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?