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.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Time For A Change?

Stop me if you have heard this before. The Fighting Illini is loaded at the wide receiver position and should have no problem putting points on the board this season. This was the main topic that was being discussed before the current Illinois football season began. Now three games into the season, Illini Nation is still looking for this potent offense, which resembles a wounded duck rather than an air attack. So, what's the problem? Personally, I see the problem being several factors.

First there's the coach. When Ron Zook was hired before the 2005 season, the Illini were looking for a change as the Ron Turner era came to an end in Champaign. Zook had been fired from Florida after 3 seasons in which he compiled a 23-14 record and led the Gators to bowl games in each of those 3 seasons. The knock on Zook coming out of Gainesville was that he was a great recruiter, but not that good of a coach. Could it be that the folks down there were right all along? Zook's recruiting resume spoke volumes, as he continually brought good talent down to Florida. Part of the credit for the Gators' national title last season could be attributed to Zook in bringing the talent to the school as well, although he didn't actually coach the players to that title. Since being at Illinois, Zook has compiled a 19-32 record through Saturday, a 30-0 loss to Ohio State (more on that game later). Some of that record can be blamed on Turner and the shape he left the program when he was fired after the 2004 season, but with Zook's reputation, people figured that better days were ahead on the horizon. And Zook has done his part in bringing talent to Illinois as well, with the last 3 recruiting classes garnering national attention. So, with talent like that, one would think that the Illini would have had multiple bowl opportunities, right? Wrong! The Rose Bowl in 2007 had been the team's only post-season appearance, which is unacceptable on many levels. Sometimes the coaching staff in general can be a culprit, and the departure of Mike Locksley to New Mexico late last season created an opening at the offensive coordinator position. All Locksley did was land some of the best talent from the Washington D.C. area and lure them to Champaign. Guys like Arrelious Benn, Will Davis and others worked out pretty well, while guys like Derrick McPhearson and others from the same area did not. When Zook was hired at Illinois, he brought 3 assistants with him. Two of those (Larry Fedora and Joe Wickline) took other jobs within a week after being hired, leaving Dan Disch as the only person heading north with Zook Could these other two gentlemen have known something? Did they want to get out from under the Zook umbrella? Nobody will know for sure unless they are actually asked, but it does lead one to believe that they sensed something ahead of time and didn't want to make a mistake with coming to a place that they didn't want to. As the four and five-star recruits continue to gather in Champaign, the program doesn't seem to be moving in the right direction. Which leads me to the players.

Are the players too over-hyped? The list can be endless of talent that Zook has brought to Illinois over the past few seasons. Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Rashard Mendenhall, Reggie Ellis and others come to mind right off the top, but sometimes the execution of players' talent can be the difference between good and great. Williams was supposed to ease into his senior season with an arsenal of weapons on offense that would generate a points explosion on the scoreboard. After 3 games, the Illini have a grand total of 54 points, only 9 of those that have been oriented by Juice. In the game where the Illini scored 45 points, Eddie McGee led the offense after Williams strained his quad on the opening play from scrimmage. Such ineptness has clamored that it might be time for a change at quarterback. After Saturday's 30-0 pasting at the hands of Ohio State in Columbus, the groans grew even louder. Listen to any talk show in the area and you kinds of get the idea that Illini Nation is not a happy bunch right now. Benn, who had only managed to catch one pass in the first two games, caught 4 against the Buckeyes, nowhere near the amount that he should be getting on a per-game basis. So is Juice the problem? Is he not looking downfield like he should? New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz promised that the offense wouldn't change when he was hired, but so far this season it appears that it has taken an extended vacation with Williams at the helm. Other players that were either recruited or transferred in have played into this in a way. Senior wide receiver Jeff Cumberland, who is from Columbus, Ohio, switched from tight end and when he committed to Illinois, people thought we had stolen one away from the Buckeyes in their own back yard. Could it be that Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knew what he was getting with Cumberland and didn't make that hard of a push to get him? Again, hard to tell, but you have to think somewhat along those lines to make sense of it. The same thought process applies to Jarred Fayson, who transferred from Florida at the beginning of last season. For Florida to not want Fayson anymore, there must have been something that was not right. After watching Fayson the first few games this year, his first live action since arriving in Champaign, we may be finding out what that reason is. He has dropped several passes, some of them that easily could have been caught. The continuation of mistakes and penalties haven't made this season any more enjoyable, but maybe it is time for a change to McGee.

Is Illinois a school with a football problem? You hear it every day that the Big Ten is comprised of the Big 3 and Little 8 year after year, with the 3 being Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, in no particular order. Sure, other teams sneak into that top tier every once in a while, but when you think Big Ten football, those first three schools come to mind first. Illinois has been mediocre in football for many years, and not since the John Mackovic era has the Illini regularly been bowling. That is nearly 20 years for those that are keeping count, and putting up with Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and now Ron Zook with middle-or-the-road results, one wonders if it time for another change? Could it be the athletic director, Ron Guenther? Priding himself as a football guy, Guenther has been in charge for the last 3 hires, so if he claims to know football backwards and forwards, maybe he should start with naming a coach that will take Illinois to the next level. The way the program is headed, that won't happen for quite some time.

This week, the Illini return to Memorial Stadium to entertain Penn State (2:30 pm, ABC), who was an upset victim to Iowa last Saturday 21-10 in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions, who are coached by legendary coach Joe Paterno, are perennially one of the top teams in the Big Ten, and this loss notwithstanding, still figure to give the Illini a handful on Saturday. Led by dual threat quarterback Darryl Clark, Penn State enters play at 3-1 overall and 0-1 in the conference standings. The Nittany Lions also return running back Evan Royster, which means that the Illini will need to be on their toes on both sides of the ball in order to pull off the upset at home. Given the rocky start to the season, that is a tall order at this point. But, who knows?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Forward progress......sort of.

The Fighting Illini return to the field this Saturday to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Horseshoe in Columbus. But before we look ahead to this matchup, let's take a look back at the opening win against the Illinois State Redbirds, a 45-17 rout against their neighbors to the west. However, the win over ISU didn't come without some adversity, as the Illini lost two players during the game, quarterback Juice Williams and linebacker Martez Wilson. The two injuries were vastly different, as Juice's occurred on the first play from scrimmage as he strutted down the sidelines toward the endzone. He came up lame just shy of the goal line, and what ended up being a strained quadricep muscle shelved him for the remainder of the game. Later on, the Coach Zook told the media that Juice could have played, but the doctors and trainers leaned toward the cautious side and kept him out of the game. So, that left Eddie McGee as the quarterback. McGee, who hasn't had the opportunity except for a few series' here and there, performed admirably, completing 13 of 17 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown pass to Chris Duvalt, which went for 27 yards. The news on Wilson wasn't as positive, as it was learned later on last week that 'Tez will miss the rest of the 2009 season with a neck injury. This is particularly disturbing news for the Illini, as Wilson was one of the rising start on defense and was just coming into his potential as a linebacker. Normally, a win against Illinois State should be a slam dunk, but give the Redbirds credit for not backing down against the more powerful Illini.

Ron Zook liked the bye week exactly where it fell this year for the Illini. Nestled in the third week of the college football season, between a matchup against an in-state rival and the conference opener against aforementioned Ohio State (2:30 pm, ABC Regional television), the rest gave Zook and his players time to rest up, heal up, and get ready to take on the Buckeyes, a team that they have had some success against in recent years. As a matter of fact, just 2 years ago, the Illini went into Columbus and knocked off the top-ranked Buckeyes 28-21 to propel them to the Rose Bowl. It seems that the Illinois always gets up for the Buckeyes, especially over at The 'Shoe, but this one will be more of a monumental task than the previous one. First of all, Ohio State still has Terrelle Pryor, the dual threat quarterback that has still not reached his potential. Second, the Buckeyes are playing decent football, although they needed a miracle to beat Navy and lost to then #3 USC 18-15. That being said, the Illini haven't exactly been impressing the masses thus far in the season either. Something tells me that this trip to Columbus won't be as pleasant as the last few have been. I hope I am wrong.

The Illini women's soccer team has completed their non-conference portion of the season with a 5-3-1 record, which would seem not very impressive to most. However, it was a very tough pre-Big 10 slate, with the losses coming to UCLA at home, and Portland and Washington on the road. The Illini got back in the win column with a 3-1 win over Milwaukee on Sunday as Shayla Mutz recorded 2 goals to help the Illini to victory. Coach Janet Rayfield and the Illini will begin Big 10 play this coming Sunday when they host Minnesota (1:00 pm, Big Ten Network). The Illini women's volleyball team also have completed their pre-conference schedule, and they escaped with a 9-1 mark, the only blemish coming at the hands of Florida State in the New Mexico State Tournament earlier in the month. Coach Kevin Hambly has the Illini back to prominence, ranked #14 in the latest poll. The conference season begins this weekend for the Illini, with a pair of matches against Ohio State on Friday night and undefeated and top ranked Penn State on Saturday evening. The match against the Nittany Lions will be televised on the Big Ten Network. Both matches begin at 7:00 pm at Huff Hall.

Speaking of Coach Hambly and the volleyball team, there is still time to pick up your free tickets to "Spike The Record"on Friday, October 16, featuring the Illini against Minnesota and former Illini coach Mike Hebert. The doors will open for the event at 5:30 with the volleyball match beginning at 6:30. But, that is just half of the fun for the night. Immediately following the volleyball game, the Illini men's and women's basketball teams will unveil their squads for the 2009-2010 season. Tickets are available around the Champaign-Urbana area, as well as a limited number of tickets at the WGCY studios.

News and notes around the men's basketball program are starting to heat up as the start of practice draws closer. Freshman Joseph Bertrand had surgery on his knee and is expected to be out a few weeks while he recuperates. Everyone else seems to be healthy, something that Coach Bruce Weber hopes continues into the season and beyond.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

And they're off.......... The fall sports season at the University of Illinois, that is. When late August rolls around each year on the Urbana-Champaign campus, two things are certain. First, the students will all descend back on campus for the fall semester, and the sports teams will begin play in earnest as well. The Illini football team has been preparing for their opening game of the season for nearly a month now, and that day has finally arrived. The Illini took on Missouri in the State Farm Arch Rivalry Classic at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. The game began with the Illini having first possession, and moving the ball into Tiger territory before having to punt the football. Missouri started deep in their own territory and moved the ball pretty well against the Illini, something that a lot of teams were able to do a year ago. The 14 play, 79 yard drive ended with a 35 yard field goal for a quick 3-0 Tiger lead. Added to the fact was Arrelious "Regus" Benn, who hobbled off early in the game with an apparent injury. After a second straight punt by Anthony Santella, the Tigers took advantage of some shoddy tackling and penalties by the Illini to continue to move the football. Missouri added a touchdown on a blown coverage to increase their lead to 10-0. You might have thought that the Illini defense would have improved over last season, but early on, that was not the case at all.
However, on the very next Illini drive, Williams finally got it together and drove down deep in Missouri territory, where the Illini had to settle for a field goal by Matt Eller to cut the lead to 10-3. The teams traded drives with nothing doing, then Illinois got the ball again and was driving before Juice Williams threw an interception that was returned deep into Illini territory. That drive resulted in a Missouri field goal from 43 yards out to extend the Tiger lead to 13-3. It was evident at that point that the Illini were missing Benn, who did not return in the first half.
Even a brief quarterback switch to Eddie McGee didn't seem to help, although the Illini did drive deep before coming to grips with a 4th and 1, which ended in a drop back fall by Williams to stall the drive. On Missouri's next possession, they drove down the field once again, taking up quite a bit of clock in the process to kick a field goal just before the half. That gave the Tigers a 16-3 lead into the locker room.
Coming out for the second half, Missouri picked up right where they left off as they moved the chains down the field to score yet another touchdown to build a commanding 23-3 lead. Wherever this potent Illini offense is, it appears that they were nowhere close to St. Louis.
After another Illini drive stalled, this time on a fumble, Missouri went right back down the field and scored again, making it 30-3 and seemingly put the game out of reach. The Illini looked really out of sync and lost at times, and it was reported during the second half that both Benn and Jason Ford left the game with ankle injuries and would not return.

This is not the way that Zook and the Illini wanted to start the season out, and now the Illini find themselves 0-5 in games in St. Louis and still winless against the Tigers. So, where do the Illini go from here? Zook has been saying for the past 4 years that they are not where they want to be as a team, but my question to that is, when does he plan to get there? He is getting some pretty good talent, but as losses continue to mount in big games, fandom starts to question coaching moves and then you have an unhappy Illini Nation on your hands. The change in offensive coordinators from Mike Locksley to Mike Schultz doesn't appear to show any difference, judging by the lackluster performance against the Tigers.

If there is one bright spot for the Illini, it is that they get a chance to redeem themselves against in-state rival Illinois State this coming Saturday evening in the home opener. The Redbirds, who are coached by former Purdue assistant Brock Spack, always seem to get up for Illinois and if the Illini aren't careful, they could get embarrassed at home. The possibility of this however, is unlikely, as the Illini players will be looking for a way to make a statement for their no-show performance in St. Louis. Whatever the case, it better happen quick before the fans start turning themselves away and start focusing on basketball, which is just a few short months away.