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.