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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Campin' at Rantoul.......Week 1

With training camp beyond the halfway point in completion, some interesting battles are being had on Ron Zook's football team. Offensively, there isn't much different, as previously noted, but playing time might become a factor once everyone hits their stride. Defensively, it is a different story. We all know that the Illini have the capability to put a lot of points on the board, but keeping the other team from doing the same may be the difference between a mediocre season and one that is deemed special. Veterans Doug Pilcher and Clay Nurse return on the line, as well as Josh Brent. Brent, as many are aware, had some off-the-field problems that led to his being suspended for a brief time during spring workouts. But, all seems to be well again and he is back in the mix of things. Sirrod Williams also returns, as does Cory Liuget, the outstanding sophomore from Florida. The presence of these behemoths will go a long way towards the success of the defense. Linebacker looks to be a position that will see an overhaul with the loss of Brit Miller to the NFL. Nate Bussey, who played in the secondary last season, moves into the position with Dere Hicks, Dustin Jefferson, Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Wilson is the stalwart on defense, and seems to be built even more than he was last season, which can only be good news to Zook and company. To replace Bussey in the secondary, Miami Thomas, Supo Sanni, and a couple of freshmen, Walter Aikens and Joelil Thrash may be asked to step into the fire. Bo Flowers, Russell Ellington and Tavon Wilson will also be there, which provides even more stability. After the annual Rantoul scrimmage last Saturday evening, the offense proved that they will be lethal, with a handful of big plays from scrimmage. Daniel Dufrene broke an 80 yard run on the first play, and later on, Juice Williams hit wide reciever Jeff Cumberland down the sideline for 70 plus yards. It will be plays like these that will make the 2009 edition of the Fighting Illini exciting to watch. What remains to be seen is how the defense will hold up.

Continuing my look at the Big Ten for 2009, this week focuses on the bottom 6 teams, in no particular order. The Wisconsin Badgers are known for their beefy offensive lines, and they may need them more than ever this season. On a team that went 7-6 in 2008, they lost their top rusher, as well as three kee members of their offensive line. Coach Bret Bielema will need to find replacements for those spots to improve on their record from a year ago. Quarterback Dustin Sherer, as well as a couple of his top receivers, so that is not a far-fetched goal.
Northwestern is a team that is hard to figure. The Wildcats are coached by a great young mind in Pat Fitzgerald, but they are going to be without three of their offensive weapons of a year ago when they finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the conference. Quarterback C. J. Bacher, tailback Tyrell Sutton and wideout Eric Peterman are all gone, leaving not much in its wake.
Purdue will be under new leadership this season following the retirement of Joe Tiller. All Tiller did in his 12 seasons leading the Boilermakers was take them to 11 bowl games, a tremendous accomplishment for a school that hadn't been to a bowl game for 13 years before his arrival. New coach Danny Hope will inherit a team that lost quarterback Curtis Painter and wide receiver Greg Orton, but returns almost their entire offensive line. For Purdue to have the success that Tiller instilled to the program, that offensive front will need to protect the new signal caller. Indiana might be in for a long season, losing perhaps one of their best players in quite some time, Kellen Lewis, who was a great option quarterback. Also losing their top running back Marcus Thigpen, as well as their placekicker Austin Starr from a team that went just 3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play a year ago, means that a rebuilding year is on the horizon.
The Iowa Hawkeyes return their quarterback from a team that finished 9-4 a year ago, and it will be up to Ricky Stanzi to lead the offense to bigger and better things in 2009. However, replacing running back Shonn Greene will be a question that coach Kirk Ferentz will have to deal with in terms of where the scoring will come from. Iowa has had marked success in the past few years, so being there before may just be the anecdote that they need.
Finally, the Minnesota Golden Gophers return 53 letterwinners from a year ago, including quarterback Adam Weber and receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Green. Coach Tim Brewster, who led the Gophers to a bowl game last year, finished the season at 7-6 overall. Minnesota will unveil TCF Bank Stadium this fall, a brand new outdoor stadium that will replace the Metrodome. Can you imagine football in November, in Minnesota outdoors? Opponents must be cringing at that very thought.

Anyway, that is a look at the conference for 2009. The Fighting Illini open the regular season in about 2 weeks in St. Louis in the annual border battle against Missouri. Should be exciting!

Speaking of exciting, Illinois unveiled their 2009-2010 Men's Basketball schedule on Wednesday, and it is highlighted by the first visit ever by ESPN College Gameday, which will be coming to campus on February 6 when Michigan State visits the Assembly Hall. This is a big deal for several reasons, namely the exposure that the program will get as a result. You see places like Durham, North Carolina (Duke), Chapel Hill, North Carolina (UNC), and even Lexington, Kentucky (UK) being showcased all the time, but Champaign-Urbana? This time you will. Among the other highlights to the schedule are non-conference visits by Vanderbilt and Boise State. The annual United Center game in Chicago, normally in December each year, will be on January 2 of 2010 because of the Fresno State football game on December 5th. The Illini are on the road for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this year at Clemson, and the Illini also travel to Duluth, Georgia to face the Georgia Bulldogs in the return game from last season in Chicago. The Illini open the regular season on November 13 against newly minted D-I school SIU-Edwardsville. The full schedule can be found by pointing your web browser to

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Monday, August 3, 2009

On your mark......get set........GO!

What time is it when eleven football coaches that comprise the Big Ten Conference get together to discuss the upcoming season? Why, the start of football, and sadly, the beginning of the end of summer. The Big Ten held their Media Days at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago last Monday and Tuesday, and if what they had to say was any indication, this should be quite a football season in the midwest. As is normally the case at the start of the season, optimism runs at a fever pitch, and that is certainly no different for Ron Zook and his Illini squad. Back for his senior season, Juice Williams will lead the Illini into Camp Rantoul as the #1 signal caller, with Eddie McGee, Jacob Charest and true freshman Nathan Scheelhaase waiting in the wings in case anything goes wrong. Williams, along with Arrelious Benn and defensive lineman Doug Pilcher, were representing the Illini at the meetings, and the throng of media that attended asked them some pretty demanding questions. Juice has been around this for awhile, as has Benn, but Pilcher is a bit newer to all of this, but still handled himself pretty well. The media collectively picked Ohio State to finish first, Penn State to finish second, and Michigan State to finish third in the conference, which seems about right, given what each school brings to the table. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are well versed in coaching, with veterans Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno respectively leading the charge. Joe Pa, who has been at the helm at Penn State for what seems like forever, says that he keeps coming back year after year because he enjoys it and doesn't know what else he would do. Darryl Clark leads Penn State at quarterback, but it might be the offensive line that determines how well they do. The line is inexperienced, and according to Paterno, some of the younger players are going to have to step up for them. Paterno never ceases to amaze me with his wit and wisdom, and should be the model for most coaches today. Ohio State will once again be led by their signal caller Terrelle Pryor, who was the first Buckeye to start at quarterback as a freshman in over 30 years. Pryor, who can run as well as pass, poses as good of a dual threat as there is in college football today. But, as most teams have found out, playing big games out of conference on the road can prove disastrous. They lost badly to USC last season, but this year the Trojans come to Columbus to play. The Buckeyes also host Navy in the season opener, and go to Cleveland to play Toledo, which, according to Tressel, won't be easy. Then, the conference opener against Zook and the Illini, which has given Ohio State fits over the years. You can't argue about their pre-conference schedule. Michigan State has been steady over the years, and with their coach Mark D'Antonio, the trend has definitely continued. However, the Spartans lost quite a bit of star power when they lost Javon Ringer at the end of last season. Ringer was quite a player, and they will have to replace him in order to stabilize their recent success. They may have a sleeper in linebacker Greg Jones, whom D'Antonio seems to be pretty high on. Only time will tell as to how good the Spartans will be. Michigan fell back to reality last season, missing a bowl game for the first time in quite a while under new coach Rich Rodriguez. Coming from West Virginia and the Big East, Rodriguez sees some differences between the two conferences, but also noted that some of the teams in the Big East were no slouches. The Wolverines will concentrate on the defensive side of the ball, since there will be a new coordinator calling the shots. One of the players that Rodriguez brought with him was punter Zoltan Mesko, who should be one of the top kickers in the conference this coming season. Michigan cannot do much worse than they did last season, so the sky is the limit for them this season.

Coming up next week, the remainder of the Big Ten will be previewed, as well as a report on week 1 of practice from Illini camp. Illinois hosts their media day on Sunday, August 9th, and as a trend that is apparently happening across the country in this lean economy is the elimination of media guides distributed. At the Big Ten media day, all media in attendance were given a flash drive that had all 11 Big Ten teams' guides, as well as conference information. Not sure if Illinois is following that trend and will print some, but in the quest to become "greener", that is the norm nowadays.

Even though football season has yet to start, Illini basketball also is making some news of its own. In conjunction with Illini Madness, the Illinois volleyball team will look to "Spike The Record" at Assembly Hall on October 16 when the Fighting Illini battle Minnesota. New coach Kevin Hambly is very excited to be a part of this venture that will feature a volleyball match that will start at 6:30 that evening, which is to be followed by the men's and women's basketball teams conducting their event. In the past, such events such as the "Pink Out" and the "World's Largest Outdoor Basketball Practice", marketing genius Chris Hanna hopes to top them all with this latest venture. Tickets will be free to the event and will be distributed throughout the area. 125,000 such tickets will be given out, with only the first 16,600 inside the Assembly Hall guaranteed a seat. Once the hall is filled, people will be turned away. By the way, the NCAA record for volleyball attendance is 13,797, the mark that the Illini hope to break. Stay tuned to more details on this event as it draws closer.