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 30, 2008

Over the past several seasons, the Illinois football program has enjoyed a resurgence, thanks in part to Ron Zook coming to take over a squad that was run into the ground by the former regime. This marginal success has spread to the NFL, where a quite a few ex-Illini have gone on to varying degrees of success. However, this past weekend was not a good one to be a former Illini player in the league, as the injury bug hit rather hard. First, Brandon Lloyd, now a receiver with the Bears, was injured during their game on Sunday night with Philadelphia and had to leave the game. Okay, so that's one, you say. Well, fast forward to Monday night, and the Steelers-Ravens game, in which Rashard Mendenhall was making the first start of his career for the injured Willie Parker. The spotlight, however, was short-lived, as Mendenhall fractured his shoulder and is done for the season. Enter in Mendenhall's backup, also a former Illini, Carey Davis. There must have been something in the water in Pittsburgh, because Davis also left the game with an injury. The thought brought to mind a Seinfeld episode, where son, father and grandfather are all laid up in bed after throwing their backs out. Picture Parker, Mendenhall and Davis in the same situation and, well, you get the idea. As far as I know, no other former Illini players went down over the weekend, but three is plenty for one weekend, don't you think?
Now to the playing field, as the Illini came off of their bye week with a trip to Happy Valley to battle Penn State, arguably the best team that the Illini has faced all season long. Amid "white out" conditions, the Illini broke out of the gate first against their hosts and looked rather well doing it. Both teams traded scores, and at the end of the first quarter, a 14-14 tie ensued, and it looked like it would be a high scoring game. But Penn State was ranked #12 for a reason, and they eventually wore the Illini down with their running game. Daniel Dufrene led the Illini on the ground with 96 yards on 14 carries, while Juice Williams ran the ball 18 times for 64 yards. Williams completed 13 of 24 passes for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns, and was picked off once. The back-breaker for the Illini occurred in the fourth quarter, as Derrick Williams ran back a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown right after Illini placekicker Matt Eller had drilled a 43 yards field goal to cut the Nittany Lion lead to 24-17. The loss drops the Illini to 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, while Penn State remains undefeated at 5-0 overall and 1-0 in league play.
The road does not get any easier for the Illini, as they are back away from Memorial Stadiun again this weekend when they travel to Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines (2:30 pm central time, ABC Regional). Michigan escaped with a 27-25 upset win over Wisconsin last Saturday in Ann Arbor and come into the contest at 2-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.
Don Hardin's Illini volleyball team split their first weekend of Big Ten action, defeating Indiana in 4 sets, then losing to top-ranked and defending national champion Penn State in straight sets. Johannah Bangert and Kylie McCulley came up big in the win over the Hoosiers, while the lone bright spot for the Illini in the loss to the Nittany Lions was once again McCulley, who had 9 kills and a hitting percentage of .381. Up next for the Illini, a couple of home matches this weekend, first hosting Minnesota on Friday night, then welcoming Iowa in on Saturday evening. The Illini are currently 10-3 overall and 1-1 in Big Ten play.
Janet Rayfield's soccer team also split their games last weekend, defeating Wisconsin 2-1 on Friday as Jessica Levitt and Marti Desjarlais scored the Illini goals. Then, on Sunday, the Illini lost a hard fought 1-0 contest to Northwestern. Up next for the women, a return home for a couple of matches this weekend against Michigan State on Friday evening and Michigan on Sunday afternoon. The #17 ranked Illini are 7-4 overall on the season, and 1-1 in conference play.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Legendary Night in Champaign

Last Saturday had a little bit of everything. First, a near scare on the football field as Ron Zook's Fighting Illini survived Louisiana-Lafayette in a game that should not have been nearly this tight by a final score of 20-17. The Ragin' Cajuns, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, fell behind early, but managed to stick around and give the Illini everything they could handle. Daniel Dufrene led the Illini on the ground with 19 carries for 126 yards, while Juice Williams completed 13 of 25 passes for 147 yards. Yes, not great totals, but enough to sustain and get the victory. But, a win is a win, nonetheless, and gave the Illini a 2-1 record heading into their bye week. Coach Zook said last week that this bye week was much needed, since the team had a long and prosperous training camp and went headlong into the season pretty much right after that. They say that defenses win championships, and the Illini's sure was on target, especially Brit Miller, who stripped the ball from Cajun quarterback Michael Desormeaux and ran it back 27 yards for a touchdown. Never at a loss for words, Miller lets his actions speak on the field, and this score surely spoke volumes. Having a bye week this early in the season lets the team recharge their batteries and get ready for the Big Ten season, which begins this coming Saturday night at State College, Pennsylvania against the Penn State Nittany Lions (7:00 pm CT, ABC). For the Illini to be successful in Happy Valley, they will have to limit their mistakes and learn to take better care of the football, something that eluded them against Lafayette. Then, it is on to Michigan to face a much different Wolverine squad under the leadership of Rich Rodriguez. We will certainly know more about what this year's edition of the Illini will be after these two games. Stay tuned.
On Saturday night, the stars were out in full force at the Assembly Hall in what amounted to one of the most anticipated nights on the U of I campus in recent memory. Those of you in attendance will agree with me that the Hall was sweltering in the mid-September heat, but that didn't seem to dampen spirits of those that braved the elements. For the first time since their Final Four run back in 2005, Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and Roger Powell all took the Assembly Hall floor together and dazzled the crowd. Williams, who is a superstar for the Utah Jazz, had his gold medal in hand and was recognized with USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo, himself an alum that was being recognized, for their outstanding achievement in bringing the highest honor home. The game did not dissapoint either, as the Blue team that featured this quartet defeated the White team, which was a bit older 84-7o. Williams led the Blue squad with 19 points, while Powell and Head scored 13 and 11 points, respectively. Former Flyin' Illini standout Kendall Gill led the White team with 14 points, while fellow teammate Nick Anderson netted 13. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the unveiling of the 30 jerseys that will be displayed in the Assembly Hall next season. Simultaneously, the representatives all untied their respective banner, and the sight was one to not be forgotten for quite some time. With all of the talk about what will become of the Assembly Hall if and when the decision is made to either renovate the existing building, or build a new facility, one thing is clear; if renovation is chosen, AIR CONDITIONING will be at the top of the wish list!
The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their non-conference season with a win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (25-18, 25-13, 25-13) to push their record to 9-2 before the conference season begins next weekend when they play at Indiana on Friday night, then travel to State College to battle Penn State on Saturday.
Janet Rayfield's women's soccer team continues to play well, as they won a pair of matches last weekend, first defeating Colorado College 2-0, then coming back on Sunday to defeat Washington 3-0. In the win over the Huskies, Emily Zurrer put in the eventual game winner, and also received goals from Jessica Levitt and Chichi Nweke. The victories move the Illini to 6-3 overall and they also begin conference play on the road next weekend, first playing at Madison against Wisconsin on Friday evening, then traveling back into the state to battle Northwestern on Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Legends return to campus

A picture-perfect day. A newly renovated stadium. Dozens of former players returning to take part in the Renaissance Celebration. And, oh yes, there was football. This was all part of the re-birth of Memorial Stadium, and fans in attendance did not go away disappointed. The Illini defeated Eastern Illinois 47-21 to notch their first victory of the season, even though they may not have played their best football. A win, nevertheless, is a win, as Juice Williams continued his dominance as a dual threat on offense. Williams ran 16 times for 174 yards and scored two touchdowns, and completed 16 of 25 passes for 124 yards and another score. Even though Juice is making some mistakes (he threw 2 more interceptions), he is still doing what is needing to be done in order for the Illini to have success. The near sellout on Saturday is a testament to the shift that the program has gone through in the last few years since the arrival of Coach Zook. The stadium looks unbelievable, and it almost seems as if you are in a different stadium altogether with the changes that have been made. The old press box seemed like a trailer compared to the new edifice that adorns the west stands now. It certainly looks different from Florida Avenue as well, and in the future, the horseshoe will be re-done, as will some things on the east side. With the Illini now even up on the season at 1-1, they look toward their next game, which is against the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette (11:00 am Saturday, Big Ten Network). This is the first ever meeting between the Illini and the Cajuns, who may be more commonly known as Southwestern Louisiana, which they were called for many years. There was speculation that the Cajuns would be coming to Illinois early to beat Hurricane Ike, but they have since revamped those plans and will make the trip as scheduled. The Cajuns are coached by Ricky Bustle, who coached with Zook at Virginia Tech. Lafayette features another good quarterback in Michael Desormeaux, who threw for just over 1400 yards last season. The Cajuns also feature another good tailback in Tyrell Fenroy, who hit the 1000 yard mark in rushing last season. Desormeaux also eclipsed that mark last season, making him a dual threat, much like Williams, his counterpart on the other side. Lafayette was defeated by Southern Mississippi in their opening game on August 30 51-21, and was on a bye last week, bringing them into the contest at 0-1. According to Coach Zook, this should be a pretty good game, but ultimately one that the Illini should come out on top in. We shall soon find out.
Speaking of legends, there will be an abundance of them at the Assembly Hall on Saturday evening, as the basketball program welcomes back several former players for the "Night of Legends" event. Among the returnees will be 4 of the 2005 Final Four team, led by U.S. Olympian and current Utah Jazz superstar Deron Williams and Dee Brown, who is attempting to get back in the NBA after playing in Turkey last season. Roger Powell, who is in camp with the San Antonio Spurs is also expected to attend, as is current Houston Rocket Luther Head. They will match skills against the other final four team in recent years, the 1989 squad. Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and others are expected back in what should be an unbelievable night. After the basketball is finished for the night, a ceremony honoring 30 former players having their jerseys raised to the Assembly Hall rafters will take place. It is about time that something like this is being done to honor past players. Coaching the teams will be Lou Henson, who coached the Illini for 21 years and is the winningest coach in Illini history, and Jimmie Collins, who was an assistant for so many years for Henson. One honor that needs to be given is to name the court at Assembly Hall after Lou Henson. This is way overdue. Are you listening, DIA?
The women's volleyball team came away from the Billiken Invitational with a 2-1 record, defeating St. Louis and William & Mary, but falling to Stanford, who is ranked #3 in the nation in the AVCA rankings. This week, Don Hardin takes his squad down to Knoxville to compete in the Tennessee Comcast Classic, which will feature Dayton and Gardner-Webb, in addition to the host Volunteers. The Illini currently stand at 5-1 on the season.
As the volleyball team arrives in Knoxville, the women's soccer team had just come from there, splitting a couple of matches in the Lady Vol Classic. The Illini defeated Washington State 2-1, with the goals coming from freshman Marissa Mykines and sophomore Cory Steigerwald. The Illini then fell to the host Volunteers 1-0 in the title match, as both teams went scoreless until Tennessee broke through in the 60th minute of the contest. The Illini are 4-1 on the season and will head south this weekend to face Florida on Friday night, before finishing up their Sunshine State road trip with Central Florida on Sunday.
Enjoy the legends, folks!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

And they're off............................

Ok, maybe it wasn't the best of games for the Fighting Illini to open the 2008 football season. What with the top 5 team they went against, a hostile environment, and a late start, things just didn't go the way they were planned. Yes, Illinois was coming off a lopsided defeat at the hands of the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl back on New Year's Day and had several new pieces of the puzzle to try and fit together, but did we really expect this? Granted, Missouri is a great football team, as Coach Zook stated several times before and after the game. But, it was the way that the Tigers did it to the Illini that leave people scratching their heads. Missouri gained 226 yards on the ground, as workhorse back Derrick Washington chewed up the Illini defense. Added to that effort was the arm of Chase Daniel and the legs of Jeremy Maclin, and you have a recipe for defeat. Daniel didn't have the best of days, and as far as Maclin goes, that guy is good! His kickoff return of 99 yards right after Illinois took their only lead of the game kind of took the wind out of their sails. The game sort of reminded me of another big game that the Illini played indoors a few years ago. Rewind back to the Sugar Bowl of 2002 in New Orleans when a surprising Illinois team garnered their first ever BCS bowl berth and got the fortune of taking on an LSU Tiger team that not only had a home field advantage, but a raucous crowd as well that kept chanting "Tiger Bait" to anyone dressed in orange and blue. Granted, this Tiger crowd last Saturday was not nearly as mean as the one in Louisiana, but they were strong in number, often drowning out the Illini faithful in attendance. Juice Williams had a very productive evening, throwing for 451 yards and 5 touchdowns. The Tigers neutralized Aurellious Benn most of the night, leaving Will Judson (#13 right) and Chris Duvalt (#15, below, right) open, and both of those players caught 2 touchdowns apiece.
Which brings us to this week's game, the home opener at newly renovated Memorial Stadium as part of the Illinois Renaissance Celebration. There will be many former gridiron legends in attendance, and at each timeout of the game, a certain group of them will be recognized by position. If you haven't seen the stadium lately, it looks great and Zook said at his weekly press conference that he hopes that the team plays as good as the stadium looks. The opponent, Eastern Illinois (11:00 am, Saturday, Big Ten Network), plays in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and is currently ranked #18 in that division. The Panthers have a number of area products on their team, most notably at quarterback. Bodie Reeder, who played his high school ball at Mahomet-Seymour, runs the Panthers' offense and according to their coach Bob Spoo, is really coming on strong this year. The Panthers were defeated in their opener last week by Central Michigan 31-12, but will give the Illini their best shot this week, as most in-state schools do. The Illini will look to fix some of the mistakes that were committed against Missouri, and as Zook eloquently put it this week, they will fix what needs fixing and move on from there. He still thinks that this is a good football team and improved over last season, but a strong effort against Eastern Illinois will be needed to get the Illini back on track.
Plans are still being finalized for the "Night Of Legends" alumni basketball game, which is set for Saturday, September 13. Many former players are expected to attend, including Olympian Deron Williams and Dee Brown, both of whom are included in the 20 players that will have their uniform numbers raised to the Assembly Hall rafters. A list of the players that will be so honored can be found at Also, this past week, the schedule for the 2008-09 season was announced, and the highlight on the home schedule is the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Clemson. For a look at the complete schedule, visit and click on the basketball link.
Both the women's volleyball and soccer teams have also begun their respective seasons, and both are off to fast starts. Don Hardin's volleyball team won their annual State Farm Illini Classic, defeating #23 New Mexico State (24-26, 25-21, 25-19, 25-14), and then pulling one of the more shocking wins in recent memory by dispatching #11 Oregon by scores of 14-25, 16-25, 26-24, 25-21, and 15-13. What was most significant by this victory was the fact that the Illini had to come from behind to do so. The victories move the Illini to 3-0 on the season, and this weekend, the road does not get any easier when they travel to St. Louis to play in the Billiken Invitational. Among the teams thet will be facing are national runner-up Stanford, William & Mary, and the host St. Louis Billikens.
Janet Rayfield's soccer team also is 3-0 on the young season after a pair of wins in the Illini Challenge Cup over Dayton (1-0 in overtime) and Iowa State (3-1). Emily Zurrer, fresh off a trip to China to play for her native Canada in the Olympics, headed in the winning goal in the 96th minute for the win over the Flyers. The Illini travel to Knoxville, Tennessee this weekend to compete in the First Tennessee Lady Vol Classic, where they will face the host Volunteers and the Washington State Cougars.