Well, now that wasn't the way things were supposed to go. A beautiful October afternoon, many former alumni on hand to watch their beloved do battle, and a basketball court at one end of the stadium that was to stage the "biggest outdoor basketball practice" (more on that later). Then again, things happen for a reason, but the question I want to know is: Will the real Illinois football program please step forward? After an annihilation of Michigan one week earlier 45-20, the Illini finally returned home to their new renovated stadium with renewed hopes for a successful season and a possible warm destination for a bowl game. This one looked good on paper, but as the old saying goes, you don't play games on paper, and for good reason. The Illini, despite another good performance (at least numbers wise) from Juice Williams, who completed 26 of 41 passes for 462 yards and 2 touchdown passes, both going to true freshman A. J. Jenkins (right, #8) went down to defeat at the hands of Minnesota 27-20. Gopher coach Tim Brewster, who was making a homecoming of his own, came away the victor, and left scores of Illini fans exiting Memorial Stadium shaking their heads and wondering what they just witnessed. Brewster, who played tight end for the 1984 Illini Rose Bowl team, had to enjoy the feeling of knocking off his alma mater, and it was no secret that they were looking forward to coming in to Champaign with one thing on their minds. This continues a disturbing pattern for Illinois football teams of playing mediocre the year after a major bowl appearance. It happened in 1984 after the Illini went to the Rose Bowl (10-2 in 1983, 7-4 in 1984, but a free-fall after that). It also happened in 2002 after the Illini made their first ever BCS bowl appearance, the Nokia Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (10-2 in 2001, 5-7 in 2002, and everyone knows what happened after that). So, here we sit the season after another Rose Bowl trip, where the Illini went 9-4. Could they be heading in that direction again? The Illini currently sit at 3-3 overall, and even though there are 6 games left in the season, the prospects of running the table seem very unlikely at this point, especially with the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern on the schedule.
Too much emphasis is put on trying to match a previous campaign, and it is not like Zook doesn't have the horses in place to make it happen. For the second straight week, Williams set a stadium record in offensive output, having totaled 503 yards against the Gophers after piling up 431 in the "Big House" against Michigan just one week earlier. Now the win over Michigan doesn't look as impressive after the Wolverines were blanked at home by Toledo 13-0. I heard several people mutter as they left the stadium on Saturday that they are looking forward to basketball season, which is eerily reminiscent of 2005, when similar remarks were overheard. Bottom line is, Illini fans are frustrated, and you figure that you ought to hold serve at home against teams that you should beat. Another one of those teams visit this coming Saturday night when Indiana pays a visit to Memorial Stadium (7:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network). The Hoosiers were thoroughly embarrassed against Iowa in Bloomington last Saturday 45-9, and will come into town reeling. But, for some reason, the Hoosiers always give the Illini their best game and this one will be no different. The Hoosiers have a quarterback that moves much like Juice does in Kellen Lewis. Hoosier coach Bill Lynch has stated that Lewis is questionable for the game, but everyone suspects that he will play. For the Illini to come out on top in this one, they need to cut down the mistakes, hold onto the ball, and convert their chances for points.
At least we're not Michigan.
Following the football game, the basketball program (see below) held what was deemed the "World's Biggest Basketball Practice", but given the disappointing end to the football game, not many people hung around to see the event. For starters, the court was at the south end of the football field, and not very well visible by people on the north end of the stadium. The court, made by Flex Court in Kewanee, was to be auctioned off after the scrimmage, and the starting bid was to be $12,500. It is rather uncertain if the Illini would have pulled out the win over the Gophers to see if more people would have stayed to watch the basketball team. By my guestimation, about 5-6,000 people remained in the stands, while many others decided to return to their pre-game tailgates for Homecoming. Still, a nice idea by the DIA in trying to get more people to stay.
The calendar may say October, but basketball season is just around the corner. Bruce Weber and Jolette Law unveiled their basketball teams to the media on Tuesday at Illini Basketball Media Day. Weber returns a young team that has 3 seniors, 2 juniors, 7 sophomores and 1 freshman. This will be a team that will attempt to come back after a 16-19 season that saw them just miss the NCAA Tournament by coming up short in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. On the flip side, Jolette Law will only have 9 players, with 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 sophomore, and 4 freshmen. Law's Illini also came up just short last season, getting even closer to the Big Ten Tournament title by losing to Purdue on a buzzer-beater. In the next couple of weeks, I will preview each of the teams, complete with analysis of position, leading up to the season openers for both squads in early November. Stay tuned for that.