What in the name of Red Grange is going on? After a successful run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, the Fighting Illini football team finds themselves on the outside looking in at the bowl picture just one year later. The latest setback, a 23-17 loss to Western Michigan at spacious Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. If ever there was a trap game, this one was it. Playing out of conference so late in the season, and for that matter, out of their element as well, the Illini made the trip up to Detroit to take on the Broncos, who came into the game at 7-2. After the Illini had beaten Iowa the week before on a field goal by Matt Eller with just 24 seconds remaining, momentum was on their side. Or, was it? Picture this if you will. Ford Field seats 65, 000 fans, but the announced attendance was just under 13,ooo. Now, I'm no mathematician, but that doesn't compute to me. To add insult to injury, no local markets picked up the game on television, so fans had to resort to either listening to Brian Barnhart and Kurt Kittner call the action on the Illini Sports Network (not a bad option, by the way), or get to a local watering hole that actually ponied up the money to get the telecast (there weren't many). The only other option was to find a computer that somehow got ESPN360, where the game was streamed online. Not that the fans missed much by not seeing this one. Before a crowd that wouldn't fill the Assembly Hall, the Illini were outplayed for much of the game. Sure, the Illini took an early lead as they often do, but then they watched the Broncos reel off 17 unanswered points to trail 20-7 at the half. Juice Williams was able to throw for over 300 yards once again, and his favorite target, Arrelious Benn, once again eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards. But this team needs to be about more than just Juice and Regus, as they are affectionately known to fans and media alike. They simply are not getting the job done, and losing to a MAC team at a neutral site is about the tip of the iceberg in terms of frustration. Ron Zook always manages to try to explain what went wrong, and vows that they will get whatever it is wrong fixed, but as the season nears its end, the Illini and the coaching staff are still looking for answers. Is it really asking too much for the Illini to put together back-to-back solid games, that end up in the win column? I guess this kind of all started with the opening game back in late August in St. Louis, as the defense allowed Missouri to run and pass them ragged, en route to a 52-42 loss. The Illini did win two in a row early on in the season, but they barely beat Louisiana-Lafayette, and didn't play that well in the game. Winning at Michigan was a start, but Michigan is way down this year and Indiana, who the Illini also beat, is even worse than that. Left on the schedule this season are two games that could go either way. Ohio State comes to Memorial Stadium this Saturday (11:00 am CST, ESPN), and then the Illini travel to Evanston to face in-state rival Northwestern the following Saturday. Currently sitting at 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, the Illini know what they need to do to secure a bowl berth. They need to win out, because a split would put them at 6-6, which would be bowl eligible, but not necessarily a given. Ohio State is beatable, but they are still playing for plenty themselves and have fared rather well in Champaign the last few visite, winning the last 6. Northwestern is streaky, and can either light it up on oppenents, or hiccup and let one get away. The Buckeyes have one of the best young quarterbacks in the country in Terrelle Pryor, and this ought to be fun watching Juice and Terrelle go at it. Also, a split in these last two games could very well send the Illini right back to Detroit for bowl season, as the Big Ten has a tie-in to the Motor City Bowl, slated for the day after Christmas at Ford Field. The MAC also ties into that bowl, so you could very well see the Illini matching up against either Ball State, Central Michigan, or Western Michigan again. But, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Coaches don't look ahead past opponents, and neither should I. The Buckeyes are the focus this week, and the Illini need to worry about beating them first before any talk of the Wildcats hit the floor.
It's not that Zook isn't getting talent to come to Illinois. With the likes of Juice, Regus, Vontae Davis, Martez Wilson, and others, he has proven that he is a dynamic recruiter. Zook was fired at Florida 5 years ago because he wasn't meeting expectations for whatever reason. Some here in Champaign have begun to see that maybe his in-game coaching could have been the reason for his seperation from Gainesville, because his successor down there, Urban Meyer, seems to be doing fairly well. We are seeing the last of the Ron Turner recruits exit out of the program, and Zook has some more recruits ready to come in next season as well. Guys like WR Kraig Appleton of East St. Louis, DE Craig Drummond of Chicago, and QB Nathan Scheelhaase of Kansas City, Missouri headline another nationally ranked class for Zook. Add Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson to the mix, and things should continue to look up for the Illini. There should be ample cause for these freshmen to step right in and play, because Zook has shown that he is not afraid to play freshmen. Now, they need to get over the hump and secure that second straight bowl appearance, something that has not happened in Champaign-Urbana for quite a while. Is that too much to ask?
When previewing the Illini women's basketball team for 2008-09, a lot of space isn't necessary. It's not because of the coverage that the program has received over the past few years, but due primarily to the fact that there are only 9 scholarship players on the team. Coach Jolette Law, who is already making positive strides to reverse the program's direction previous bench boss Theresa Grentz sent it, came within one second of defeating Purdue in last year's Big Ten Tournament title game, which would have sent the Illini to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in quite a while. The two seniors on the team, Chelsea Gordon and Lacey Simpson, will be asked to assume leadership of a team that will have 6 newcomers out of the 9 players. Jenna Smith, the only other player that has experience at the Big Ten level, is a junior and is shaping her game to have a monster season. Law brought in Whitney Toone, a junior college transfer out of Brooklyn, New York to play forward, and add redshirt freshman Lydia McCully as a sharpshooting guard. Four other freshmen dot the roster, and will be asked to help out almost immediately. Macie Blinn, from Greenville, Ohio will play guard, as will Fabiola Josil (Coral Springs, Florida) and Eboni Mitchell (Decatur, Georgia). Joining them will be 6'3 forward Lana Rukavina, from Wheeling, Illinois. Out of the nine players, seven hail from out of the state of Illinois. Coach Law has vowed to recruit the state from top to bottom to find the best players to bring to Illinois, but is also not afraid to bring in players outside the state's borders. On Wednesday, both the mens and women's teams will finally be able to sign their recruits for the 2009 seasonat National Letter of Intent signing day. Law will be bringing in 5 new players that day, and men's coach Bruce Weber will be getting 4. I'll have complete coverage of the new players and how they expect to fit into the respective mixes later in the week. Stay tuned for that.