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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Illini, we have a bowl game!

At long last, the news is official. The Illini will be heading south later this month to play in the Texas Bowl in Houston. The Illini finished the regular season at 6-6, losing at Fresno State by the slimmest of margins 25-23. Most of the speculation about where the Illini were going already pretty much had been decided, but the official word came down last Sunday. The Illini will be facing the Baylor Bears, who haven't been to a bowl themselves since 1994. Baylor finished the regular season 7-5, and feature a prolific offense, led by quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin completed 274 of 413 passes on the season for 3,195 yards and threw 21 touchdowns. He also rushed for 8 touchdowns on the year, making him as durable of a threat on the ground as he is in the air. The Illini have had some problems containing high-powered offenses during the regular season, and this Baylor team will be no different.
But, just how exciting is everyone feeling about this upcoming bowl trip? This is not one of the marquee bowl games to begin with, and the fact that it is in Houston might make it more difficult for some fans to attend. One good thing going for the Illini is that the game is the only one being played on that day, so the whole country will be watching. That could be both good and bad.

Still, this is a positive note for the Illini to even be playing this late into December. According to Coach Ron Zook, it gives the team some extra practice time that they normally wouldn't be getting. Also, it gives the players some exposure and a chance to shine in playing an extra game. The Illini haven't been to a bowl game since the 2008 season, when they went to the Rose Bowl. But does this Illini team deserve the distinction of playing in a bowl game? After all, their season has been less than impressive, and at times the Illini have looked absolutely dreadful (see Minnesota). But, it is what it is, and the Illini contingent will descend on Houston after Christmas ready to play. The question is, will the fans follow?

The Fighting Illini men's basketball team ended a very successful week, defeating North Carolina at home and going on the road to defeat Gonzaga. After the defeat of the Zags, the Illini faced a sure trap game, when the Grizzlies of Oakland University came to the Hall. The game started out very bad for the Illini, as they fell behind by double figures early on. What was really strange about the whole game was what happened at the 12:38 mark of the first half. Apparently a women's ball got onto the rack of balls that were going to be used, and that one was in play for the first part of the game. Illini guard Demetri McCamey tried to point it out to the officials on several occasions before they actually discovered it, but to no avail. When they finally switched the balls out, the Illini began to take control, on the heels of McCamey, who scored 30 points. McCamey scored 23 of his points in the second half, including 11 straight to turn the entire momentum of the game. The Illini ended up winning 74-63 to run their record to 9-1 on the season. The Illini will take on the Bears of Northern Colorado on Sunday at the Assembly Hall (5:00 pm, CT - Big Ten Network). This will be the last tuneup game for the Illini of the fall semester. I think so far, this Illini team is playing the way I expected them to play, and the emergence of Jereme Richmond is not far off. The freshman has shown flashes of brilliance early on, and should crack the starting lineup before long. The next stretch of games will finish o
ff the non-conference portion of the season and then the Big Ten season, an entirely different animal altogether, will be on the horizon.

Saturday was a big day at the Assembly Hall for Illini fans as the 5th annual Shootout At The Hall took place, featuring several committed players for next season, as well as some other players that are being looked at by Bruce Weber and his staff. There were seven games on tap for the day, featuring some local teams, as well as some from a distance. The first game of the day had two area rivals going at it, the Unity Rockets and the St. Joseph-Ogden Spartans. Separated by just a few miles between borders, the kids in each district know each other, and in some cases, even date each other. It used to be a big rivalry when the teams were in the same conference, but now that they are no longer in the same league, the rivalry has taken a bit of a back seat. The Rockets used a strong fourth quarter to outscore the Spartans 13-0 to win going away 47-29.

The second game of the day saw two Cornbelt Conference teams go at it as Rantoul took on Pontiac. Rantoul, who has a player that is getting some Division looks named Travis B
ritt, played pretty well all through the game, and even though Pontiac took the game into overtime, the Eagles still ended up winning 58-54. There is no doubt that when those two teams meet on the court later in the season during the Cornbelt season, there will be revenge on the minds of the Indians.

Game three of the shootout saw Springfield Lanphier take on Peoria Manual. Lanphier, who has a freshman named Larry Austin Jr. that is on the Illini staff radar screen, had their way for most of the game with Manual, and defeated the Rams 65-58. Manual, long a player in the bigger schools in the past, has scaled down their enrollment significantly, but still have some guys that can play. From the school that produced the likes of Sergio McClain, Marcus Liberty, and Jerry Hester, all Illini standouts, they gave the Lions all they could handle. The Rams are coached by Derrick Booth, who pl
ayed at Manual and collegiately for DePaul, and will have his team ready to play after this game.

The fourth game of the day featured one of the 3 Illini commitments for next season in 6'8 forward Nnanna Egwu of Chicago St. Ignatius, who took on Peoria Notre Dame. Egwu, who will be asked to step in for Bill Cole or Mike Davis when they graduate after this season, spent a lot of the time on the bench in foul trouble, and that evidently hurt his team's chances, as they ended up losing the game 48-46. Notre Dame, who has a player that is being coveted by Illinois for preferred walk-on status, Max Bielfeldt, won the game on a very questionable call. With just three seconds remaining, an intentional foul was called on St. Ignatius, sending Bielfeldt to the free throw line. He drained both attempts, then Notre Dame stole the inbounds pass to seal the victory. I have to agree with the St. Ignatius coach that it was not a good time to call an intentional foul, but it i
s what it is, and that was the ball game.

Game 5 on the day featured Bowman Academy of Gary, Indiana versus Chicago Mt. Carmel, and Illini signee Tracy Abrams. Abrams is set to assume the point guard duties next season once Demetri McCamey graduates in May. Bowman Academy has a player that is on the Illini radar screen in DeJuan Marrero, who is a 6'5 junior. Abrams runs the floor pretty well and should be a good addition to the Illini next season. The Caravan have another player named Malcom Hill-Bey who is a good player, too, so they should be a team to watch come March. This one went down to the wire, as most of the games have today, with Mt. Carmel coming out on top 63-60.

The sixth game of the day featured another Illini signee, Mychael Henry of Chicago Orr, facing the shootout's furthest participant, Lee H.S. from Huntsville, Alabama. Lee played on Friday night in a tournament in Marion, Illinois, and made the trek up here to play in the Shootout At The Hall. Devin Langford, who is high on the Illini, plays for Lee, and rumor has it that it is just a matter of time before he makes his decision official to play for the Illini next season. O
rr beat Lee 67-58, as Henry scored 32 points, making an impression on those in attendance.

The final game of the night featured two more local teams, St. Thomas More and defending 1A champ Salt Fork. Due to my being there all day for the games, I didn't stick around for this game, but I was told that Salt Fork won the game 46-33. Quite a day of high school basketball!

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team saw their season come to an end where they had already won a match earlier in the season. The Illini fell in 5 sets, ending their season at 24-9, making the third consecutive year that they have advanced to the Sweet 16.

Finally, on Monday, the Big Ten unveiled their new logo for the conference, as well as the names of the divisions for the teams once Nebraska joins the league in 2011. Personally, the powers that be that developed this logo could have done much better in the creativity department. It is a generic logo, that, according to commissioner Jim Delaney, is targeted to go back to th
e basics. The logo (at right), gets rid of the embedded 11 in the old logo, and goes back to the '10', with an open end of the G in Big, symbolizing an 0 that leaves the imagination open. The division names are an entirely different matter altogether, and whoever came up with them needs to seriously reconsider their choices. The Legends Division, comprising Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern, makes it sound like those schools are has-beens. The Leaders Division, featuring Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, give one the idea that these schools are in the driver's seat for conference supremacy. Why not just call them East and West? This is rather ridiculous in my opinion, and the Big Ten ought to be embarrassed about this. However, the conference also announced 18 new trophies to be handed out for post-season awards, some of which are pretty clever names. Those can be found at the conference's website www.bigten,org

That's all for this week.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Making Progress, so to speak.

I've covered a lot of Fighting Illini sporting events since becoming The Illini Guy, but nothing quite compares to this past Saturday, when I traveled to Wrigley Field in Chicago to watch Illinois and Northwestern do battle at the Friendly Confines. This game had historical implications to begin with, but the Big Ten Conference making changes to the way the game was to be played on Thursday made this even more bizarre. Even though the powers that be knew that the east endzone would be an issue with the rightfield wall being right there at the end of it, they decided that in order to promote safety for both teams, they would just move from east to west and bypass that side of the field altogether. Very strange was the consensus when this decision was announced, but in all actuality, it was kind of a neat phenomenon once the game actually started. Yes, it was rather strange watching both teams occupy one side of the field on offense, and say what you will, but it reminds me of the old backyard football games we played as children growing up, having one team walk to the other end when the other team scored. Wrigley Field hasn't hosted a college football games since 1938, and hasn't seen football within its boundaries since the Bears left in the early 7o's. The enhancements of Wrigley over the past few years led to the decision of having the field move east to west. Once the game began, it felt more like a regular college football game. You couldn't really tell that they were only going one direction by the television monitor in front of me. This is actually a cool atmosphere, especially as darkness descended on the field. As for the game itself, it was another track meet from start to finish, with some big plays sprinkled in by both teams. Mikel Leshoure pretty much had his way in the ballgame, setting an Illinois record for rushing yards with 330 on the ground, carrying the ball 33 times and scoring twice. You could tell it was going to be a good day for Leshoure as his first two runs from scrimmage went for 32 and 30 yards, respectively. The old record, 315 yards, set by Robert Holcombe, stood since 1996.

More importantly, the win over the Wildcats gave the Illini their elusive sixth win, making them bowl eligible for the first time since the 2007 season when they went to the Rose Bowl. This is quite an accomplishment for Zook and the Illini, since they weren't expected to do this well. Given the changes in all of the coaching positions in the offseason left a lot of uncertainty, the results have been better than expected. The Illini will get a chance to get their 7th win of the season on Friday night when they travel west to Fresno, California to battle Fresno State (9:15 pm, CT, ESPN2), a team that defeated them in overtime last season in Champaign. The Illini can put an exclamation point on what they claim a successful season with a win over the Bulldogs. Then the decision will be handed down on Sunday evening when the bowl pairings are announced. Most likely, the Illini are ticketed for the Texas Bowl in Houston, but anything is possible at this point. At least they are headed somewhere and will be practicing in December, something that all teams wish they could do.

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini basketball team finished the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer with a split in New York City, losing to Texas on Thursday night 90-84 in overtime, then coming back to win Friday evening against Maryland80-76 to capture third place in the tournament. The Illini had chances to beat the Longhorns, but couldn't get the job done, suffering their first defeat of the season. The Illini have certainly been busy since they returned from the Big Apple, hosting a pair of games, and going on the road into a hostile environment. The Illini hosted Yale last Tuesday, and came away with a 73-47 victory in a game that never really was in doubt. Given the late start of the contest, it was still rather well attended. After the win over the Bulldogs, the Illini ventured to Kalamazoo, Michigan to face the Western Michigan Broncos. Why Kalamazoo, you ask? Well, this was part of the football deal with the school, and since the Illini played there in 2008 for football at Ford Field in Detroit and in basketball in Champaign last season, they needed to return the favor, playing up there. The Broncos will return the favor on the football field next season, coming to Champaign to battle the Illini. This was labeled a trap game for many reasons, given the fact that the Illini stumbled in Las Vegas last season against Utah and Bradley, losing both games. The result against Western Michigan was a favorable one, as the Illini defeated the Broncos 78-63 to set up the showdown with North Carolina in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge this past Tuesday night.

The Illini and North Carolina have quite a history over the past several years, dating back to the memorable national championship game in 2005, a game in which the Tar Heels won 75-70. The teams have met seven times before this game, with the Tar Heels holding a slight 4-3 advantage. On this night, the Illini would prevail 79-67, as they placed 5 players in double figures, led by Mike Davis with 20 points. Demetri McCamey scored 17, while Mike Tisdale added 14. Jereme Richmond and D. J. Richardson scored 12 and 11 points, respectively for the Illini, who improved their season record to 7-1 on the season. The Illini have another tough test awaiting them this coming weekend, when they travel west to Seattle, Washington to battle the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Key Arena (4:00 pm, CT, ESPN). The Illini have a score to settle with the Zags, as they defeated the Illini in the annual United Center game in Chicago last season. However, this one will be tougher, since it is on a neutral court and a long way from Champaign. But, there will more than likely be more Illini fans in Seattle for this game than there were Gonzaga fans in Chicago last season, given the fact that there are Illinois alums scattered all across the country, and a good contingent in the Upper Northwest.

Good news for the Big Ten for the second year in a row, as they won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge by the slimmest of margins, 6-5. Winners for the Big Ten included Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Given the fact that the ACC won the first 10 challenges between the two conferences, it was a good feeling to see the Big 10 come out on top, although they have some work to do in order of evening up the series.

Something that remains a question is the play of Jolette Law's women's team. The Lady Illini just returned from a trip to Hawaii, where they went 1-2. The Illini started off last week with a rare 11:00 am game on Monday at home against Cal Poly, a game in which they won handily 104-63. The uniqueness of the unusual start was that a lot of students from area schools attended the game, which made the Assembly Hall seem more populated than it normally would at that time of the day. In Hawaii, the Illini defeated Long Beach State 69-48, but lost to North Carolina 87-58 and Ole Miss 70-61. Wednesday night was the womens' turn for the spotlight, as they hosted North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The game was on the Big Ten Network, and from the looks of it on television, there wasn't very many in attendance. It is almost embarrassing to see the Illini women on TV, and see a near-empty Assembly Hall, especially when other venues that host womens' games have much larger crowds attend. I guess that winning games will help the attendance, but for this crop of players, I just don't see that as an option at this time. The Illini head to Boulder, Colorado this weekend to battle the Buffaloes in the Big 10/Big 12 shootout.

Finally, despite losing 3 of their last 4 matches of the regular season, Kevin Hambly's Illini volleyball squad will host in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, which starts on Friday at Huff Hall. The Illini dropped matches on the road to Indiana and Purdue without their star Laura DeBruler, who was lost several weeks ago with a torn ACL. The Illini finished the regular season at 22-8, and will take on Austin Peay Friday evening at 7:00 pm. The winner of that match will face the winner of the Cincinnati-Western Kentucky match, which precedes it, for the right to move on to the next round.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where do we go from here?

I really don't know where to begin here, so I'll start with the obvious; the Fighting Illini football team may have been pretenders all along. All this talk of a possible b*** has severely gotten into their heads, and as a result, dropped a game they had very much in the palm of their hand to lowly Minnesota. That's right, the 1-9 Golden Gophers. Well, make that the 2-9 Gophers now, since they beat Illinois 38-34 last Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The Illini had a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter, but couldn't seal the deal and let Minnesota score two touchdowns late to seal the victory. Taboo was talk of the b***, and even though the players were acting like they weren't thinking about it, they are kids and you know darn well they were. But, I have to think that a good portion of this loss must fall on Coach Ron Zook, who has about as good of clock management skills that I do, and that is not a compliment. It seems as if Zook has taken control of the offensive and defensive play calling in the last two weeks, because the Illini have fallen back into the same frame of mind that they had last season when they went 3-9. Now, they must win one game to qualify for that elusive b*** eligibility, and with Northwestern and Fresno State, both road games, looming on the schedule, that is a tall order.

The Illini head north to Chicago this weekend to face the Wildcats, but the venue will not be Ryan Field in Evanston (2:30 pm central time, ESPNU). Instead, the Illini and Northwestern are playing at historic Wrigley Field, who has not hosted a football game in over 70 years, and has not seen football of any kind since the Bears played there in the 70's. The unique atmosphere has its share of concerns though, as one of the endzones borders the outfield wall, a sure sign of disaster if someone runs a long route pattern and forgets where they are. Deemed the Wrigleyville Classic, the Friendly Confines has been transformed into Wildcat purple, including the historic marquee outside the stadium, which also took on a fresh coat of purple paint, one that would make Barney proud. ESPN Gameday will also be there broadcasting throughout the day, but the funny thing about that is the game is not on one of the major channels of the network, instead being slotted to "the U", only available to about half the regular subscribers. I wonder what will happen if Lee Corso picks Illinois to win the game, because he normally chooses a headpiece of the team that gets his vote. Doing a chief headdress would certainly fuel some debate, but we'll just have to wait and see. The Wildcats are 7-3 on the season and come into the game ranked #25 in the country, but lost their starting quarterback Dan Persa on the last play of scrimmage last weekend when they upset the Iowa Hawkeyes in Evanston. Evan Watkins gets the start this week, and he has only attempted 7 passes in his collegiate career. But, with the Illini secondary performing like they have over the past couple of games, does it really matter who the Wildcats throw under center? This would not be a good scenario to rely on the game in Fresno, California in 2 weeks as the last chance to gain b*** eligibility. Stay tuned on this one.

Now for some better news. Bruce Weber takes his #13 ranked Fighting Illini east to Madison Square Garden in New York City this weekend for the culmination of the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer. The Illini will take on the Texas Longhorns Thursday night (approx. 8:30 pm central time, ESPN2), then, pending the outcome of that game, will take on either Pittsburgh or Maryland on Friday night. This will be a good early season test for the Illini, and should give a good indication of how talented this team is. The Illini need a good showing in the Big Apple to keep those lofty expectations in tact. Games against North Carolina and Gonzaga loom further down on the schedule before the rigorous Big Ten season begins just prior to the new year. The Illini are 3-0 on the young season, and are coming off an 85-63 win over Weber's former school, the Salukis of Southern Illinois. Weber brought the Saluki program to prominence before moving north to Champaign, and below I-64 he is still considered a figure of authority. The Longhorns are 2-0 on the young season, and are ranked #22 in this week's poll.

Wrigley in November? Should be mighty cold on those rooftops! Should be interesting. That's all for this week. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Coming down to the wire

If you are a sports fan like myself, then you have to love this time of year, as sports seasons begin to overlap. It seems that there is something going on every single day, which keeps people like me constantly on the go, making it happen and reporting it to everyone out in cyberspace. So, here goes for this week.

By now, you know that the Illini and Michigan hooked up on the football field last Saturday, and a track meet of epic proportions ensued, with the Wolverines ending up on top 67-65 in 3 overtimes. Yes, it more resembled a basketball score, but it was, in fact, football. I knew that the Michigan defense wasn't very good, and that their offense could put up points in bunches, but I did not expect to see triple digits in points, and over 1200 yards in total offense. The Illini defense, who has been very good for the most part this season, took the afternoon off, as they let Denard Robinson, and then, Tate Forcier, have their way with the secondary. Wolverine wideout Roy Roundtree caught 9 passes for an astonishing 246 yards and scored twice, including a 75 yard pass from Robinson on the game's first play. That should have been the first indicator that this was going to be a shootout. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase keeps getting better and better each week, and his numbers in this game weren't bad at all. Scheelhaase completed 14 of 25 passes for 211 yards and 3 scores, two of them going to Mikel Leshoure. On the day, Leshoure had 5 touchdowns total, to go with 123 yards rushing and 52 yards receiving. Scheelhaase once again was honored as the freshman of the week in the Big Ten, his fifth so honor this season. Leshoure also was named the offensive player of the week in the conference for his efforts in the loss to the Wolverines. Believe it or not, this team is getting better, and still remain on the cusp of bowl eligibility, which they can take care of this Saturday when 1-9 Minnesota visits Memorial Stadium (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). This will be Senior Day for a host of Illini, including occasional quarterback Eddie McGee, who will be among the players taking the field at Memorial Stadium for the final time. Once bowl eligibility is achieved, then they can concentrate on the final two games of the season and improving the bowl that they will more than likely be going to.

Illini basketball is in full swing, and now that the exhibition games are over, it is time for them to count in the regular season standings. This is the earliest start in the history of the Illinois program, and they are currently in the middle of the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer. Coach Bruce Weber is a strong advocate of the battle against cancer, so it is fitting that the Illini were asked to play in this year's classic. The Illini opened up at home against UC-Irvine on Monday night, and used a strong first half to defeat the Anteaters 79-65. Brandon Paul led the way for the Illini with 18 points, while Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale scored 13 and 12 points, respectively. This was the first game in the 2K Sports Classic, and on Wednesday night, the Illini played the second game against Toledo, which ended up being a slaughter. Toledo was pretty much gutted in the off-season, and a new coach and several new players spelled disaster from the get-go. The Illini jumped on the Rockets early and often, and built up a 25-5 lead before Toledo knew what hit them. Behind 13 points by McCamey, the Illini were able to rest their starters and get some other players some much needed minutes. That is, all but Crandall Head, who did not play because according to Weber, "he didn't take care of his business". We have come to know over the past few seasons that this means either he didn't attend a class or some other disciplinary measures. It was a landslide from the start, and it ended 84-45 in favor of the Illini. The Illini showed flashes of the talent that they have, but the road just gets tougher from this point forward. A game that Weber did not want to play will take place on Saturday night, when Southern Illinois comes to the Assembly Hall (7:00 pm, Big Ten Network). According to Weber, the game was agreed upon by assistants from both schools at last year's Final Four. Chris Lowery, who coaches the Salukis, was a former player of Weber's and a former assistant at Illinois under Weber. So, you can see why he doesn't get a thrill from playing this game. From there, the Illini will head to the Big Apple for the conclusion of the Coaches vs. Cancer event when they take on the Texas Longhorns next Thursday. This will be the first true test of what this team has, and we should get a good idea of how good they really are after these two games at Madison Square Garden.

Wednesday was National Letter of Intent signing day, and in what is becoming a trend with Weber lately, has been getting some good, quality recruits to come to Illinois. This year is no exception, as 4 four-star athletes signed on the dotted line to play for Weber. What is more remarkable about this is that they are all from the Chicago area, and with the last 2 classes beginning to make an impact, the idea of stacking classes gives fans in Illini Nation reason to have hope. Tracy Abrams, a guard from Chicago Mt. Carmel, headlines the class, followed by Nnanna Egwu from St. Ignatius Prep. 6'6 wing Mychael Henry hails from Orr High School, and was a later bloomer that attracted Weber's attention last season, and the last recruit to make it official was Michael Shaw, who is from DeLasalle Institute. All of these players should add to the current squad quite nicely, and will attempt to fill the void when the Illini lose McCamey, Tisdale, Davis and Bill Cole next season. Does the question still rage that Bruce Weber cannot recruit? I'll let you be the judge of that one.

Illini women's coach Jolette Law also signed a good recruiting class, headlined by Ivory Crawford of Proviso East High School. Two more players from the state of Illinois will play next season for Law, those being Kierra Morris of Morgan Park Academy and Taylor Tuck of Bolingbrook HS. Law also snagged two players from the state of New York in Nia Oden (Christ the King HS, Brooklyn) and Alexis Smith (St. John the Baptist HS, West Islip). This class, combined with what is currently at Illinois, should give them some added depth. As has been the case over the past several years with the women's program, there are some issues with one of the players. Adrienne GodBold has been suspended 6 games for a violation of team rules, while Kersten Magrum will miss some time as well due to an injury. Those absences didn't seem to stop the Illini in their lone exhibition win, a 100-37 triumph over Division II foe Kentucky Wesleyan on Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall. Karisma Penn led 7 Illini players in double figures with 18 points, and recorded a double-double with 11 rebounds. Junior Lana Rukavina also had a double-double, scoring 17 points and carroming 10 boards. The Illini open the regular season on Friday evening when they host the Illinois State Redbirds at the Assembly Hall.

Finally, Illini women's volleyball is still very much in the driver's seat for the Big Ten title, and this weekend's matches at Ohio State and Penn State could go a long way in making that claim a reality. Coach Kevin Hambly also signed some good recruits for next season, inking four new players. They are as follows: Jocelynn Birks (Lyons Township HS), outside hitter Morgan Criswell (Decatur LSA), 6'6 blocker/right side hitter Liz McMahon (West Liberty Twp, Lakota West HS in Ohio), and Ali Stark (Mt. Vernon, Iowa). These four recruits, in addition to what Hambly already has, should keep the Illini in contention for the forseeable future.

See, not too much going on, is there? That's it for this week.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Get Your Bowling Shoes On?

They say defense wins championships. They may be on to something.

The Fighting Illini football team inched one step closer to becoming bowl eligible by defeating Purdue rather handily last Saturday at Memorial Stadium 44-10, but the most intriguing part of the whole game was the attendance. Where in the world was everybody? Granted, the Illini have not had the level of success that, say, Michigan or Ohio State have had over the past decade, but to give Ron Zook and his team the benefit of the doubt, this is a team that is now 5-3 on the season and knocking on the door of bowl eligibility. They have made significant strides during the season, and that can be attributed in large part to the work of the defense under new coordinator Vic Koenning. I have heaped praise for Koenning before in this blog, and I will continue to do so until he gives me reason not to. The Illini defense has risen to the occasion more often than not in 2010, and while the offense has sputtered in several games, it has been the defense that has sustained much of the momentum and spurred the Illini on to victory in those games. In the win against the Boilermakers, the offense finally showed signs of life, as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed 16 of 20 passes for 195 yards and threw 4 touchdown passes, all to different receivers. Among the recipients of the touchdown grabs were freshman Darius Millines, who caught his first collegiate touchdown, and A. J. Jenkins, who caught his fourth of the season. Mikel Leshoure, who was held to just 23 yards rushing on 15 carries, did manage to get in the endzone 3 times, twice via the run and once on a pass from Scheelhaase. But, before I get too far off on the tangent of my rant, back to the crowd.

Folks, this is a pretty decent football team that comes out week to week, but you wouldn't know it by the size of the crowd at most home games. Maybe fans are still reluctant to come out and spend money to see this team in action, or it could be other factors as well. With high school football entrenched in their playoffs now, that probably kept some people away that might normally would have attended. But, the student section in the north end zone wasn't even full, which tells me one of two things: either the students don't want to support their peers, or they would just as soon watch from a local watering hole, apartment or dorm. The bottom line here is there is just one home game left, and by that time, the Illini could be either looking at becoming bowl eligible, or already there, primed to improving their bowl game options. The next step in the process is a tall order, as the Illini head to Ann Arbor, Michigan to take on the Michigan Wolverines at the "Big House". (11:00 AM Central Time, ESPN). Michigan Stadium seats 113,000, and you can bet it will be a full house waiting to greet the Illini. Michigan themselves have fallen on some hard times in recent years, but at 5-3 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten, they will have a packed house. I just wish I could say the same for the fans here at Illinois. But, I digress. Winning on a consistent basis will ultimately bring the fans back, so until that occurs, I guess we should expect near capacity crowds cheering this team on to victory.

Bruce Weber and his Fighting Illini basketball team began their season this past week with two exhibition games, marking the earliest that an Illini team has hit the court to begin a season. The opponents, both Division II foes, and from the Great Lakes Valley Conference, no less, proved to be more of a challenge for the Illini than they ever dreamed possible. The first game, against Lewis University, was tight the entire contest, and a late surge by the Illini finally allowed them to prevail 75-65. A lot can be said for these exhibition games, because as I stated last week, it means more to the team coming in to play Illinois than it does for the Illini themselves. As Weber said, "they have designed plays to work against us, and we are just concerned about getting bodies in and out". The same held true for the second opponent, Southern Indiana, as they came in an stayed close with the Illini for the majority of the game, before falling 76-67. Screaming Eagles coach Rodney Watson, who was an assistant under Weber when he was at Southern Illinois, knows Weber's style pretty well, and even ran some plays that Weber developed while in Carbondale. There is some cause for concern, given the high expectations of this team before the season, but they are just that, expectations. You have to realize that this is a team that missed the NCAA Tournament last season, and are ranked #13 in the pre-season poll without even playing a game that counts. Senior Demetri McCamey was virtually non-existent against Southern Indiana, going 0-6 from the field and only scoring 3 points on the night. Weber says that things are not going the way they intended them to right now, but the next couple of weeks will determine how far this team has come. They take the court 3 times next week, beginning play in the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer. The first two games of this classic will be at the Assembly Hall, with the Illini taking on UC Irvine on Monday, followed by Toledo on Wednesday. The Illini welcome Weber's former school, Southern Illinois next Saturday evening, then will head towards the Big Apple the following weekend to play Texas, then either Pittsburgh or Maryland. Hopefully the Illini can get their act together before then.

The Fighting Illini volleyball team continues to roll right along through the season, as they went 3-0 this past week and maintained their stranglehold on the top spot in the conference. Wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin have propelled the Illini to a 20-3 overall record and 12-1 in league play. Even though they have a 2 match lead in the conference standings, they must go on the road for 5 of their last 7 matches and will do so without the services of their leader, Laura DeBruler, who is lost for the season with an ACL injury. However, other players such as Johannah Bangert, Jennifer Bonilla and Michelle Bartsch have filled in nicely during DeBruler's absence, and will do everything they possibly can to keep the Illini in the top spot. The Illini travel to Northwestern on Friday evening for their only contest of the weekend.

That's all I got for this week. Stay warm!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What a difference a few months make. At the beginning of the year, nobody really knew what the Illini football team would be like, but so far, after 7 games in the books, it has been a pleasant surprise. Now, they are just 4-3 in those games, but when you consider who the 3 losses were to, it makes the success of this team that much more evident. Missouri, who was the Illini's first loss of the season, is 7-0 and just defeated Oklahoma, who was ranked #1 in the country. The Tigers check in at #8 in this week's USA Today/ESPN Top 25 coaches poll. Ohio State, who dealt the Illini their second defeat of the season, was ranked #1 for a week themselves, and at 7-1, are ranked 10th in this week's poll. The third team to beat the Illini this season, Michigan State, is also undefeated at 8-0 and are currently ranked #5 in the nation. What does all of this mean? Well, for starters, the 3 losses that Illinois has endured have all been quality losses, and certainly will help their cause, should they become bowl eligible. That will happen in 2 more wins, which would be a major accomplishment, given projections at the beginning of the season. So, how do the Illini get those 2 wins to become bowl eligible, you say? Well, for starters, beating Purdue on Saturday will help (11:00 am, ESPN2). Out of the remaining games left, Minnesota and Northwestern stand the best chance of being that elusive sixth win. But don't ask Ron Zook or his players about bowl eligibility, because they are not focusing on it. Not now. They are just taking one game at a time, which is the way it should be. They cannot get too concerned with going to a bowl, because if they do, then that becomes the focus and they lose sight of what is in front of them. Purdue comes into the contest with the Illini at 4-3 as well, but a notch better than the Illini in Big Ten play at 2-1. The Boilermakers are having some injury issues of their own, as starting quarterback Robert Marve was lost for the season a few weeks ago, and redshirt freshman Rob Henry took over the starting job. However, Henry, too, suffered an injury in Boilers' 49-0 loss to Ohio State, so true freshman Sean Robinson may end up starting against the Illini. Zook doesn't know who will start, so he is preparing for both of them, just to be safe. Robinson is not a stranger to Zook, as he was recruited by Illinois, but ended up signing with Purdue. Robinson is from Rochester, Illinois. If the defense continues its stellar play as of late, the Illini will inch ever closer to becoming eligible for a bowl. But don't tell Zook that I said that.

Since the 2004-05 Fighting Illini basketball team that came one game from being crowned national champions has there been this much hype to begin a season. The Illini return essentially everyone from a team that just missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and bring in a talented freshman class that most certainly will test the veterans. Returning starters from a year ago include forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale, while sharpshooting guards Demetri McCamey and D. J. Richardson return to the lineup as well. All but Richardson are seniors, but the hardly matters to coach Bruce Weber, who has just as much talent on this year's team than the Final Four team. The major story for this team, however, are the 3 freshmen who will be making their debuts for the Illini this year. Much hearalded recruit Jereme Richmond, who has been on board Bruce Weber's train since before he started high school, leads the pack, but is followed closely by 7'0 big man Meyers Leonard, who hails from downstate Robinson. Rounding this triumverate of talent is Crandall Head. Yep, that Crandall Head, the younger brother of former Illini Luther Head. These three players are already beginning to push the upperclassmen, which should lead to quite a battle once the season begins. Weber said on Tuesday that he may go with a different starting lineup each half of the exhibition game against Lewis University, just to try some different combinations. Also pushing for playing time are guards Brandon Paul and redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand. Bill Cole, who started quite a few games last season after making major progress from the previous year, may start out in that role, but the position is essentially up for grabs and is anyone's for the taking. Finally, Tyler Griffey returns for his sophomore campaign, destined to keep making his mark. With all of this at Weber's disposal, a good season is forecast, which should create a lot of interesting battles for positions. Stay tuned.

The women's team will look remarkably different this year, as compared to last year. Gone are Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson to graduation, and Fabiola Josil is gone due to transferring from the school. The result of this is no seniors on the current roster, and a couple of incoming freshmen that could have an immediate impact. Juniors Eboni Mitchell, Lana Rukavina and Macie Blinn will anchor a young team that has a challenging schedule, one that head coach Jolette Law thinks will benefit them in the long run. Lydia McCully, Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold, who all saw significant minutes a season ago, also return to try and help the Illini get back to the NCAA Tournament, somewhere they haven't been since the 2002-03 season. The freshmen that will help get this team back on track are Centrese McGee and Alexis Burke, two talented players. Now the hope is that these young players will stay with the team and not leave to go elsewhere, which has been the case more over the past few seasons.

As if there wasn't enough going on around campus this weekend with basketball and football, there is also a volleyball team that is making some headlines as well. Kevin Hambly has the Illini in first place in the Big Ten, and they host a huge match on Friday night against Michigan, the only team to defeat the Illini in conference play this season. The Illini carry a 9-1 league mark into Friday's match with the Wolverines, and will also play host to the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday evening. Both matches are at Huff Hall and start at 7:00 pm.

There you have it, a busy, busy weekend of sports on the horizon. Get out and enjoy a game!


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Step In The Right Direction

Things are actually beginning to look up for Ron Zook and his Fighting Illini football team. Before Saturday's victory at Penn State, the Illini had never won in Happy Valley, and even though this is not your typical Penn State team loaded with star-studded talent, a win nonetheless, is still a win. The Illini took a big step with the victory over the Nittany Lions, but in the immortal words of Zook "they are still not where they want to be". Sure, the offense finally showed some signs of life, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase resembled the quarterback that everybody envisioned him to be, but Penn State is down from their glory years, and it appears that the talent level has fallen. Mikel Leshoure once again topped the century mark in rushing yards, and has made himself one of the players that other teams target when they prepare for this offense. Perhaps the most surprising element of this year's team has to be the defense, and it's major improvement over a season ago. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has done wonders with this unit, and I have said it before, and I'll say it yet again, that despite all the injuries to this unit, they have made significant improvements week in and week out. Before the season began, I didn't give this team much of a chance, thinking they would go 4-8 at best. Now, after 5 games, they have a winning record at 3-2, and the inevitable talk of the 'b' word has begun to surface. Yes, with upcoming games against Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern looming, the thought of a December or January game is a distinct possibility, providing that they can get 3 wins out of the final 7. Am I getting ahead of myself here? Perhaps. Will I be accused of "drinking the orange and blue kool-aid"? Possibly. My point here is that this team is better than I thought they would be, and better than most of Illini Nation figured on when Camp Rantoul began back in August. Of course, all of this could take a huge step backward if they go to Michigan State and lay an egg on Saturday (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). The Spartans are co-leaders of the Big Ten at 6-0 overall and 2-0 in league play, and are coming off a big win at the Big House in Ann Arbor over Michigan. Michigan State has endured some hardship in recent weeks, as their head coach, Mark D'Antonio, suffered a heart attack after the Notre Dame game, and has been off the job for a few weeks. That has not stopped them in their tracks, and D'Antonio should be back on the sidelines this week against the Illini. For the Illini to come away with another road victory and shock the nation, they need to keep doing the things they have been doing, and maybe even step it up a notch or two. After the Spartans, the schedule lightens a little bit with home games against Indiana and Purdue, then a trip back to Michigan to face the Wolverines. We shall see what happens.

That bouncing ball sound you hear? Must signal the start of basketball season for both the men and the women's teams at the University of Illinois. The teams held their annual media day festivities on Tuesday at the Ubben Sports Complex, and the assembled media got a chance to hear both Bruce Weber and Jolette Law speak about their teams, and interview the players on the men's team. There is a sense of excitement about Weber's 8th Illini team, and the team wants to remove the bad taste from last year's stinging defeat to the Dayton Flyers in the 3rd round of the NIT. A talented group of seniors, meshed with a sophomore class that saw a lot of action as freshmen a year ago will look to move the ball up and down the court. Add in a heralded group of freshmen, and this team has great potential to advance far in the NCAA Tournament. I know it is only October and the season is yet to officially begin, but based on intital reports and workouts, this team is athletic and will be flexible enough to move players in and out of the lineup with relative ease. Your first look at this year's Illini squad comes on Friday night at Huff Hall, when "Illini Basketball Madness" takes center stage. The event, which is free to the public, will begin a little after 10:00 pm, after the volleyball match against Purdue. The arena will be cleared after the volleyball match, then doors to Huff will open at 10:00. Fans that attend the volleyball match will be given first chance to get back in line to get the best seats for the basketball event, and some of the items on the agenda for the evening include a three-point shooting contest, a slam dunk contest, and a scrimmage featuring the men's team. You will want to get there early, because when Huff Hall reaches capacity, there will be nobody else admitted. Why hold the event at Huff you ask? Huff Hall is a more intimate environment, and the DIA wants to create an atmosphere for the fans and recruits on hand. There are a lot of future Illini expected to attend, as well as potential recruits as well. Maybe even a few surprises too! This event is a showcase of the program, and holding it at the Assembly Hall just doesn't offer the intimacy that Huff does. Regardless, it should be a good environment and I am looking forward to seeing Jereme Richmond in the slam dunk event. Be looking for an official preview of both the men's and women's teams coming in the next couple of weeks to the Illini Guy Report.

Now, on to volleyball. If Coach Kevin Hambly didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all. Senior Laura DeBruler, who missed several matches earlier in the season after a bout with mononucleosis, suffered a knee injury at Michigan last weekend, and will miss the remainder of the season with an ACL tear. DeBruler ends her Illini career ranked first in kills and attacks all-time at Illinois, and seventh all-time in digs. This loss is especially devastating to Hambly and the Illini, as they begin a crucial part of their Big Ten season, tied for first with Michigan (#15 nationally), and Northwestern (#20). On the docket for this weekend is Purdue on Friday night and Indiana on Saturday evening. Staying up at the top now is the main concern for the Illini as they work toward their goal of winning their first Big Ten volleyball title since 1992.

That's all I got for this week. More on these topics, including an official recap of the Illini Madness event will follow next week. Until then.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October: Crossover month

October is here! Time for falling leaves, cooler temperatures, and the beginning of the crossover of sports seasons at the University of Illinois. Football season is in full swing, as is women's volleyball and soccer, and soon enough, both men's and women's basketball will commence, giving the typical Illini fan a plethora of events to pick and choose from. But, not to get ahead of myself, a quick review since my last entry.

The "History at Huff" event featuring the women's volleyball team hosting #2 Penn State was everything it was advertised about and much more. On that chilly evening a couple of weeks ago, the Illini did something that nobody had been able to do in 65 matches, and that was defeat the Nittany Lions in a match. In front of a packed house and a Big Ten Network television audience, the Illini took care of the Lady Lions in 5 games to finally break the stranglehold that Penn State had on the Big Ten. Not wanting to be outdone the next night, they swept Ohio State in 3 straight games to make a productive weekend that much more enjoyable. In a weekend that saw the football team enjoy a week off, Kevin Hambly's team took center stage, and lived up to the hype. Laura DeBruler, who had been out with mono for the past few matches, came back with a venegance to help lead the Illini to victory. Since that match, the Illini have defeated Wisconsin in Madison (4 games) and Northwestern (5 games) to run their record to 12-2 overall and in position to crack the top 5 in the national rankings. Up next, a trip to Michigan to play both the Wolverines and Spartans this coming weekend. Hambly has done a wonderful job thus far as bench boss, and the future continues to look up as they make their mark in the Big Ten.

After enjoying their bye week, the Fighting Illini football team welcomed the #2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes to Memorial Stadium last Saturday, and despite the success that Illinois has had over the Buckeyes the past few years, nobody gave them much of a chance. Considering that the Illini have not beaten the Buckeyes in Champaign in nearly 20 years certainly didn't lend any credibility their way. You have to give credit to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for getting his unit in a much better position this year to at least stay in games with teams instead of the other way around. After all, he hasn't had much to work with, what with injuries and defections. Still, the Illini made a valiant effort against the Buckeyes, but ultimately fell 24-13. There has been a lot of speculation about one particular play toward the end of the game, mainly a disagreement whether or not they should have gone for a first down, or tried the field goal, which is what they did. Zook's philosophy was to kick the field goal to get the points, rather than go for the first down and get the touchdown. They needed 2 scores anyway to win the game, and judging by how the offense has performed under these conditions, didn't see that happening. Plus, the Buckeyes could have gone right back down and scored a touchdown of their own, which is what eventually ended up happening. Now, I'm a proponent of not leaving points on the field, but in certain situations, you have to go for it and take your chances. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was quoted this week as well, saying he would have kicked the field goal. This statement leads me to believe that it was Zook's decision, and his alone, to make that call. Still, the Illini lost, and you cannot justify what would have happened if the other decision was made.

Up next for the Illini, a trip to Happy Valley for a meeting with the Penn State Nittany Lions and legendary coach Joe Paterno on Saturday morning (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). The Illini have never won in State College, and even though this is not one of the more powerful Penn State teams as in recent memory, it will still be a tough task. They have one of the conference's leading rushers of all-time in Evan Royster, and if the Illini don't figure out how to move their offense besides Mikel Leshoure, it could be a long day in PA.

The Illini women's soccer team is also enjoying a good season, currently sporting a 10-2-1 record as they go into Madison this coming weekend for a match against the Wisconsin Badgers. The Illini swept the Indiana schools last week, defeating Purdue (4-1) and Indiana (2-1) to stay near the top of the conference standings. Vanessa DiBernardo continues to lead the Illini in goals scored with 9, recording 4 of those against the Boilermakers and Hoosiers to garner Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the week.

October also signals the start of basketball season, and in these parts, expectations continue to run high for the men's team. It seems that, even during football season, all people want to talk about is basketball and what the team will do this season. Thankfully, Illini fans don't have much longer to wait for the answer to that question, as the official start to the season is slated for Friday evening, October 15 at Historic Huff Hall. The doors will open at 10 pm that evening after clearing the arena for the volleyball match, then once fans start coming in, will be able to come into Huff until it reaches capacity. Why not host it at the Assembly Hall, you say? Huff Hall is more compact, and thus, would be a better atmosphere than spacious Assembly Hall, which for some reason, never gets to capacity for such events. The evening will include a 3-point shooting contest, as well as the ever popular dunk contest. The night will conclude with a short scrimmage, signaling the official start of the first practice.

Not to be outdone, Jolette Law's women's basketball team will begin practice even earlier than Bruce Weber's men's team, taking to the court on Thursday, October 7. New rules permit womens programs to start 40 days before their first game, meaning the time is now for the Illini to begin workouts. However, Law will be looking for some leadership, as two of her leading scorers graduated in Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson. A full preview of both hoops teams will be coming up in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for that.

Yes, October is here. Get out and support the Illini by getting to a game, or two....or three.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

100: Just a number.

Looking at my blog posts from the past, I have come to discover that this entry will be post #100. A lot has happened since the first post, and I hope I have entertained and informed you with my insight on all things Illini. So, on to this week's banter.

Things are beginning to improve on the football field with Ron Zook's crew, and although the last two victories have been against in-state schools, it is, nonetheless, a start. With the 35-3 win over Southern Illinois a week ago, the Illini began to regain some of the momentum that it lost when they were defeated by Missouri. Then, last Saturday, the Illini had to withstand a late rally by the Northern Illinois Huskies to squeak out a 28-22 win at Memorial Stadium. The Illini haven't started out with a winning record since the 2008 Rose Bowl season, so anything positive is good news. Both the offense and defensive units seem to be improving, and coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning appear to be getting their respective squads in check. Despite several injuries over the past few weeks, the health of the team is also improving, and it seems that Terry Hawthorne will be ready for Ohio State when they come to Champaign in two weeks. That certainly is good news for Koenning and his defense, who has been shuffling players in and out of the secondary since he went down. In fact, Jack Ramsey, who switched to defense due to the losses of Hawthorne and Supo Sanni, has switched back to wide receiver.

In the win over Northern Illinois, some old habits cropped back up, and other persistent issues became more evident as the season shifts into Big Ten mode. Once again, the tight end was not utilized, and not one ball was thrown their way. One of the things that Petrino stressed before the season was that he would throw their direction more, something his predecessor, Mike Schultz didn't do much of. Not sure the reason why, other than they weren't open or were being used to block on the line for Mikel Leshoure to do his damage. Leshoure scampered for 180 yards on 24 carries, proving that the Illini like to get it to their workhorse, or as Petrino refers to it as "FTS" (Feed The Studs). Some quick observations regarding quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase through the first 3 games have been a mixed bag. Yes, he is a good scrambler and can gain yards in bunches that way, but upon further review, it has come to my attention that he is Juice Williams without the arm strength. Juice could throw the ball down the field and so far this season, Scheelhaase has not proven that he can do the same. The next stretch of games beginning with Ohio State (Saturday, October 2nd, 11:00 am) are crucial to making this happen, as those teams will be keying on the run and forcing Scheelhaase to pass. I think that the Illini can stay with Ohio State, but how long depends on the success of moving the ball against the Buckeyes. They can score points in bunches, and the defense will need to step up in a big way in order to keep the Illini in the game. With the Illini enjoying their bye week this coming weekend, it gives the team a chance to heal some of those injuries and get healthier before Ohio State comes calling.

The stage is set for one of the biggest volleyball matches in recent memory this Friday evening at Huff Hall. The Illini will attempt to set an attendance record as they get closer to "History at Huff" when the #5 ranked Illini welcome #2 Penn State. The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has sold 1500 general admission tickets for the match, including selling tickets online for the first time for a volleyball match. The Illini have not had a sellout at Huff since 1992, and if ever there was an occasion to surpass that feat, then this is the time to do it. The Illini have had an up and down week leading up to the important match, losing in 5 games to Cincinnati and defeating Louisville in 4 games in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. The Illini have been without outside hitter Laura DeBruler for the past few matches, due to her having mononucleosis. They are set to get DeBruler back for the big match against the Nittany Lions. Here's hoping she is ready for the challenge and can stop Penn State's 65 match winning streak in the Big Ten that spans the past 3 seasons.

The stage is set for this week's activities. Here's to another 100 posts!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mizzou aftermath and a look ahead to SIU

Well, that was fun, now, wasn't it? The six year football series between Illinois and Missouri is now history, and the Tigers won all six games. This year, the Illini made it close, and for a half and some change, even led Missouri. The Illini, not expected to do much in the game because of a lean recruiting year, injuries to some key defensive players, and an inexperienced quarterback, suprisingly stayed with the Tigers for the better part of the game, but eventually wore down to a more experienced and determined team. Nathan Scheelhaase, who didn't do a terrible job in his first collegiate game, showed he has potential to scramble with the football. Some pundits have referred to him as "Juice Williams Light", or "Juice without the arm", which cannot be viewed as good news. Actually, I think he has a chance to be a special player, but as all college players go, needs some time to get comfortable. Something that was puzzling to me during the game was the inability to throw to the tight end, something that new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino promised they would do. Actually, only 3 receivers were utilized during the game, Eddie McGee, Jarrod Fayson and A. J. Jenkins. Petrino has a stud at the position in freshman Evan Wilson, so his philosophy of FTS (Feeding The Studs) didn't come to fruition. I don't think this was an oversight, but they could have looked his way at least once or twice during the game. When the Illini went into the locker room at the half with the lead, a sense of shock filled the pressbox at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis as to what everyone was witnessing. Could things be different? Former Illini and now Rams rookie tight end Michael Hoomanawanui arrived during the break and was as surprised as anyone. He stated that he was at Rams practice and had just gotten to the stadium, and was hoping that he didn't bring them bad luck. Well, that is another story altogether.

The running game is not an issue, as Mikel Leshoure carried the ball 20 times for 112, but didn't get in the endzone. The only touchdown the Illini scored was on a 13 yard pass to Jenkins from Scheelhaase that capped off an 8 play, 82 yard drive. The Illini looked decent, sure, but a loss is still a loss, and as Zook said after the game, he is judged by wins and losses, not by how the team looked for a portion of the game. The natives are getting restless, yes, but some of that feeling can subside the next couple of weeks with home victories against in-state schools. These wins are certainly not a given, and a loss in either game will be deemed unacceptable.

Speaking of unacceptable, that can be a good word to describe the actions of bandit defender Michael Buchanan, who was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Apparently he was out late on Saturday evening and was stopped by campus police for a DUI. Such behavior has been an issue with Illinois athletes over the past few years, and this can only be bad news for a defense that keeps getting thinner by the day. Clay Nurse will step into the bandit position in Buchanan's absence, while Whitney Mercilus will move to the end position vacated by Nurse.

Illinois has a chance to get back on the winning track this Saturday when they host Southern Illinois at Memorial Stadium (6:30 pm, Big Ten Network). The Salukis are a power in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), or what was formerly known as Division 1-AA. SIU put 70 points up on Quincy University in their first game, and while it was a lesser opponent, according to Zook, "it is hard to score 70 points on air". The Salukis have some athletes on their team, and Zook said that there are some players on their roster that he would like to have on his team. They play a different style, and the Illini better be careful or they could be looking at an 0-2 start come late Saturday evening. Imagine how loud the catcalls will be then.

Perhaps the most exciting action on campus right now is taking place in Huff Hall with the Illini volleyball team. Kevin Hambly has his squad playing very well right now, and they are coming off one of the most important wins in the program in recent memory. The Illini spikers went into Austin, Texas last weekend and knocked off the #2 Texas Longhorns. That win moved them up to #3 in the recent poll, and they have another stern test awaiting them this weekend when they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to play in a tournament involving #20 Dayton, #7 Nebraska, and Western Michigan. If the Illini can come out on top in this tourney, they will be creating momentum for the big showdown on September 24th when top-ranked Penn State comes to Huff Hall. More on this as it becomes available.

The Illini women's soccer team has been having a measure of success as well, going 5-1-1 through their first 7 games of the 2010 season. The Illini will conclude their non-conference road schedule this weekend with a trip to Cincinnati. The fast start by Janet Rayfield's squad has earned them the top ranking in the Great Lakes Region, the first such ranking in the program's history.

More from campus next week.

Monday, August 30, 2010

It's Game Week!

The long three weeks of Camp Rantoul is now history and classes have started at the University of Illinois, so that can mean only one thing: Let There Be Football! Ron Zook leads his Fighting Illini football team into the Edward Jones Dome this Saturday to battle the Missouri Tigers in what amounts to the final installment of the State Farm Arch Rivalry between the two schools. The series hasn't exactly been kind to the Illini, as they have been defeated by Missouri every time in the five year history of the series. So, in a sense, you can say that the Illini are kind of glad to see this rivalry come to an end. The Illini have undergone a lot of changes since last season ended, so you may not recognize what you see on the field come Saturday. Several new coaches, as well as a host of new players will make their debut, and to add insult to injury, literally have had some bad luck with players getting hurt coming out of camp. First there was offensive lineman Corey Lewis, who sustained an injury in spring ball and will miss the entire season. Then, safety Supo Sanni, who was penciled in to start in the secondary for the opener, fell victim to an injury of his own and will miss the season as well. Next to go down was tight end/fullback Zach Becker, who sustained yet another stress fracture in his foot, the third such injury to sideline Becker since his high school days at St. joseph-Ogden. Becker is likely to miss up to 3 weeks, but said he might be back for the Ohio State game. If that wasn't enough to make you shake your head, sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne hurt his foot, and will miss 4-6 weeks. According to reports that have surfaced within the past week, Hawthorne had this injury during Camp Rantoul and neglected to say anything about it, hoping it would get better on its own. According to Zook, prior knowledge of the injury could have prevented any further damage and kept him playing instead of looking from the sidelines.

So, where does these chain of events leave the Illini? Consider this: some offensive players are now moving to the defensive side of the ball in order to fill needed spots for the opening game. Converted wide receiver Jack Ramsey is now playing cornerback, and running back Justin Green will also be switched to the corner position. Ironic as it is, Green was recruited by Ohio State as a defensive back and was rumored headed there before the Illini stepped in and offered him a chance to play running back, which he wanted to do. So, it is no suprise that Green was a logical choice to make the switch. Freshman wideout Steve Hull will also switch sides of the ball and play safety in place of Sanni. This puts the secondary on a thin basis, and no doubt the Missouri offense will try and test the Illini early and often. Blaine Gabbard, the Tiger quarterback, had a great game last season against Illinois and all signs point to the same type of success happening.

It is apparent that the Illini get off to a good start this season, because another lackluster start like they have had the previous few seasons (the Rose Bowl year nonwithstanding), will simply not be good enough. The natives are getting restless in Illini Nation, and a 1-2 or even 0-3 start out of the gate may put some people over the edge and the calls for Zook's head may get louder still. Not saying that this will happen, but it is entirely possible for the Illini to go down to St. Louis on Saturday and get pummeled again, then come home with their heads between their legs and get beat by SIU. Momentum is key here, and a slow start to the season will kill any hopes of getting to a bowl. These latest injuries certainly do not help matters any, but we will just have to wait and see what transpires as a result. At this point, it's anyone's guess.

The Big Ten is set to announce the conference divisions on Wednesday night, and the Big Ten Network will cover the announcement live on its channel beginning at 6:00 pm central time. Be listening to WGCY or go online to listen around the world at www.wgcyradio.com for the latest regarding this. So much speculation has been generated by this, and it is almost time to find out what will be the result. In the meantime, did I mention it's Game Week?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Getting Defensive - Literally

It is often said that defense wins championships. Judging from the performance of the Fighting Illini defensive unit the past couple of seasons, that might stand the reason why you don't see too many championship trophies in the football office complex. The Illini will look somewhat different on defense this season, and leading the charge is Vic Koenning, who takes over the defensive coordinator duties and also coaches the defensive backs. Koenning comes from Kansas State, where he spent last season coaching the Wildcats as a co-defensive coordinator. Koenning has been a head coach in the past, taking the reins at Wyoming from 2000-2002. He inherits a defensive unit that gave up a lot of points in 2009, and at some times last season, it didn't matter how many points the offense scored because the defense would give up just as many, or in some cases, even more. Koenning has vowed to change the philosophy of the mindset that people have about the state of the defense.

Anchoring the defensive line will be returning starters Clay Nurse and Cory Liuget. Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, and Daryle Ballew will also see quite a bit of action up front. The linebacking corps has potential and want to get the reputation back as being known for Illinois producing great linebackers. Back after an injury last season is Butkus Award candidate Martez Wilson, who looks ready to resume his fine Illini career. Ian Thomas and Dustin Jefferson are also expected to contribute heavily, as is Justin Staples and Nate Palmer. Early in training camp, a true freshman has emerged at the linebacker spot in Jonathan Brown. Brown has looked very good thus far, and could very well challenge some of the veterans at the two-deep spot before the season begins. Senior Aaron Gress will also see significant playing time, as will freshman Austin Teitsma, who reminds me a little bit of Brit Miller.

Probably one of the deepest areas of the entire defense lies in the secondary, where there are several players vying for just a handful of positions. Returning starters Tavon Wilson and Nate Bussey anchor this group of players, while Terry Hawthorne and Supo Sanni also will be on the first team defense. Miami Thomas, who has battled injuries during his brief Illini career, hopes to make it an entire season healthy, but after having surgery on both knees the past couple of seasons, is a step slow and therefore, may not contribute as much as originally planned. Also expected in the mix are Joelil Thrash, Ashante Williams, and Travon Bellamy. Walt Aikens, who had some off the field issues that led to a suspension earlier in the summer, has been cleared to practice for the time being, pending the University investigation into the reason why he was suspended. Therefore, the jury is out whether or not he will be there to contend for any playing time. Junior college transfer Trulon Henry, who happens to be the older brother of NFL rookie Arrelious Benn, is expected to start at one of the corners, and even wears the same number as his brother. In talking with him before training camp, he actually wanted to wear number 6, but Chris James had that one already spoken for, so he turned the number upside down and went with 9. Also looking to fit into the mix are Patrick Nixon-Youman and late signee Fritz Rock. As deep as the secondary is, the main concern is whether or not these individuals will be able to make the plays to keep the offense in games.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you realize that the defense has been very porous over the previous seasons, and expectations are not very high as the team continues their Camp Rantoul session. Heading into the Missouri game each season, one wonders when they will turn it around and start the season on a winning note.

Coming next week, a look at the special teams units and a full report on the goings on at Camp Rantoul as the Fighting Illini wrap up training camp and head back to campus to begin classes for the 2010 Fall Semester.

Friday, August 13, 2010

2010 Fighting Illini Football Preview - Part 1

In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2010 season when the Illini play in St. Louis against the Missouri Tigers, I will be heading up to Camp Rantoul several times to look at the current Illini squad and offer my take on what I see unfolding. Here is the first such installment after taking in workouts earlier this week. What follows is the offensive preview for the upcoming season:

The offense that Illinois trots out on the field on September 4th at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis will look vastly different than squads of the past. Gone is Juice Williams, and for a lot of Illini faithful, the consensus is good riddance. Enter Nathan Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman from Kansas City, Missouri who is much smaller than the aforementioned Williams, but apparently more mobile in the pocket. Experience will be an issue with Scheelhaase, as he is one of three quarterbacks on the roster that has never thrown a collegiate pass. Backing him up are true freshmen Chandler Whitmer and Miles Osei, the latter of which seems likely to redshirt this season. Don't be surprised to see Eddie McGee take some snaps as well, as he worked out under center a little last week.

Running the ball shouldn't be an issue for the Illini, as they return their top 4 rushers from a year ago. Led by Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, the ground game seems poised to continue its greatness under new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. When Petrino was introduced as the new OC last spring, he unveiled his philosophy to "Feed The Studs", or FTS as he so mildly put it. With horses such as Leshoure and Ford, that shouldn't be a problem. Also returning to the mix is Troy Pollard and Justin Green, who are both fully healed and should be ready to contribute. Added to the mix is redshirt freshman Bud Golden, who may be asked to fill in on certain situations.

On the receiving end of things, gone is Arrelious "Regus" Benn to the NFL, but a stable of speedsters remain. Catching the ball may be the toughest part with this group, and here's hoping that Scheelhaase can get the rock to them. Chris James, Jarrod Fayson, and A. J. Jenkins anchor the cast returning for one more go at it. It was Jenkins that was here, then all but gone from the program, then back again. He said that it was the philosophy of the new offensive coordinator that played a huge part in his decision to return to the team, and thinks he can catch a lot of passes as a result. Added to the mix of this talented group are Fred Sykes and true freshman Steve Hull, as well as a pair of players from the Sunshine State with blazing speed, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford. Head Coach Ron Zook has said early on that several true freshmen may see action in the beginning of the season, and those two speedsters in particular may be among the ones that see action early. Rounding out the receiving corps are the tight ends, which can be used in several different capacities. They can block on the line, come out of the backfield as an H-Back, or go for the occasional pass as well. Early favorites at the position include local product Zach Becker, Justin Lattimore, and London Davis. Becker appears to be the favorite right now, and said that he will either come out of the backfield as a fullback, or be used in the tight end formation. Whatever the situation calls for and the coaches want, Becker is willing to contribute in any way that he can.

Of course, it all starts up on the offensive line, and those horses pave the way for the glamour position players to do their jobs. The O-Line is experienced, and should give Scheelhaase plenty of time to work. Jeff Allen and Randall Hunt anchor a line that has a lot of upside, and with Ryan Palmer, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic returning as well, should bolster the rotation pretty well. Add Corey Lewis and Craig Wilson in there as well, and you have some much needed depth for this group, that will need some breathers every now and then, especially early in the season when the temperature is still an issue. The offensive line has taken some heat in the past for not allowing Juice to move in the backfield like he was meant to do, but hopefully that mindset has passed and this year's group can put that behind them and move on to bigger and better things.

It is hard to predict how a team will do by simply watching them in training camp, but for a team that finished 3-9 a year ago, the prognosis is not rosy. There are a lot of undecideds about this particular Illini team, and as it has for the past few seasons, will begin on a neutral field against the Missouri Tigers on Labor Day Weekend. The excitement level has been there for the past 2 meetings, but soon has leveled off considerably once the lights went down and the team returned to reality. This year, the expectations are not nearly as high, so there is room for some optimism. The defense will play a huge role in that, and next week, I will break down the defense group by group and assess what needs to be done in order for the Illini to start the season off on a winning note. Until then.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Big Ten Football - Let the games begin!



Now that the calendar has turned to August, most people's attention turn to the gridiron and the start of football season. Unless you are a fan of the Chicago White Sox or St. Louis Cardinals, this season cannot come soon enough. This season's Big Ten football campaign promises yet again to be another competitive one, with the usual band of suspects near the top regaining that status. The season officially kicked off on Monday and Tuesday with the Big Ten Media Days at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. All 11 coaches, as well as commissioner Jim Delaney and director of officials Bill Carollo were available to the media for interviews. The top 3 teams, as selected by the attending media contingent, for the preseason included Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin in that order. No surprise that the Illini were nowhere near that list, and what follows is a brief snippet of all 11 coaches and their prospects on the upcoming season.

First on the podium was Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. Bielema is beginning his fifth season at
the helm of the Badgers, and doesn't feel any immense pressure on being selected as the #3
team in the preseason conference standings. A main knock on Bielema in the past was not
being more media friendly, something he hopes to change this
season. Already during the summer,
he welcomed a television crew into his home for a cooking lesson, and played golf with a writer. Also thinks that the evolution of
social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have
changed the game a bit, anywhere from keeping track of players to interactions with fans. As far as his expectations for the season, they have a lot of fifth year seniors, led by their quarterback Scott Tolzien. The flux of experience will hopefully mean great things for Bielema and the Badgers this season.

The second coach to take the mike was Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Being the youngest coach in the league, he is once again dealing with another quarterback that has seen limited action in games. In regards to the Wildcats' meeting with the Fighting Illini at Wrigley Field in November, he likes the idea and thinks it will be nothing but a positive boos
t for the program, not to mention a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on the same field as George Halas and Gale Sayers.Fitzgerald still thinks about the play in last season's Outback Bowl, and how it could have gone differently. But, it was just one of about 50 plays that could have gone either way and the game was more or less forgotten once he got off the plane after returning home.
Next to speak was Illinois coach Ron Zook. Zook, who is entering his seventh season as coach of the Fighting Illini, has faced some intense pressure over the summer, as recruiting took a bit of a downturn and several new coaches were hired to replace ones that were let go during the off-season. Still, Zook remains optimistic that they can rebound this
season said today that this season's team looks better on paper than the 2008 Rose Bowl team. Well, football games are not played on paper, they are played by little men inside your television set. Not sure who said that quote, but it was pointed out to me up in Chicago and I thought that this was a fitting occasion to use it. Quarterback will be a major question, as the top 3 signal callers on the roster have thrown a grand total of 0 passes between them. That being said, Eddie McGee, who converted to wide
receiver from quarterback last season, has the most experience of any player on the roster at that position. Not a good situation to be in, but hopefully Nathan Scheelhaase, who was named the starter earlier in the summer, can mature quickly and be the type of signal caller that he can be.

Speaking of hot seats, the next coach that came to the podium was Michigan coach Rich
Rodriguez. Rodriguez has endured much criticism during his short tenure, mainly because of not getting the job done. The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is one like no other, and often a coach's legacy is determined by how often they beat the other team. One wonders if Rodriguez cannot get the job done this season, how hot
the seat will get in Ann Arbor. The tradition that Michigan football brings speaks a lot, and Rodriguez said that one of the main concerns of the Wolverine fan base was for the team to win more games, something that he hopes to change. He went on to say that is is never easy as a coach to please everyone, and ever the showman, said that he would choose to go for 2 points almost always instead of kicking an extra point if the game was on the line. Statements like that certainly cannot endear him to the hostile Michigan fan base.

Michigan State's Mark D'Antonio was next on the list, and started off by saying that their team will pretty much evolve around Greg Jones, who was voted as the preseason defensive player of the year by the Big Ten media. The Spartans have a lot of depth returning, and are looking to
improve on a season that saw them go to yet another bowl game.
In D'Antonio's 3 seasons in East Lansing, they have been to a bowl game each and every year. The quarterback returns for Michigan State, Kirk Cousins, and has quite an array of receivers to go to. They return a stable of receivers, as well as all four tight ends from a year ago. The main concern, according to D'Antonio, will be at running back, where they saw five different players last season see action. Once that hurdle is cleared, the Spartans may very well be on the road to yet another bowl appearance.

Indiana's Bill Lynch was next on the dais, and his main concern was finishing games, citing they were about 12 plays from having a great season in 2009 and qualifying for a pretty good
bowl game. The Hoosiers return their quarterback,
Ben Chappell, as well as one of the top receivers in Tandon Doss.
In addition to catching the ball, Doss is down right dangerous on special teams, being the main returner on both punts and kickof
fs. Lynch said that once Doss catches the ball, he is tough to bring down, but getting him the ball will be the main concern. They worked very hard in the spring and summer, and brought in a
couple of junior college transfers at the corners in the secondary, which will no doubt bolster their defense.

Taking the stand next was Purdue coach Danny Hope, who was excited to report that they had over 90 players on campus during the summer workout sessions, so team chemistry will be key going into the season. He talked about the slow start that the
Boilermakers had in 2009, but also added that they finished strong, including a dramatic win over Ohio State in West Lafayette. Regarding expansion of the leafue, Hope said that he
welcomes the idea of new rivalry games, but also wanted the
current rivalry games with Indiana, Illinois and Michigan State to remain intact as well. The Boilers should be well represented at
running back and the receiver position, but the quarterback slot may be another story, as they are inexperienced there.

A fan and media favorite, Joe Paterno, took the podium next, and as usual, had the media in attendance in stitches with his quips and one-liners. Never one to shy away from a question, Joe Pa was cornered with the question that he seems to get every year, when he will step down as
coach of the Nittany Lions. And, the answer that he gives every year, is that he has no plans to retire. After all, he has been doing this for 44 years, and probably will continue until he can no longer coach effectively. When posed with the question of what he think
s about Nebraska coming into the league, he recalled when Penn State came into the league and relished the idea, much as he doe
s now with the Cornhuskers set to debut in 2011. One wish that
Paterno had was if the conference does any additional expansion, that they find a couple teams from the eastern part of the country to cut down on the travel expenses for the Nittany Lions. Sounds like a winner of an idea to me.

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster spoke next, and was very humbled to be following the legend that is Joe Paterno. Brewster, who played his collegiate ball at Illinois, has been trying to
improve the non-conference scheduling of the Gophers, and with USC coming to the Twin Cities this fall, thinks he is well on the way to accomplishing that goal. Often in the past, Minnesota had scheduled a light pre-conference schedule, only to falter down th
e stretch, but with the early cupcake slate, almost assuredly qualified for a bowl game. Brewster likes the idea of quality teams coming into their new home, TCF Bank Stadium, and wants to
show it off as much as possible. On the field, Adam Weber returns behind center and with a good recruiting class in the off-season, looks to get back to a bowl game sooner, rather than later.

Kirk Ferentz hit the podium next, and is second to Paterno in years of service inside the league, beginning his 12th season in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes were picked to finish second in the preseason by the media, and Ferentz understands the lofty expectations that come with that.
Offensively, the Hawkeyes have lost some linemen, but return quarterback Ricky Stanzi to lead the offense, James Vandeburg stepped in last season when Stanzi was injured, but going into fall camp it is Stanzi who will lead them. Ferentz hopes that they can replace some of the depleted linemen to help protect his signal caller. As most of the coaches today concurred, Ferentz likes the idea of expansion, and with Nebraska set to come aboard next
season, is excited of the instant rivalry that will be created from this game. Iowa and Nebraska border each other, and it could very well become a game along the lines of Ohio State and Michigan.

The final coach to speak was Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. Tressel, who is beginning his 1oth season in Columbus, knows that being the preseason favorite comes with a target on their backs. The Buckeyes also have the conference's preseason offensive play
er of the year in quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Tressel knows that they will get everyone's best shot when they play the Buckeyes, and even though they lost a lot of seniors last season, knows that they will bounce back, especially with Pryor leading the offense. Regarding the expansion question, Tressel likes the idea of new rivalries being created, but doesn't think that it will hurt the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry at all.

Later in the day, commissioner Jim Delaney met the media and pretty much gave the idea that there will be a Big Ten Championship game, starting as early as the 2012 season. Details are very sketchy at this point, and more information will definitely be forthcoming once Nebraska officially joins the league next July.

11 coaches, 1 exciting day of speculation. Yes, sports fans, football season is here!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sign of the times?

We are approximately one month out from the start of Camp Rantoul and the official beginning of the 2010 football season for the Fighting Illini. There are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the team, but none more so than the puzzle with the assistant coaches, which took another turn last week with the announcement that newly hired tight ends coach Greg Nord was going back to the University of Kentucky, thus vacating the position that he had secured last December. The departure of Nord not only creates a void in the coaching staff this close to the beginning of the season, but also means that the recruiting coordinator is now up for grabs, since Nord held that position as well. What does THAT tell you? Not sure what this means, but it cannot bode well for recruiting as the Illini embark on yet another season that is important to Coach Zook and his current staff. Since the coaching exodus last fall, recruiting has fallen off, as several key commits have changed their minds and removed Illinois from their choices. Maybe the fact that the program has had just 3 winning seasons in the last 15 years is a big reason, but the decline of the level of recruiting cannot help this situation anytime soon. You've seen the numbers depicting what the new offense and defensive coordinators will be making this coming season, and with the state of Illinois in a financial catastrophe, this certainly doesn't help matters any. Now, given the fact the Nord is gone leaves the coaching staff with an important position to fill and not a whole lot of time to do it. Most likely, Dan Disch will take over the recruiting duties in a stopgap measure until a permanent hire is secured.

Since the Big Ten Conference has welcomed Nebraska starting in 2011, this puts the chances of the Illini rising in the conference at slim and none. Nebraska has been a successful program in the Big 8 and now Big 12 in the past, and the addition of the Cornhuskers will give perennial programs such as Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan another hurdle to climb when it comes to getting to the big bowl games. Other sports such as volleyball and men's basketball may in fact benefit the Illini, as the Nebraska program in other sports have not been nearly as successful than the football program. Still, it is a good thing for the conference, as it brings the total number to 12 (name change?), and will more than likely begin fueling debate over conference realignment into divisions. Early talk, however, has centered more on RPI rating over the last 1o years and less on geographical placement. More on this as it becomes available.

Illini Nation was once again represented well at the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities, the closest venue for a PGA event in the state of Illinois. Four former Illini began the week in the tourney, and only one, defending champ Steve Stricker, regained his title by shooting a 4-day total of 258, good for 26 under par for the tournament. Fellow Illini alums Joe Affrunti (139), D. A. Points (139) and current Illini golf coach Mike Small (146), all missed the cut and was done for the weekend on Friday. Congrats to Strick on another PGA title!

Coming in August, the first of 3 previews on the upcoming football season as Camp Rantoul approaches. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summertime . . . . .Quiet times on campus

The summer months on the University of Illinois campus tend to be quiet and uneventful. However, the last couple of months the Illinois sports teams have been in the news, and a couple of individual student/athletes have been creating quite a buzz in their respective sports. First, on the football side of things, the announcement of Nathan Scheelhaase as the starting quarterback entering Camp Rantoul has caused some fallout in the ranks. Jacob Charest, who saw some action last season when Juice Williams was benched, has decided to transfer closer to his North Carolina home, most likely because of the Scheelhaase verdict. This leaves true freshman Chandler Whitmer as the backup to Scheelhaase, so if there are any issues early on with the offense (and given the state of the program as of late, that is entirely possible), look for Whitmer to get his feet wet. Personally, I think that Charest made a premature decision by leaving, but I can see the issue from both sides. And, to add to the intrigue, it was announced earlier on Tuesday that former defensive lineman Josh Brent has decided to enter the NFL supplementary draft instead of trying to regain his eligibility. Brent enrolled at Parkland last spring as a measure to increase his grades, but according to a UI spokesman, didn't improve them as much as he needed to, and therefore, is exploring the NFL option instead.

On the basketball front, the men's program continues to point upward, while the women's program remains a question mark. Coach Bruce Weber got yet another commitment from Mychael Henry, which means that the program is in good hands for the distant future. With all of the interest in assistant coach Jerrance Howard lately, the Illini are in need to make a move to keep him in place. However, Jerrance's heart bleeds orange and blue, so that shouldn't be a problem. Howard has been courted by Coach John Calipari of Kentucky, where he was an assistant before coming to the Illini coaching staff. Howard played for the Illini and is a good candidate for a future head coach one day.

Another semester, another player dismissed from the Illini women's team. It really should come as no surprise, but freshman guard Brianna Jones has been booted by Jolette Law for a violation of team rules. Also announced earlier this week was the transfer of Fabiola Josil to North Florida. This has become a broken record of sorts, with the total of players leaving the program for one reason or another increasing on a yearly basis. Something needs to be done about this and quick, or else this program will remain in limbo and will never rise to the level that it is capable of.

Now for some better news. Illini junior Scott Langley made quite a splash in the golfing world recently. Langley won the individual title in the NCAA Tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then won a US Open qualifier in his home area of St. Louis to get to play with the pros at Pebble Beach. Langley finished the tournament at 8 over par, shooting a 292 for the weekend, giving him a tie for 16th place overall. Not a bad showing for the youngster, who insists that he will be back at Illinois for his senior season to try and help the Illini win the NCAA team title next season.

Finally, Illini track and field standout Angela Bizzari has completed a sensational season on the track, winning the Dike Eddelman award for the third time. This is unprecedented, and I am sure that she has an Olympic future in front of her. Bizzari had to withdraw from the 5000 meters at the NCAA Championships, citing a case of nerves as the culprit.

Enjoy the rest of the summer folks, as Camp Rantoul is only 50 days away!