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!