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 www.fightingillini.com. 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 www.fightingillini.com 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.