facing his old team, the Florida Gators. The selections are announced on Sunday, so the picture will be much clearer then. Stay tuned.
Congratulations to J Leman, who was named an All-American on Thursday by the American Football Coaches' Association (AFCA). Leman was one of three linebackers chosen for the honor, and the first Illini since Simeon Rice in 1994. This should give the Illini its distinction back as Linebacker U, and cement Leman's name with the likes of Howard, Butkus and Rice.
After a grueling nine day road trip to the Hawaiian Islands and Maryland, the Fighting Illini basketball team is back at home, ready to get back on the winning track. Not that the trip to Hawaii was a bad one, quite the opposite. They went 3-1 on the islands, the only blemish to Duke, who is head and shoulders better than the Illini. After a quick trip home to re-pack, the Illini were back off to the east coast to play Maryland in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland. The ACC had the upper hand in most of the contests, including this one, as the Terrapins defeated the Illini 69-61. Calvin Brock, who continues to impress everyone, led the Illini in scoring with 13 points, while Rodney Alexander and Shaun Pruitt each scored 10. Some home cooking in front of the Orange and Blue faithful is hopefully just what the doctor ordered, as they welcome the Weber State Wildcats on Saturday afternoon (4:05 pm, central time - Big Ten Network). The Illini are 4-2 on the season, while Weber State comes in at 2-3.
Jolette Law has the Fighting Illini women playing well in her short tenure as head coach, and excitement is once again alive with the women's program. Law has the Illini out to an early 5-2 record, with a tournament championship in the Florida International Thanksgiving Classic. Jenna Smith and Danyel Crutcher both had good showings, with Smith garnering Most Valuable Player honors for the tourney. The Illini were upended by North Carolina State 61-47 on Thursday night in Raleigh, North Carolina in the inaugural Big Ten/ACC Women's Challenge, but a 5-2 record is nothing to be ashamed about at this point. The Illini will return home on Sunday to face Illinois-Chicago, then will host

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Lot To Be Thankful For

As we draw ever so closer to Thanksgiving Day, I want to deviate from the norm of talking about Illini sports, and change course a little bit and write about things that I am thankful for. First and foremost, I am thankful for my wonderful family. I have been blessed with another son, Caleb Addison, who is a perfect complement to big sister Elena and big brother Austin. My wife of 15 1/2 years, Susan, is also near and dear to my heart, and if it weren't for her, I don't really know if I would be writing this today. It's sort of a long story, and one that I do not want to get into at the moment. Once you start covering sports, you covet any family time that you come across. This beat doesn't send me on the road all that often, but I am quite certain that if we weren't busy having this final piece to the Cotter family, I would more than likely be typing this from the island of Maui in Hawaii.
I am thankful for Coach Ron Zook, and the spark of rebirth that he has given to the Illinois football program. When Zook was hired in 2005 to replace Ron Turner, the cupboard was pretty much desolate, and it has taken Zook only three years to rebuild the program and put them in position for a New Year's Day bowl game. His record at Florida was not terrible (23-14 in 3 years), and when he was fired, it was a mystery to me because he had led them to two straight bowl appearances. We were genuinely blessed when Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther chose Zook to lead the resurgence of the Illinois football program, and even though his one downfall was his ability to coach, we are seeing that this, too, may have been grossly overstated. The man is a recruiting dynamo, bringing in talent such as Vontae Davis, Aurellious Benn, Isaiah "Juice" Williams, among others. The list of potential recruits continue to mount, and next year, the team should be even better next season. I am especially happy for the group of seniors, who have endured a very tough 4 years as Illini players. Guys like J Leman, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison, and DuJuan Warren, among others, deserve this success, based on their past. Nothing makes me happier than to see smiling faces on these guys, who, despite their struggles, kept a positive attitude through the entire ordeal, knowing that they would turn it around.
I am also thankful for Bruce Weber, who may not be the best recruiter around, but the man can truly coach. Given a plethora of talent when Bill $elf bolted for Kansas and his cushy office on Naismith Drive, Weber played off that success with a final four run, albeit losing out on some major recruits along the way. But, this year has seen a change to that pattern, as Weber has received verbal commitments from four top notch recruits over the next couple of years. However, these verbal commitments are soft ones, and can change at a moment's notice (see Gordon, Eric). Whereas it seems that Weber always gets the most out of any player that he gets, this latest coup of players will hopefully keep Illinois as one of the top teams in the country for many years to come, and we will be talking about national championships, instead of just Big Ten Championships.
I am thankful for Jolette Law, new women's basketball coach at Illinois. When Theresa Grentz resigned earlier in the year, it was probably a move that was way past due. However, when the little coach named Law was announced as the successor to Grentz, she decreed that she would recruit the Chicago area, as well as nationwide, to get the best level of talent that she could. Her attitude is contagious, and she is off to a 3-1 start with the current team. She is the type of person that can get the job done, and I think that she will back up that talk with action.
I am thankful for the Big Ten Network, and the way that the channel has covered the conference thus far. With the first football season now completed, the network delivered blanket coverage of all 11 schools, both on campus and on the field. With the lineup of basketball games that have already been on so far, and those that will follow in the months ahead, here's hoping that the cable companies wake up and offer the channel on their packages. The fans deserve it.
Finally, I am thankful for you, the readers of this blog each and every week. I know sometimes that I ramble on about certain things, but your comments have been great, and I appreciate hearing from you, good or bad. If there is anything that you wish to have covered that is not currently offered, I would like to know that as well. I want you to know that I enjoy doing it each time I knock a new one out.
I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving and a chance to spend it with family and friends. I know I will.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Week of changes.........

What a week this has been, sports related and otherwise. First off, I became a dad for the third time on Monday, and after a short stay in the hospital, the family is back at home and all is well. One thing that I did realize while staying at the hospital with my wife and new son, Caleb Addison, is that Carle Hospital has cable television, and that means, no Big Ten Network. So, how did I arrive at the name Addison? If anyone knows me, then I don't have to explain. He is aptly named for one of the streets that border Wrigley Field, the shrine of the legendary Chicago Cubs. So, I was without the network for a couple of days, but thank goodness for wireless internet in the rooms! It kept me up to date with everything during those downtime sessions. The week got off to a great start last weekend, as the Fighting Illini football team pulled off one of the biggest wins in the history of the program, as they upset the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes 28-21 before a stunned crowd at The Horseshoe in Columbus. The game didn't start out on the right foot, as the Buckeyes went down for the game's first score very early on. However, the Illini mounted a drive of their own, capped off by an 80 yard run by Daniel Dufrene to set up the trying score. As victories go, this was especially sweet for Ron Zook, since he is an Ohio native. It was also the first time in 51 years that the Illini had knocked off the number one ranked team in the nation. The Illini up their record to 8-3 overall and 6-2 in Big Ten play, ahead of their final home contest of the 2007 season, Senior Day against Northwestern (11:00 am central time, ESPN). A wn over the Wildcats would almost guarantee the Illini a New Year's Day bowl game, and if the national pundits know what they are talking about, a date with the Florida Gators looms. It was Florida that fired Zook back in 2004, and a matchup that I'm sure that Zook is not dwelling on. He just wants the guys to get focused on Northwestern, and the rest of it will take of itself. If it does happen to be Florida that the Illini end up playing, the national media will be all over the story. We all knew that Zook was a good recruiter, and in his three years at Florida, amassed a pretty good record that I still question why he was let go, let alone why so many people wanted him to leave Gainesville. But, getting back to the Ohio State game for a minute, the play that sticks out in my mind was the fourth and one late in the game that sustained the Illini drive. Zook was prepared to punt, but Ohio State had too many men on the field and called time out. Juice Williams came over to Zook and pleaaded with him to go for it, and whatever was said between the two, Zook let him try to get the necessary yardage, which he did, and well, you know the rest of the story. I cannot remember a bigger win for the Illini, and I'm sure it ranks up there with the top wins of all-time in school history.
By the time you read this, Bruce Weber will have his team in tropical Hawaii gearing up for their week of basketball in paradise. Late Friday evening, the Illini battle Hawaii in Honolulu (12 midnight, central time) , then the Illini hop a transport to Maui, where they will play 3 games in the Maui Invitational. The Illini open up with Arizona State on Monday night. The Illini opened up their season last Sunday with a less than impressive win over Northeastern 63-55 at the Assembly Hall. It looked as if it would be another rout, as the Illini jumped out to a 10-0 lead very early on, but the Huskies kept chipping away at the lead, and the Illini only led 22-19 at the break. In the second half, the Illini looked to pull away again, but pesky Northeastern kept coming back. Brian Randle led the Illini with 14 points, while Shaun Pruitt recorded a double double, scoring 12 points, but grabbing a career high 17 rebounds. Here's hoping the we can see the true Brian Randle this year, the one that doesn't have injuries beset any of his season. As past experiences in Hawaii have shown. Weber will need to make sure that his guys are hydrated, or else things like this (see picture at right of Paul Davis for Michigan State a few years back) may occur. The Spartans ended up losing that game, as several others, including Davis , left the game with cramps due to the climate change.
In a related note, Bruce Weber received a letter of intent signing from Stan Simpson of Simeon High School in Chicago, who will follow such standouts as Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Bryant Notree, and current Illini player Calvin Brock to wear the Orange and Blue.
Illini women's hoops coach Jolette Law has her troops out to a good start on the young season, but they lost their first game of the season on Wednesday night to Alabama-Birmingham
69-56 at the Assembly Hall. Danyel Crutcher (pictured at right) led the Illini in scoring with 13 points, while Jenna Smith tallied 12. The Illini are 2-1 on the season and next face Southern Illinois on Sunday, November 18 at the Assembly Hall.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Jonesin' For Hoops

I got to tell you, I'm loving the Big Ten Network now that college basketball season has begun. The fact that most of the exhibition games have been televised in the first week of action, with many more games to be aired throughout the course of the season. Actually, even though these games appear to be meaningless, and for the most part, tuneups for Division I teams for their seasons, try telling that to Ohio State and Michigan State. Both the Buckeyes and the Spartans dropped their opening exhibition games, and these games had the feel of an early round March Madness NCAA Tournament game. Just because these teams are Division II squads, doesn't mean that they are taken lightly. Quite the opposite, in fact, for the upstarts. Take Michigan State, for example. Grand Valley State, their opponent, was ranked third in Division II, and throughout the game, they outplayed the Spartans, and came away with the victory. The same holds true for mighty Findlay College, who beat the Buckeyes on Tuesday night in Columbus. Maybe they were overlooking their opponents? Whatever the case, one thing remains true; these games were seen only on the Big Ten Network. Yeah, I'm back to this again. Cable customers in the Champaign-Urbana area are missing out, but it is not your fault. Which is why so many of you are going the satellite route with either Dish Network or Direct TV. Insight Communications is being acquired by Comcast, and they are not wanting to play ball with the Big Ten. Earlier in the year, I had a chance to sit down with Mark Silverman, the president of the Big Ten Network, and he said that Comcast was still in the early negotiation stages, and that no progress was being made. Dish Network came on right after I dropped them for Direct TV, but what the big issue continues to be is this is a Big Ten town with a major player in the conference within the boundaries, and so many people cannot see the games. For instance, the Illini's game with Kentucky Wesleyan on Tuesday evening was on the network, so the only way to see the game if you have cable was to either get to the Assembly Hall, or go to your favorite watering hole and watch it there. It was a pretty good showing for the Illini, as they dominated their guests 76-39, behind Trent Meacham, who scored 12 points. Bruce Weber certainly has a dilemma on his hands, as he attempts to find out who should redshirt for the upcoming season. Two likely candidates early on, Bill Cole and Mike Davis, have been playing well, so that makes the decision even harder. One person that I personally think should sit out this season is Brian Carlwell. Since his accident in February, he has not seemed like the same person that he was beforehand. Sure, he was seriously injured, but he just doesn't act like himself, and it may call for him to sit out a year and recover even further. Weber stated after the win over Kentucky Wesleyan that he may not redshirt anyone to start off; he may simply not play certain people until others prove that they do not fit the mold of the offense. He has plenty of players this season, and minutes may be hard to come by for everyone to be happy. This should get interesting, as the regular season begins on Sunday afternoon when the Illini host Northeastern at the Assembly Hall.
I'm sure most of you had heard that Michael Jordan was on campus last month to film a spot for the Today Show with Matt Lauer. Well, this spot will air on Friday, November 9 at 8:30 am. So, set your DVRs and watch a legend roam the Ubben Basketball Complex. I have some sweet pictures of MJ's ride that was forwarded to me, and his Ferrari was just proof that he is doing alright. Hopefully this season I will be fortunate to meet him, because after talking with his son Jeff at media day, he is a really nice young man that is excited to be at Illinois. Here's hoping that his father likes what he sees.
Ron Zook's Illini football squad officially secured themselves a bowl berth with their victory over Minnesota last Saturday in Minneapolis. The 44-17 rout was satisfying in more ways than one, mainly because Rashard Mendenhall had another superb rushing performance, gaining 201 yards on the ground. Mendenhall should break the all-time single season rushing record, held by Antonieo Harris this week. Speaking of this week's game, it doesn't get any better than this. The Illini, who are 7-3 overall and 4-2 in Big Ten play, venture to the Horseshoe in Columbus to take on #1 Ohio State. This will be the sternest test of Zook's in this, his turnaround year. The game will kickoff at 2:30 pm central time, and yes, the entire nation will be able to see the game, as it will be televised on ABC. The notoriety of the Illini continues to be spread, as J Leman, Vontae Davis, and Jason Reda are all semi-finalists for awards given out at the close of the college football season. Leman is nominated for the Chuck Bednarik award, given to the top defensive player in the nation, while Davis is in contention for the Jim Thorpe award, which is given to the best defensive back in the country. Reda is up for the Lou Groza Award, which is awarded to the top placekicker. All three awards will be announced on the Home Depot College Football Awards Show, which will be televised on ESPN on December 6.
As the basketball team heads into the regular season and a trip to Hawaii to play in the Maui Classic, while the football team solidifies their bowl placement, alas, I will be watching on television. We are set to welcome our son into this world on Monday, so my nights for a while will be dedicated to nurturing him and introducing him to the world of college sports, of course, most of which will be on the Big Ten Network. Hoops junkies unite!