Don't look now, but the Fighting Illini football team is on a bit of a winning streak. The latest triumph occurred last Saturday in Minneapolis at the Gophers' new, state-of-the-art stadium. This is an outdoor venue that is replacing the Metrodome, and according to those that were there, it is quite different to be playing football outdoors in Minnesota in November. Granted, it was a nice day, which could have led to the peculiar feeling. Jacob Charest was pressed into service for Juice Williams, who sustained an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return to the game. Charest did admirably in his first substantial action as an Illini, completing 10 of 19 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown pass to Arrelious "Regus" Benn. But hold on, Illini Nation. Before you get too antsy and start booking postseason plans, you need to keep a few things in mind. First of all, it takes 6 wins to become bowl eligible, and the Illini only have 3 at the moment. This sudden burst of success has been a welcome sight to most fans, and has taken the focus off of embattled coach Ron Zook, at least for the time being. What can be attributed to the performance of the team the last couple of weeks? Most point it to the second half of the Michigan game, and the chase-down tactics of freshman Terry Hawthorne. He turned the momentum of the game totally around with that one play, and things have been looking up ever since.
The schedule also isn't indicative of rolling a 6. After this weekend's game at home against Northwestern (11:00 am, ESPN Classic), the Illini end the season with two non-conference games, at Cincinnati the day after Thanksgiving, and then entertain Fresno State on December 5th. The Cincinnati game looms large, especially given the fact that they are ranked #5 in the country and are still very much a factor in the national championship picture. But, as Zook has instructed his players many times, they are not looking ahead, rather focusing on one game at a time. The media can speculate and look ahead, which is why I am doing so at this point. But, back to the Wildcats for a minute. They come in to the game against the Illini at 6-4 overall and 3-3 in Big Ten play, and are currently bowl eligible. The Illini and Wildcats used to play for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, but in this politically correct world that we live in, has been retired and will now play for the Land of Lincoln trophy. Northwestern is riding high coming in to Champaign after upsetting Iowa, who was a top ten team and one of the few unbeatens still left in the FBS. Their situation is an unsettled one at the quarterback spot, as both starter Mike Kafka and Dan Persa have both battled injuries at one point or another this season. Kafka only threw for 72 yards in the upset win, and the Wildcats were paced by Persa as their top rusher, who had 67 yards.
So, what does all of this mean? The Illini actually come into the game as a favorite, something that hasn't happened since the Illinois State game. How is that possible, you ask? I'm not the vegas oddsmakers, so I don't have a clue. My guess would be that since the Illini are at home, they are a slight favorite. But, as Zook says, you can throw everything out the window when it comes to these rivalry games. Most of the players know each other from their high school days, so it is more of a show for them to one-up each other. Still, it should be a pretty good game, and it sounds like the weather will once again be nice for November in Champaign.
Bruce Weber's Illini basketball team begins the regular season on Friday evening when they host the Cougars of SIU-Edwardsville at the Assembly Hall. The Illini have looked about as expected in their two exhibition contests, and this freshman class looks to be a fun group to watch. Led by D. J. Richardson, the young guns hope to put the "Flyin'" back in front of Illini when everything is all said and done. Fellow freshmen Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey have looked good as well, and Joseph Bertrand still is nursing an injury and hasn't seen much action thus far. The veterans, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey all have had flashes of brilliance in the exhibitions, and it will be nice to see how they progress as the regular season commences. This is the first year in Division I for SIUE, and the past couple of trips to Champaign they have been an exhibition game for the Illini. This time around, though, it counts in the record, and the purpose of the exhibition games are to showcase a few different looks that might come into play early in the season. The early portion of the schedule is packed with games every 3 days or so, and this pattern will go a long way in determining some sort of a rotation. Someone that does not look to be in the rotation at the moment is redshirt freshman Stan Simpson, who has not played yet this season. According to Weber, he has not "taken care of business", meaning some sort of shortcoming with classes or grades. Weber also says that "it is not fair to the other players for them to follow the rules, and then one person thinks they can cut corners and still reap the rewards of the others". The Illini women have had only one exhibition game this season, and will open up their regular season Friday evening in Philadelphia at Temple. Their home opener is slated for Sunday afternoon at 4:00 against Siena.
Wednesday was Letter of Intent day, and all of the major sports had new faces to add to their respective sports. Football is not included in this, as they have their own day in the early spring. The men's basketball team welcomed 3 more quality players to the Illini family, and one has a distinct tie to the program. Crandall Head, brother of former Illini Luther Head, will join the Illini in 2010, as will center Meyers Leonard and guard Jereme Richmond. Those of you that have followed the program the last few years may remember that Richmond was the player that Weber offered when he was a freshman in high school. This hasn't typically worked well for the Illini in recent years, but on Wednesday Jereme made it official and will be an Illini in 2010 as well. This really stocks the cupboard for the next few years, and hopefully will elevate the Illini back into the national picture, much like they were in the 2004-05 season.
Jolette Law also welcomed some new faces to the women's program. Alexis Burke is one of those players, and she comes to the Illini from Bainbridge, Georgia, another example of Law's commitment to recruit the country. The other player hails from within the state's borders, near Chicago. Her name is Centrese McGee from Thornton Fractional North high school in Calumet City. Law had also promised to recruit the Chicago area as well, and this is just one more example of her trying to fulfill those wishes. The future definitely looks bright for both programs, but only time will tell as to how good each can be.
The Illini volleyball team continues its remarkable season, but this weekend will be one that will be truly special if they can get out of it unscathed. Friday night the Illini travel to Penn State, who is riding a 91 match winning streak. That long streak makes the Illini's 11 match streak seem very small. The Nittany Lions are ranked #1 in the nation, and for good reason. The Illini come into the match at #5 in the country. On Saturday night, the Illini visit Columbus to take on Ohio State. The Illini currently are 20-3 overall and 12-2 in the Big Ten.
Finally, Illini women's soccer wrapped up their regular season on a down note, losing 1-0 to Northwestern last Friday. The Illini finished the season with a 7-9-3 overall record and 2-6-2 in the Big Ten. The Illini saw their string of six consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament come to an end since a team needs a .500 record or better to qualify. Better luck next year.
Enjoy the sports, folks!