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, October 28, 2009

Rather than start with football like I normally do in the look back each week, basketball will take the lead this time around. When the middle of October rolls around each year, no matter how the football team is doing, it means that basketball season is just beginning. Bruce Weber and his Fighting Illini men's team is turning heads once again, as he welcomes a freshman class of four players to the already budding group of stars in the making. When Jerrance Howard joined the coaching staff from Kentucky 3 years ago, the foundation was laid for recruiting to get back on track. Jerrance just has this repoire with talking to guys, and when he played, you could tell that his enthusiasm would be put to good use. So, you can say that the current group of newbies that include D. J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, and Tyler Griffey, was due in large part to Howard. After all, Jerrance is a Peoria guy, and that is where D. J. hails from. Last season, however, Richardson spent the season playing at a prep school in Las Vegas to hone his study skills and maybe, just maybe, to get some basketball savvy as well. The results so far have been well received. The Illini held their annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage last Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall, and the sparse crowd on hand was treated to something they hadn't seen in quite some time, which was good, outside perimeter shooting. The freshmen all looked pretty good, most notably Richardson, who really was stroking it from beyond the arc. Bertrand, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, looks like he is ready to go, as does Paul. Griffey, the one big man in the class, looks as if he may contribute more than first thought.

The surprise of the scrimmage, in my opinion , was the play of Alex Legion. When Legion transferred from Kentucky in December of 2007, he was talked about as being a good shooter and a nice complement to Demetri McCamey. However, he didn't exhibit that once he became eligible last December, and struggled to find his shot. That all has appeared to change, as he led all scorers in the scrimmage with 28 points, including about 5 in a row from 3-point range. Such flair will be a welcome sight to Illini Nation once the season gets rolling. Speaking of McCamey, last season he was known to clash at times with Weber and didn't always see eye to eye with his coach. According to Weber, he is seeing things much clearer as the new season begins, and it is showing so far in his play. He, too, seems to be shooting the ball much better and moving with more grace as a result. A welcome sight was that of Jeff Jordan, who rejoined the team just before the "Spike The Record" event. Jordan was in attendance for the opening night scrimmage, but did not take part in the festivities. Weber said that if Jordan was willing to work and catch up for all the workouts that he has missed, then he would be welcome to rejoin the team. I think he still has some game left in him, and quite possibly may be a big help to the team later on in the season. The Illini begin their season with the first of two exhibition games on Friday night when they welcome Division II Missouri Southern to the Assembly Hall. What that will tell us may not be much, but at least it will be a chance to play a game against someone else.

By now everyone knows that during halftime of last Saturday's Illinois-Purdue football game in West Lafayette, University of Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther issued a statement, albeit brief, giving Ron Zook a vote of confidence and also stands behind him as coach through the end of the 2010 season. Now, for what it's worth, the last time a promise like this was made, a coach was fired at the end of the same season that it was issued. Ron Turner got the vote of confidence in 2004, and was promptly fired at the end of that season. As has been mentioned often over the past few weeks, Guenther is a football man and will stick by his coach until he sees the need to let go. But how do you gauge when enough is enough? When ticket sales start to sag? When donors stop giving? When the high-priced luxury boxes don't get renewed? It's no secret that Zook hasn't exactly had a successful career at Illinois, save for the one season when they went to the Rose Bowl. Back to the game with the Boilermakers, the Illini looked like they were going to do something early on when they actually took a 7-0 lead early in the game, only to see Purdue march right back and tie the score. That is where the fun stopped. A bright spot in the game was the play of redshirt freshman Jacob Charest, who performed admirably in his first collegiate action. Leading the Illini down the field near the end of the first half, they got inside the 10 yard line when Zook made a move that is still being questioned. He brought Juice back in because they wanted to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball in. Couldn't Charest of handed the ball off as Juice did? After all, he was the one that got them in that position. Well, the series ended in disaster as Matt Eller missed a chip shot of a field goal. Pretty much sums up the Illini season thus far.

The Illini get a chance at redemption this coming Saturday (2:30 pm, ABC) when the hated Michigan Wolverines come into town to play. Now, I don't mean to offend any Michigan alums that may read this, but the Illini and the Wolverines have a history that goes way, way back. The Illini beat Michigan 45-20 a year ago in Ann Arbor, a game in which Juice Williams set the Michigan Stadium record for total offense in a game by a single player. That is quite a record to obtain, given all of the talented players that have played inside those walls. This could be a shot of redemption for the Illini if they can find some way, any way of knocking off the Wolverines. At 1-6 overall and winless in 5 tries in conference play this season, the Illini are looking for any positive signs in what has been a very dismal season. Zook stated in his weekly press gathering that both Williams and Charest would see action, although he wasn't annointing one above the other. He also hinted that the kicking duties may change as well, given Eller's miss against Purdue. Will one win do anything for this sinking ship that keeps taking on water? Maybe not, but if it's against Michigan, at least you can feel good about something.

The women's volleyball and soccer teams continue their seasons, and appear to be headed in opposite directions. The volleyball team defeated Wisconsin in 4 games and Iowa in 3 games last weekend to up their record to 16-3 overall and 8-2 in Big Ten play. The Illini are currently ranked #6 in the latest AVCA poll, and will travel to Indiana and Purdue this weekend to try and continue their winning streak. The soccer team has endured a tough week, falling twice without scoring a goal. The Illini lost to #19 Ohio State last Thursday 3-0, and then fell to Penn State 6-0 on Sunday. The Illini are 6-7-3 overall, but just 1-4-2 in conference play. They will try and right the ship this weekend when they welcome Michigan State and Michigan to the Illinois Soccer Stadium for the final two home matches of the season.

Gotta love the sports seasons when they overlap!

Monday, October 19, 2009

I really don't know where to begin here, so I'll just start at what I call the beginning, or maybe it is the end. Like the character Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day, this Illini football season seems to be repeating itself each and every day. It's like a dream that will never end, a story that has the same plot time and time again. No matter what the Illini seem to do, it always ends up being the wrong course of action. It has become so bad in Champaign that the Illini cannot even get out of their own way. Rewind to Saturday's game against the Indiana Hoosiers for a minute for a specific instance to the last comment. The Hoosiers decided to pooch punt to the Illini to back them up deep in their own territory. Instead of taking a bounce that the Hoosiers would down, the ball hits Russell Ellington, who had his back to the play, resulting in Indiana falling on the ball inside the Illinois 20 yard line. Plays such as these are indicative of how the season has gone for the Illini. In the 27-14 loss, Juice Williams didn't move the ball badly at all, but he had problems hanging on to the football, fumbling twice inside the red zone and foiling a golden opportunity to score each time. Plays like these, along with the personal foul penalties have long plagued the Illini, but the troubles go well beyond this.

So how did Illinois get so bad so fast? Ron Zook is like a broken record, saying things like "we are not playing the way we are capable of playing" and "we'll get down to basics and fix what is wrong". Well, how's that working for you, Ron? The Illini fan base is tired of hearing these promises, and changes are needed. First, Mike Schultz as offensive coordinator has got to go. When Mike Locksley left for New Mexico, the link between coordinator and quarterback was broken, and it is clearly evident that Schultz doesn't have a clue what is going on. Locksley has his own issues since he took the New Mexico job, and I think I would welcome him back in a second if given the chance, despite all of the problems he has endured. The offensive line also has regressed, and I believe that is a direct reflection on the coaching change at the position as well. When Tom Sims was shown the door before the season, they brought in Keith Gilmore, and the results so far speak for themselves. Not really sure what happened with the Sims situation, but it is clearly evident that the O-Line is not what it was. Finally, the university needs to address the athletic director position as well. Ron Guenther has made some good hires in his tenure, but since he prides himself on being a football guy, shouldn't he bring in someone who can win on a consistent basis? Is that too much to ask?

What we are looking at, I believe, is a Ron Zook deathwatch. The Indiana game appeared to be winnable, even after this train wreck of a season started barrelling out of control downhill. Now, what we are left with is the strong possibility of a 1-11 season, because looking at the schedule there doesn't appear to be any winnable games left. Purdue, the next Illini opponent, just upset Ohio State and are resurrecting their dismal start to mere respectability. After that, Michigan comes into Champaign and always plays the Illini tough in our house. Next the Illini go to Minnesota to play outdoors for the first time in Minneapolis. I really don't think it would matter if you played the game on Mars, the Illini don't stand a chance. Northwestern comes calling the week after, and they are probably the only real chance that the Illini have to somehow steal a win. The Illini will then close out the season with a couple of non-conference game, the first being the day after Thanksgiving at Cincinnati. The season will conclude on December 5th when the Illini welcome Fresno State to Memorial Stadium. Given the performance of the Illini this year, it will be stretching it to assume a crowd over 20,000 for that game.

For those of you that remember Monty Python, Now for something completely different.

Last Friday night kicked off the 2009-2010 basketball seasons for both the men's and women's teams at the University of Illinois. In an event that was marketed as "Spike The Record", the women's volleyball team preceded the basketball by hosting #6 Minnesota. The volleyball was exceptional, as the Illini beat the Gophers in 3 straight matches to improve their season marks to 14-3 overall and 6-2 in Big Ten match play. The event was targeted to set an attendance record for a volleyball match, but that fell quite a bit short, as only 7,632 were on hand to see the match. Early this week it was discovered that even if the Illini would have set the record, it wouldn't have counted because it was a shared event, and the record would qualify only if volleyball was the sole game being played. Once the volleyball was over and the court was cleared, it was time for Bruce Weber and Jolette Law's basketball teams to be introduced. There is excitement building for both programs, as each welcomes a top 25 recruiting class. On the men's side, freshmen D. J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey made their first appearance on the Assembly Hall court to raving applause. Maybe it was just a diversion from the sorry state of affairs across the street at Memorial Stadium, but nevertheless, the hoops action was still good. After the introductions, there was a shooting contest involving both programs, as well as a slam dunk competition from the men. I often wonder why they don't let the women scrimmage a little bit, especially this talented group of players. Coach Law brings in Karisma Penn, Adrienne Godbold, Amber Moore, Kersten Magrum, Brianna Jones, and the best of the lot, Destiny Williams into a program that is clearly on the rise. Only finishing the season with 8 players a year ago, Law has 14 players this time around, and joked at Media Day by saying that she had an abundance and wouldn't know how to coach that many players at once. Destiny Williams will be one of the most talented players to ever wear the orange and blue, and she should be a fun one to watch. The men should be equally fun to watch, as this group of freshmen can fly like a certain group that ended up being on one of the greatest teams in Illini history. No, I'm not saying that this band of freshmen are the next Dee Brown and company, but there hasn't been a recruiting class this much talked about since that group arrived.

So, despite the ineptness of the football team, with the start of basketball season brings renewed hope to Illini Nation. After what this fall has produced thus far, isn't that all that can be hoped for?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Things just seem to get more interesting around the Fighting Illini football program. Just 2 days after losing to Penn State, Coach Ron Zook benched starting quarterback Juice Williams in favor of junior Eddie McGee for this Saturday's contest against Michigan State (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). Williams, who set the Illinois record for total offense in the loss to the Nittany Lions, has struggled to find open receivers in their three losses. The lone victory over Illinois State was led by McGee, who stepped in for Williams after the first play in which Juice got hurt. But bear in mind, this bunch of Spartans are much more talented than the Redbirds that visited last month, so McGee may find the road a lot more difficult this time around. As Zook stated in his weekly press conference on Tuesday, this is not just about Juice and the way he has played. Sometimes it takes a shake up to get things going in the right direction. That is all fine and well, but how about some of the other positions? Maybe it's just not who is running the offense, but the system itself. When Mike Locksley was in charge of the offense before his departure to New Mexico, things seemed to run okay. Locksley did have his critics, but his replacement, Mike Schultz, seems to be running something entirely different. Gone are the looks downfield to the talented corps of receivers. We all know what Arrelious Benn can do, so why not let him show his skills? Jarred Fayson has proven that he needs work on catching balls, but when he does, he looks as fast as anyone on the field. Schultz said at the beginning of the season that the offense wouldn't be much different than they ran last year, but I am beginning to believe that is not the case. Is it time to push the panic button yet? According to Zook, the answer is no. He thinks there still is enough time left for the Illini to turn the season around. With the tough part of the schedule nearly done, the opportunity presents itself in the next few weeks to stockpile some wins together. That can begin as soon as this weekend, but it will take more of an effort across the board to make that happen. Could there be a possibility of seeing Juice somewhere else on the field Saturday? Zook wouldn't totally dismiss the idea, only saying he wouldn't be on the offensive line or somewhere like that. McGee has been used as receiver in certain sets before, so if Juice can catch a pass, who knows? Everyone already knows that he can run, so that is something to think about too. Maybe he can teach Fayson or some of the other receivers who have developed butterfingers a thing or two.

It was a good weekend for former Illini players that have taken their game to the next level. Rashard Mendenhall had a great game for the Steelers, scoring 2 touchdowns and breaking the century mark in rushing yards. Vontae Davis, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, returned an interception for a touchdown, the first of his career. It's always nice to see former players excelling in the NFL, but it begs the question of why can't the current players get their act together? After all, playing on Sunday is the ultimate goal of many of these athletes.

Michigan State is a hard team to figure out this year. Coming into their matchup against the Illini on Saturday, the Spartans are 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten, and riding an emotional high after upsetting Michigan 26-20 last Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. They employ a dual quarterback system, with Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol sharing duties. The tandem combined for 303 total yards against the Wolverines with Cousins getting the bulk of the work. The Spartans have beaten the Illini 9 out of the last 10 times, with the Illini last winning at home way back in 1992.

The Illini women's volleyball team split a pair of matches last weekend, dropping a heartbreaking contest at #23 Michigan State on Friday night, before rebounding on Saturday night to down Michigan. The Illini couldn't finish off the Spartans, even though they had 3 match points in the fourth set. The momentum shifted, and the Spartans came away with the victory. The Illini are 10-3 overall and 2-2 in conference matches with Purdue and Indiana coming into town this weekend to do battle. The Illini women's soccer team had a tough road stretch last weekend, and finished with a 0-1-1 record. On Friday night, the Illini dropped a 1-0 decision to #12 Purdue, only the second time that they have been shut out this season. On Sunday, the Illini managed to tie the Hoosiers 1-1, as they went to double overtime against Indiana before ending in the deadlock. The Illini 5-4-3 overall on the season, with a Big Ten mark of 0-1-2. The Illini host Wisconsin on Sunday at the soccer stadium on campus. Match time is set for 1:00 pm.