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, 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.

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