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 31, 2011

Out With The Old......In With The New

2011 was quite a year for Fighting Illini sports, both good and bad. As I type this, the football team, captained by interim coach Vic Koenning is winning their bowl game against UCLA in San Francisco, while the basketball team got pummeled at Purdue at around the same time. (More on both of those games later). But, the football program endured its share of ups and downs during the season, and the fact that they are even in a bowl game is a miracle unto itself. After all, this is the same team that started the season 6-0, lost their next 6 games to finish the regular season 6-6, and in the process, fired head coach Ron Zook. That firing led to the naming of Koenning as interim coach, and for the exception of defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, will start fresh with a stable of new coaches under Tim Beckman, who was hired in mid-December to take over the Illini. Koenning, who is headed to North Carolina to become defensive coordinator for Larry Fedora, has done a pretty good job leading the Illini in the meantime, and I must admit that I will be sorry to see him go. But, I understand his reasoning to want to start fresh, especially when there is a new coach coming in from the outside that has his own schemes. This Illini team, who ended up defeating the Bruins 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, is the first team in school history to win consecutive bowl games, and with a long standing history of Illinois football, that is remarkable in itself. Granted, when you think Illinois football, winning is not something that immediately comes to mind. But, that is still a feat that warrants mention. This hasn't been the best Illinois team by far, but under Koenning, at least they gave it all they had.
Beckman inherits an Illini team in much better shape than when Zook was named coach after Ron Turner was fired. The only impending question at the moment is whether or not junior defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus will return. Mercilus had a record setting season, and all signs are pointing to him skipping his senior season and taking his game to the next level. All in all, a nice bowl win by the Illini and something to build on as the Tim Beckman era begins in Champaign.

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini men's basketball team also played on New Year's Eve, and at the same time that the football team was doing battle in San Francisco. The result was not as favorable, however, as the Illini dropped a 75-60 decision to the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette. The Illini have not beaten the Boilers in the last 6 games, which means that nobody on the current squad has tasted victory against them. 2011 was another year of ups and downs for the Illini basketball team, with a return to the NCAA Tournament, and a win against UNLV before losing to Kansas and former coach Bill Self in the third round. Key losses of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole to graduation, as well as Jereme Richmond declaring early for the NBA draft. The story of Richmond didn't end very well, as he was not drafted, and ended up getting arrested and could face possible prison time as a result of his misfortunes. Such a tragic turn of events for a promising talent that may have seen his career end before it even began. Nice way to waste four years waiting for him to arrive, and then to have this happen. The defections didn't end with Richmond, however, as earlier last week Crandall Head left the Illinois program, apparently for a lack of playing time. Crandall had his problems while at Illinois, and unlike his brother Luther, who was given a second chance by Weber, never could seem to be consistent on the court. However, this is still a young Illinois team, and this year could be packed with a lot of nights when they play like they did against Purdue. I would just get used to it, and if I were Mike Thomas, maybe it is time to think about a change at the top if things continue on the path that it is at the moment. The Big Ten is competitive, and wins on the road will be hard to come by, no matter who you are.

Perhaps the highlight of 2011 was the remarkable run by the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team, as they made it all the way to the national championship game, before falling to UCLA, who won their fourth title in their storied history. Kevin Hambly had his team set a goal at the beginning of the season, and that goal was to win the title, something that they nearly accomplished. There were a few bumps along the way, but for the most part, the season went according to planned, and was a magical run. Hopefully the ladies can repeat the feat in 2o12 and create some sort of a dynasty for the Illinois program. That is sorely needed in any sport at the moment.

Jolette Law's Illini women's team continues Big Ten play this coming week when they welcome Purdue to the Assembly Hall on Monday to begin 2012. 2011 saw some flashes of promise, as the Illini ladies made a run in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, finally bowing out to Penn State in the semifinals. The loss meant the the Illini have not been to the NCAA Tournament in 8 years, something that drastically needs to change. So far in the 2011-12 campaign, that streak seems in no danger of ending, as they have stumbled out to a 6-8 start to the season, albeit losing Centrese McGee before the season began to an ACL injury. I also hope that Mike Thomas is closely watching this situation and makes the right decision about the future of this program.

Happy New Year! May 2012 bring more promise!!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Fresh Start

Last Friday, Tim Beckman was introduced as the 23rd head football coach at the University of Illinois, replacing Ron Zook, who was fired late last month. Beckman comes to Illinois from the University of Toledo, where he compiled a 23-16 record over the past 3 seasons, including a 14-2 record in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). There has been an awfully lot of conversation since Beckman was hired, and a good deal of that chatter has not been on the positive side. There are certainly a lot of questions that need to be addressed with this hire, but a couple really stand out above the others. The first question is whether or not this was the correct hire for the University and moving its football program forward. I have mentioned before that Zook left the program much better than he inherited it, and a lot of that is based on his ability to recruit and bring in some of the higher caliber players. Can Beckman carry on that tradtion? A lot of the bigger, more trusted names either were not interested in the job, or were lured away by other schools that have deeper pockets to pay the head coach. Athletic Director Mike Thomas, himself well-known for hiring MAC coaches where he previously was at the University of Cincinnati, is sure that he has hired the right guy for the job. At his introductory press conference when he was introduced, Beckman gave a speech that would lead to believe that he is ready for the job.

The second, and perhaps more important question that the Beckman hire raises is the fate of the current coaching staff and what lies in store for them as the new staff is formed. Interim coach Vic Koenning, who also serves as the defensive coordinator, remains on the staff, but it is unclear as to whether or not he will stay on once Beckman begins to formulate his staff. On Monday, Beckman extended an invitation for Koenning to stay in a co-coordinator role, and then on Tuesday, modified that invitation to the full coordinator spot. Beckman gave Koenning until Wednesday to make up his mind, but rumors have been circulating about Koenning being offered defensive coordinator positions elsewhere that would undoubtedly be worth more money than what Illinois would be willing to pay. The reversal of fortune tells me that Beckman intends to bring in his own man on defense, and who knows how much input Koenning would have. Granted, Koenning has a lot to think about in making this very important decision, as well as trying to get a football team ready to play in a bowl game in just over two weeks from now. Word came out out late on Tuesday that none of the offensive staff will return for next season, so it appears that the dominoes have already begun to fall. And, just announced on Wednesday, Koenning has indeed chosen to leave the program to pursue other opportunities. Koenning will stay with the team through the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, then leave once the bowl game is over. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will remain on Beckman's staff as he begins to assemble it over the next few weeks. Stay tuned for more information on this breaking news.

For the first time since 1992, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team is off to the Final Four. They punched their ticket to San Antonio by defeating Florida on their home floor last Saturday evening in an exciting 3-1 match. The match was tight from start to finish, as most regional finals are. The Illini have been one of the top teams in the nation all season long, and remain the highest seed left in the tournament. They will take on the Women of Troy, otherwise known as USC on Thursday evening at the Alamadome in San Antonio (approximately 8:00 pm, ESPN2), following the UCLA-Florida State matchup, which begins at 6:00 pm. Both matches will be televised, with the winners facing each other in the national championship game on Saturday evening. Coach Kevin Hambly has kept the distractions to a minimum all season long, and downplayed the stretch of games during the season that saw them fall from the top spot. Hambly was more concerned with being #1 when the season ended, not in the middle of it. Now, the Illini have their chance to do just that, and are two wins away from accomplishing that feat.

The Fighting Illini men's basketball team has raced out to a 10-0 start to the season, their best beginning since the year after the Final Four year. The latest victories weren't easy ones, but they still count in the win column nonetheless. St. Bonaventure presented a unique challenge for the Illini, and they proceeded to triple team center Meyers Leonard, thus essentially taking him out of the game. The Illini won a hard fought 48-43 contest, one that they had to come from behind in order to win. Then, on Sunday night, the Illini hosted Coppin State, another team that didn't want to go away easy. The Illini prevailed in that one as well, 80-63, and as a result of yet another perfect week, saw them rise in the rankings to #19 in both the AP and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' poll. Rankings mean nothing at this point of the season, and the Illini have a challenging week ahead as they try to maintain their unbeaten record and Top 25 ranking. The Illini make their annual trek to the United Center on Saturday to play UNLV (4:00 pm CT, Big Ten Network). Then, the Illini will return to the Assembly Hall on Monday evening to face the Big Red of Cornell before making their yearly trek to St. Louis to face their first top 10 team of the season against Missouri in the Busch Braggin' Rights game.

The Fighting Illini women's basketball team had been idle for nearly a week since defeating Illinois State 66-56 in Normal. The Illini will also be playing at the United Center on Saturday afternoon ahead of the men when they take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Jolette Law's team currently has a 4-5 record on the season.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wanted: Football Coach

I forgot how much fun trying to hire a football coach can be. In the days since Ron Zook was fired as Illini head football coach, there has been much speculation on who his replacement will be. Names have surfaced, rumors have spread, but so far, nobody has emerged as the clear-cut favorite. Sure, there have been names that made sense, but no one has made the commitment and signed on the dotted line yet. First there was Mike Leach, then Kevin Sumlin, and now the focus has shifted to Tim Beckman of Toledo. The only one that truly know what is going on is athletic director Mike Thomas, and he's not saying anything to anyone. A lot of rumors have been flying around as well about Thomas' whereabouts the past week during this search, but who know how credible this information is. One thing is clear: whoever comes into the job will need to build on what Zook started. It is fair to say that Zook left the program much better than he inherited it, but there is still a long way to go in order to make the Illinois program a consistent winner. Does anybody want this job? I begin to wonder as name after name appears to turn down the job for various reasons. Money is definitely a key issue, and I'm not sure that Illinois cannot afford another buyout of a football coach, since the state has multiple issues of their own outside of sports. With the uncertainty of who the new coach will be, it remains to be seen who of the current coaches will be on staff for the upcoming bowl game.

Interim head coach Vic Koenning spoke to the media, as well as Thomas to discuss the Illini's bowl invitation, which was determined on Sunday night. The Illini were selected to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, California on New Year's Eve. Their opponent will be UCLA, who also is in search of a head coach, since Rick Neuheisel was fired after the season. The Bruins are 6-7 on the season, which means that the loser of this bowl game will end the season with a losing record. Koenning really impressed me at the press conference by speaking from the heart instead of sounding like Zook has over the past few years. Koenning stated that if guys get jobs, they need to go to them, especially if they are needed for recruiting. He also expressed that he is looking, and may not even be around to coach the Illini in the bowl if he gets a job elsewhere. So much uncertainty remains, but someone will undoubtedly take the reins if Koenning cannot. One coach has already left the program, that being Paul Petrino, who rejoined his brother Bobby in Arkansas. Petrino will be the offensive coordinator and also coach quarterbacks. Petrino had some interesting comments upon leaving, and some of them could even be translated as a slam on Zook himself. So, who knows what the next three weeks will hold for the Illini football program as they practice for the bowl game. Stay tuned.

The Fighting Illini men's basketball team is coming off a big win over Gonzaga that has launched them into the Top 25 for the first time this season. The Illini took down the Bulldogs 82-75 last Saturday at the Assembly Hall before a national television audience, and looked good doing so. Meyers Leonard definitely has evolved into a formidable post player, and he took full advantage of going up against Gonzaga's big man Robert Sacre. The main question was whether or not the Illini could sustain that momentum coming off the big win into their next game, which was also at home against St. Bonaventure. Based on the way this game went, I would say that the Illini failed the test. The Bonnies were a dangerous team coming in, as the Illini found out early. St. Bonaventure shut down the inside game of the Illini, forcing them to rely on the long range jumper. The Bonnies had a nine point lead with five minutes to play, and the situation looked very bleak for the Illini. Then, Brandon Paul showed up and willed his team to one of the more improbable comebacks in recent memory, resulting in a gutty, 48-43 victory. Paul finished the game with 17 points, including several key shots down the stretch. When nobody else would venture inside the lane, Paul dared to try, and gave the Illini the spark they needed. The win over the Bonnies keeps the Illini in the rankings for at least one more week, and gives them a record of 9-0, their best start to a season since the 2005-06 season. The Illini are in final exam mode right now, but get back into action on Sunday night when they welcome the Coppin State Eagles to the Assembly Hall (7:00 pm CT, ESPNU). Coppin State is 3-4 on the season, but as the football team found out, you don't overlook anyone, especially when you are unbeaten.

Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini women's volleyball team passed its first postseason test last weekend at Huff Hall, downing both Central Michigan and Marquette 3 games to none. The Illini, who garnered the overall #3 seed in the NCAA tournament, now will head to Gainesville, Florida to play in the regional with Florida, Ohio State and Michigan. The Illini will face the Buckeyes for the third time this season, with the Illini winning both matches during the regular season. The Illini defeated the Buckeyes in straight sets in Columbus, while taking them down in 4 games in Champaign. This is also the third time that the Illini and the Buckeyes have met in the NCAA Tournament, the last time in the first round at Huff Hall back in 1992. The Illini will play at 4:00 pm CT on Friday, with the winner facing the winner of the Michigan-Florida match at 6:00 pm CT on Saturday. The Friday matches will be streamed on, with the final being on ESPNU on Saturday evening.

After losing 5 of the their first 8 games of the season, Jolette Law's women's basketball team is on a two-game winning streak, the latest being a 66-56 win over Illinois State in Normal on Wednesday evening. Freshman Ivory Crawford netted a career high 16 points to lead the Illini to the victory. The women have been away from the Assembly Hall for quite a while, and that hiatus will continue, at least for the next couple weeks. The next game for the women takes place next Saturday (December 17), when they battle Texas Tech at the United Center (1:00 PM, CT, BTN). That game is the front end of a men's and women's doubleheader the week before the Christmas holiday.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Changing Of The Guard

The free fall of the Fighting Illini football ultimately resulted in the inevitable happening, and that was the firing of Ron Zook as head football coach. After starting the season 6-0, including narrow wins over Arizona State, Western Michigan, and Northwestern, the Illini have since dropped 6 straight games, the last setback in this streak being a 27-7 loss to last place Minnesota on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. This was perhaps the final nail in Zook's coffin, as once again the Illini offense looked positively dreadful, leading new athletic director Mike Thomas to make the decision to remove Zook as Illini coach. So, during the Illini basketball game on Sunday against Chicago State (more on that game later), news began circulating throughout the Assembly Hall that Zook had indeed been fired and that Thomas would be addressing the media, thus making it official. Zook himself also made a statement regarding his firing, but wouldn't take any questions from the media in attendance. Thomas had said prior to the firing that he intended to assess the program and Zook's future after the regular season was over, and also that he would examine the "entire body of work", not just this season. Thomas mentioned that a change was necessary to move the program forward, and also said that if he was making a decision about character, then Zook would have had a lifetime contract. But, character doesn't win games or put fans in the seats, so the decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Zook compiled a 34-51 record over his 7 seasons in Champaign, including taking the Illini to 2 bowl games. The Illini are still bowl eligible this season as well, so you can actually say that Zook coached the team to 3 bowl games, although he won't be leading the team in this year's game. That honor falls upon defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who takes over as interim head coach while a replacement for Zook is found. Unlike his predecessor, Thomas plans on using a search committee to find the next coach. Former athletic director Ron Guenther commonly would be a search committee of one, thereby getting "his man" all by himself.

So, where does this leave the football program? As was previously mentioned, attendance is falling as quickly as the Illini's bowl placement. If there is one coach on the current staff that is capable of leading the team through this transition, Koenning is definitely the one for the job. You could argue that Petrino is the better fit, but just look at the offense over the past few weeks and all of a sudden he doesn't look so attractive in leading the team. Earlier in the season when speculation began that Zook might not be retained as coach, many people were wanting Petrino to be the successor, based solely on his name and reputation at Arkansas under older brother Bobby. That scenario doesn't look nearly as good now, and whether or not Koenning remains on the staff when the new coach is hired is anyone's guess right now. After all, he has head coaching experience at Wyoming and with so many jobs currently opening within the past week, would like to find somewhere to possibly coach again as well. Is is assumed that the Illini will be invited to a bowl game, but that is still uncertain where that destination will be. Stay tuned.

Much better news on the men's basketball front, with Bruce Weber's squad capturing the Cancun Challenge title with a 63-59 over in-state rival Illinois State. The Illini followed up that title with an easy win over Chicago State 90-43 on Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall. The lopsided win gave Weber a chance to play some of his younger players for considerable minutes, and one freshman in particular, Myke Henry, took full advantage of it. Henry scored 14 points to lead the Illini after coming off of an ankle injury at the start of the season. Such a performance is refreshing to see for this group of players, mainly because they are so young. On Tuesday night, the Illini traveled to Maryland for their first true road game of the season in the Big 10/ACC Challenge. The Illini prevailed in that game 71-62, behind a strong game by senior transfer Sam Maniscalco, who had 24 points. Maniscalco was clutch down the stretch, as he connected for 5 of 8 shots from beyond the arc, as well as made all 7 of his free throws. Brandon Paul also had a good game for a change, scoring 17 points to help lead the Illini to the victory. For the first time since the 2008-09 season, the Illini have started the season 7-0, but have a challenging stretch of games coming up before the start of the new year. The first real test comes this Saturday when Gonzaga pays a visit to the Assembly Hall (2:15 pm CT, ESPN2).

News isn't as encouraging on the women's basketball front, as Jolette Law's squad has endured a rough stretch of games to start their season. The Illini are just 2-5 so far, and dropped both games at the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico, falling to Green Bay 82-62 and Arizona State in a close one, 51-50. The Illini knew this would be a tough hill to climb since Law lost one of her better players to an ACL tear before the season began. With Centrese McGee out, players like Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold will need to step up. The women will participate in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge on Thursday when they travel to Clemson, South Carolina to take on the Clemson Tigers at 6:00 pm. The Illini will not return to the Assembly Hall until December 28th. Not that it matters anyway, given the lack of fan support that they get.

Kevin Hambly's Illini spikers were given the opportunity to host first and second round matches in the NCAA volleyball tournament. The Illini will face Central Michigan on Friday night, and the winner of that match will then take on the winner of the other match, which is Marquette and Western Kentucky. The Illini are the overall #3 seed in the tournament, and will feed into the Gainesville, Florida regional, which will be played next weekend on the University of Florida campus. Looking ahead, as I tend to do far too often, the Illini could match up with #2 Nebraska in one of the final four matches, should they get that far.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The Illini version.

This past weekend was a busy one on the University of Illinois campus. All the major sports were in action, either beginning regular season schedules, continuing seasons, or beginning post-season play. Here, in my own opinion, is a synopsis of the weekend.
First, the good. And there is plenty of good to report from campus, as a couple of the women's sports teams are doing very well in their respective seasons. The volleyball team returned to their winning ways, taking down two ranked teams in the process in Penn State and Ohio State last weekend at Huff Hall. On Friday evening, the Illini defeated the Nittany Lions, becoming the first team to sweep them in the season series in quite some time. Likewise, the Illini beat the Buckeyes on Saturday night to improve their season record to 24-3 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten. The #7 ranked Illini are now just one game off the lead in the conference race, and will be back on the road this weekend when they travel to East Lansing on Friday night to battle Michigan State and then further up the road to Ann Arbor on Saturday to battle the Michigan Wolverines.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Illini women's soccer team began NCAA tournament play at home and defeated the defending champions Notre Dame 1-0 to advance to the second round of the tournament. In a very blustery wind, Niki Read scored the only goal of the game, and sent the Illini on to victory. The #16th ranked Illini will now travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma to battle #4 Oklahoma State, who is seeded #2 in the region on Friday evening at 5:00 pm. Auburn and Maryland are also in the regional pod, with the winners meeting on Sunday for the right to advance further still in the tournament.

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini basketball team began the regular season this past Friday evening, and for the week thus far, have won their first two games, although they may not have been as convincing as one might have expected. The Illini beat Loyola-Chicago 67-49, then began the U.S. portion of the Cancun Challenge by taking down SIU-Edwardsville 66-46 on Monday evening at the Assembly Hall. D. J. Richardson tied a career high in points with 20, and Tyler Griffey notched his first double-double of his young Illini career with 10 points and a career high in rebounds with 14. The severely undersized Cougars hung tough with the Illini for a good portion of the game, before their size and athleticism finally wore their guests down. With such a young team this season, Weber has been trying different lineup combinations, but injuries have limited him so far. Among the players that have missed at least one game since the season began have been Sam Maniscalco, Myke Henry, and Devin Langford. Crandall Head, who is currently serving a four game suspension for an off-court incident, is set to return when the Illini face the Bisons of Lipscomb University on Thursday night (8:00 pm, CT BTN) at the Assembly Hall. The game against Lipscomb is another contest in the Cancun Challenge. Then, the Illini will head to Mexico to finish the challenge when they play the Richmond Spiders the week of Thanksgiving.

Even though the Illini women's basketball team has started the season 2-1, I file them in the bad category mainly because of the lack of attention that this program has. After a season opening loss to South Carolina last Friday afternoon, the Illini have bounced back to defeat Cleveland State on the road and Memphis on Tuesday night 62-54. The main issue here are the crowds at Assembly Hall. Often times, you can physically count the bodies in attendance, and the level of play doesn't seem to be helping this matter any. Coach Jolette Law keeps saying that she is going to get things turned around, and every year she is at the helm it doesn't seem to get any better. The Illini now embark on what turns out to be a nine game road trip, since they won't be playing back at the Assembly Hall until they host Alabama A & M on December 28th. The Illini will next be in action on Friday night when they take on the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, then Sunday when they battle the California Bears in Berkeley.

The state of the Illinois football program gets both a bad and an ugly tag, and to differentiate between the two, I will describe them separately. First, for the bad of the equation. The Illini dropped their fourth straight game after winning their first six games to become bowl eligible, and to make matters worse, it came at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines 31-14 as the Illini offense once again didn't fare very well at all. Pressure is mounting for Ron Zook in more ways than one during this losing streak, and it appears that it is finally getting to the coach. On two separate occasions this week, Zook has spoken to the media and the topic about his future as Illinois coach has come up both times. On Monday, a reporter grilled Zook about his future, and was told that this wasn't the time to bring that up. Then, at his weekly gathering with the press on Tuesday, he stated up front that this wasn't about him or about his future, and if anyone wanted to broach the issue with him, then he would be done for the day. Well, the subject was brought up about 18 minutes into the press conference, and that was the end of that. The Illini will face Wisconsin (11:00 am CT, ESPN2) on Saturday in the final home game of the season. It also marks Senior Day for 15 Illini players that will be playing their final home game at Memorial Stadium. The question is, will this be "Senior Day" for Ron Zook as well?

And now, for the ugly. This has been a very bad week for Illinois football, both on and off the field. There have been a couple of incidents that occurred after the game on Saturday that has really marred this program. First of all, senior Trulon Henry was shot in the hand after he returned to a party to get some younger players away from the scene. Henry, who will miss the remainder of the season and possibly the bowl game if the Illini get an invite, was the innocent victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, to make matters worse, two freshmen wide receivers were arrested in a separate incident earlier on Saturday evening. Kenny Knight and Jordan Frysinger attempted to run from the scene on Green Street, but were apprehended by police before they could get very far. I don't know what this says about the speed of our receivers, but if they cannot outrun the police, then maybe they don't deserve to be on the football team. Still, these two incidents cast a darkened shadow on a program that has fallen on hard times in the last month. This cannot help Ron Zook's quest to stay on as Illinois coach, and only an upset win against Wisconsin and a season ending win at Minnesota might be the only thing that saves him at this point. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Back To Basics

Now that the Fighting Illini's bye week has come and gone, it is once again time to begin focusing on the stretch run, what has now become a 3 game season, and quite possibly, could determine the fate of Ron Zook. After getting off to a 6-0 start to begin the season, the Illini have fallen back to reality, losing their last 3 games and come off their bye week at 6-3 overall and 2-3 in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten. At Zook's weekly press conference on Tuesday, he talked about the team needing the break. Given the circumstances, this game is a very winnable one, and could go a long way in determining how successful the Illini will be in 2011. The team had such high hopes once they got out to that 6-0 start, but have fallen on some hard times as of late. The Illini will welcome Michigan to Memorial Stadium this Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ABC), and the Wolverines will be coming into Champaign reeling themselves, losing at Iowa 24-16 last Saturday. If you remember how the Illinois-Michigan game went last year, there were a record number of points scored, as the Wolverines defeated the Illini in a basketball score 67-65. Zook doesn't think that there will be nearly that many points scored this year, but feels that it will still be a close game nonetheless. For the Illini, win this game and you might be able to salvage your season. Lose, and it could spiral things downward even further. It's just that simple.

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini basketball team finished the exhibition portion of their season on Monday night, with a 79-45 win over Quincy University at the Assembly Hall. Junior D. J. Richardson paved the way by scoring 17 points, including 4-6 from beyond the arc. The win over Quincy was a chance for Weber to see some different lineup combinations and get some last minute tweaks done before the season opener on Friday night against Loyola-Chicago (8:00 pm, CT). The game against the Ramblers will not be televised, but will be available on the internet at On Wednesday, Weber announced that he has signed one player for the 2012-13 season, a very small class compared to the one that came on this season. The player, Michael Orris, is a point guard, and will back up freshman Tracy Abrams, and could possibly even see the court with Abrams. Orris had originally committed to Creighton, but had second thoughts about his decision and since the Illini had shown interest from the beginning, the family switched and Illinois was the destination.

Jolette Law's Illini women's team won their first and only exhibition game of the season, a 79-52 victory over Maryville on Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall. The Illini were led in scoring by freshman Ivory Crawford with 14 points, while Lydia McCully and Karisma Penn each tallied 13. The Illini will open their season on Friday afternoon at the Assembly Hall when they welcome the Gamecocks of South Carolina (3:30 pm CT). Law announced two signees to the program on Wednesday, Mckenzie Piper, a 6'0 guard from Iowa City, Iowa and 6'3 forward Nia Moore from Bolingbrook, the same high school that freshman Taylor Tuck went to.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team got back on the winning track last Saturday evening in Bloomington, Indiana, as they defeated the Hoosiers in 4 sets. Illinois is 22-3 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten, and will come back to Huff Hall to host a couple of matches this weekend. The #5 Illini will host perennial conference foe Penn State on Friday night, then will welcome Ohio State on Saturday evening. Coach Kevin Hambly announced the signing of two players for the 2012-13 season on Wednesday, those players being Maddie Mayers of Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Alexis Viliunas of LaGrange, Illinois. Viliunas, who has a brother Eddie that is a tight end on the Illini football team, is a setter that should fit into the mold of the team very well.

The Fighting Illini women's soccer team completed the Big Ten Tournament in style, winning the tourney and getting the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as a result. The Illini defeated Ohio State in double overtime on penalty kicks, then knocked off Michigan State 1-0 in the semifinals before beating Penn State 2-1 to capture the championship. Both the semifinal match and the championship game went into overtime as well, adding to the suspense and excitement. As a result of their success, the Illini will host a first round game at the Illini Soccer Complex on Sunday at 1:00 pm CT against Notre Dame. The Illini come into the NCAA Tournament at 16-4-2 overall and finished the Big Ten season at 8-2-1.

Finally, with all of the news that has been breaking in Happy Valley concerning the scandal over the past few days, I would be remiss if I didn't give my views on the situation. The ordeal surrounds the Penn State football program and a former assistant coach who did some horrific things. As a result of all of this, legendary coach of the Nittany Lions Joe Paterno has announced that he will be retiring at season's end, but with everything that is coming out regarding this situation, it appears that he should step down immediately. As one who has talked to Paterno over the past few years, I admit that I have had some admiration for the man who has coached in State College for the past 46 years as the head man. Details are still coming out about the scandal, and the more that is revealed, the less that admiration becomes. It appears that Paterno knew what was going on, but never followed up on his reporting of it. We still don't know who knew what, how many people were involved, or what this will do to the legacy of the long-time coach. What I do know is that this scandal overshadows the tattoo-gate in Columbus, and far surpasses the booster scandal in Miami. I don't know what else I can say about it at this point. Much more will be coming out in the days and weeks to come, but we may never get to the actual bottom of it, or what it will eventually do to the school and its administration.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Good time for a bye week?

The spiral continues for the Fighting Illini football team, as they dropped their third consecutive game, this time to Penn State 10-7 during a snowstorm that plagued the eastern United States last Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. After the 6-0 start, which now seems like a distant memory, the Illini are now 6-3 and have an extra week to think about the loss to the Nittany Lions and also to prepare for their next game, a home contest against the Michigan Wolverines. The offense, which looked pretty good earlier in the season, seems non-existent at the moment, and Saturday was no exception. Jason Ford did rush for 100 yards on 24 carries, while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tallied 89 yards on the ground. Scheelhaase only completed 9 of 16 passes for 63 yards in the brutal weather conditions, but one of those passes was good for a touchdown to Spencer Harris. The Illini seemingly was driving to win the game late, but instead got into field goal range and tried to tie it with a kick by Derek Dimke. But, the attempt hit the crossbar, sending the Illini once again to defeat. This brings the Illini to their bye week, which probably couldn't come at a better time. It will give the Illini an opportunity to think about the last few weeks and then regroup for the stretch run, which is far from easy. They have 3 games left, including home contests against Michigan and Wisconsin, before ending the regular season Thanksgiving weekend at Minnesota. The first two games will be longshots to win, and since Minnesota beat Iowa last weekend, the Gophers will have much more to play for when they face the Illini in Minneapolis. Minnesota will not qualify for a bowl game, and will have nothing to lose when they take on the Illini. That will be, in essence, their bowl game. The Illini had better be aware of that fact and prepare accordingly, or else you might be looking at 6-6. Such a contrast to the view of the season just a few weeks earlier.

Bruce Weber's Illini basketball team began exhibition play on Tuesday night, and not surprisingly, it was a bit of a struggle. Faced with quite a few new players this season, and also a couple injuries to deal with, the Illini were not at full strength. Transfer Sam Maniscalco, who came from Bradley, sat out this game because his surgically repaired ankle has been bothering him as of late, paving the way for freshman Tracy Abrams to run the offense from the point guard position. Fellow freshman Devin Langford also sat out the game, due to a broken finger sustained in practice last week. A late scratch was Mychael Henry, who injured himself in practice on Monday, did not play as well. Then, there is the latest disciplinary case involving Crandall Head. Stemming from an incident that happened in the off-season, Head has been suspended for the first four games, including the exhibition contests, for what Weber commonly calls "not taking care of his business". This could mean anything from not going to class, to a number of other issues. Apparently Weber is not freeing himself of these issues, given all the headaches that Jereme Richmond caused in his one season in Champaign last season. As for the game, sophomore Meyers Leonard led the way for the Illini with 18 points, as they defeated Wayne State (Nebraska) 79-51 at the Assembly Hall. I was particularly impressed with two freshmen, Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw. Egwu moves up and down the court as good as I've seen a big man do in an awfully long time, and as far as Shaw goes, he has tremendous potential. This team will take their lumps on occasion, but I do think that they will end up surprising some people as well. They finish up the exhibition portion of the season next Monday night, when they welcome Quincy University to the Assembly Hall, a game that is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 pm.

Since the Illini women's volleyball team lost their #1 ranking at Nebraska two weeks ago, Kevin Hambly's squad has dropped 2 of their last 3 matches, the latest setback to Purdue 3-1 on Wednesday night in West Lafayette. Hambly has discovered that life on the road in the Big Ten is tough, especially when teams are out for you. The Illini are currently 21-3 overall and 10-3 in the conference, and will travel to Bloomington, Indiana on Saturday evening to attempt to get back on the winning track. Game time with the Hoosiers is set for 6:00 pm central time.

It's postseason time for the Illini women's soccer team, as they are currently involved in the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini defeated Michigan in the regular season finale last weekend in Champaign, and advanced in the opening round of the tourney with a win on penalty kicks over Ohio State in Evanston. The Illini will play at 1:15 pm central time on Friday against Michigan State, a match that will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cause For Concern?

Don't look now, but the Fighting Illini football team has all of a sudden become relevant again. Starting the season off with 5 straight home games, and parlaying those into 5 wins, plus a win at Indiana to make them bowl eligible in 6 tries, things were beginning to look up for a program that has struggled through mediocrity and instability over the past few decades. Then came Ohio State and the first loss, followed by a road trip to Purdue, which also ended in defeat 21-14. The result is a 6-2 football team that has more questions than answers, but who do you point the finger at for the blame?
Is the coach to blame? Ron Zook has never been known as a good game management coach, and this year that is really beginning to show signs of validity. Some of the decisions that Zook has made in the last two games really make one shake their head. From admitting to not knowing what the score was at Indiana when he elected to go for 2 points to punting on 4th down at the Purdue 33 when the Illini were down by two scores, Zook has really made people stop and think about what might be going on in his head. It seemed that things were looking up when he turned over the offense and defense to Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, respectively last season, but Zook still is in charge of the special teams, and that is one of the many issues that this team has. Normally Illini Nation would be happy with a 6-2 record, given the limited success that this program has sustained over the years. It doesn't get any easier for the Illini, as they travel to Penn State on Saturday to battle the Nittany Lions (2:30 pm CT, ABC). Penn State comes into the game with the Illini at 7-1 overall and atop the Leaders Division of the Big Ten at 4-0. Their only loss has been to #2 Alabama. Of course, their schedule has been relatively weak up until now, and after the game on Saturday, they finish up with Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Are the fans to blame? You have to wonder why a team that came into the Ohio State game 6-0 couldn't sell Memorial Stadium out, but I think a couple factors are at play here. First of all, Illini fans are taking the "wait and see" approach, and now that they have lost a couple of games, the chances of getting a sellout for the final two games are diminished somewhat. Another possible factor could be the stagnant economy. A lot of fans simply don't want to delve out the money to see this team play lesser opponents, ones that only lost by a scant few points. But, you really cannot pin the blame on the fans, because they are not the ones out there on the field. Yes, some are critical, but they have that right to do so.
Are the players to blame? For the most part, the players are the ones that are out there on the field trying to do what the coaches tell them to do. As I mentioned before, the special teams units have been brutal this season, and were it for a couple of plays that would have gone the other way, maybe one of those losses could have been adverted. There is no clear cut leader that has stepped up and taken control, which is what you need to have success in a program. Zook mentioned a few weeks ago that the team needs to understand how to deal with winning. Judging from the past couple of games, I don't believe that it is going very well at the moment.

The Fighting Illini volleyball team saw their winning streak come to an end last Saturday night, when they were defeated in 4 sets by Nebraska in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers were #4 in the country, and very tough at home, so the Illini losing wasn't a total shock. This will almost guarantee that the Illini will lose their top ranking when the new poll comes out. The Illini return home this weekend to begin the second half of the Big Ten season when they host Wisconsin on Friday night and Minnesota on Saturday. The Illini are currently 20-1 overall and 9-1 in conference play.

The Illini women's soccer team continues to win, and their current streak is up to 7 now, by virtue of a pair of wins over Northwestern (3-0) and Nebraska (3-1). The Illini have secured a second place finish in the conference no matter how the final weekend shapes up with the wins. The Illini are currently 13-4-1 overall and 7-2-1 in the Big Ten, and will conclude the regular season on Friday evening when they host Michigan for Senior Night.

The Fighting Illini basketball team held their annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage last Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall. Due to another engagement, I wasn't able to attend, but from what I heard about it, the team looked pretty good. This will be a very young and inexperienced team, so expectations shouldn't be too high as the season begins. Earlier on Wednesday in practice, freshman Devin Langford broke his finger, and after surgery, will miss approximately 4-6 weeks. Langford was a redshirt candidate to begin with, so this may be the "break" that he needs to get that elusive medical redshirt. The regular season tips off next Tuesday night when the Illini take on Wayne State in the first of two exhibition games.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back To The Drawing Board

After a quick 6-0 start to the football season, the Fighting Illini was knocked back down to earth last Saturday, as they suffered their first loss of the 2011 season, 17-7 to the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. This was the first time in quite a few years that the Illini were favored over the Buckeyes, and who could blame them? Given Ohio State's 3-3 record coming in, as well as the recent suspensions over "tattoo gate", the Buckeyes were reeling and headed for a downward spiral. But that all changed with Dan Herron returning from his hiatus. Herron proceeded to crack the century mark in rushing yards and score a touchdown in the process, but it could have been much better for the Illini, had they not repeatedly turned the ball over. Nathan Scheelhaase, who had carried the team on his shoulders for the first half of the season, led the team in rushing, as the Buckeyes came to play on defense. The loss dropped Illinois to 6-1 overall, but they still have a 2-1 record in the Leaders Division, which is more important than it has ever been. The Illini will get a chance to get back on the winning track this Saturday when they travel to West Lafayette, Indiana to battle the Purdue Boilermakers (11:00 am CT, ESPN2). The Boilermakers are 3-3 overall, and 1-1 in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, and are coming off a 23-18 loss to Penn State last Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania. The Boilermakers have had some issues at the quarterback spot, but signal caller Caleb Terbush, who hails from Metamora, Illinois, will get the starting nod. Terbush would have started last season, but academic issues sidelined him for the year. Last year's starter Rob Henry is out with an injury, leaving the backup duties to Robert Marve, who started several games last season as well. With the meat of the schedule coming up for the Illini in the next few weeks, this game is crucial for the Illini to get to maintain their stranglehold in the Leaders Division.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their winning ways this past week, by defeating Michigan State in 5 games last Saturday, then traveling up to Evanston to sweep Northwestern to run their unbeaten streak to 20 games without a loss. Cementing their hold on the top ranking in the country hasn't been easy for Kevin Hambly's spikers, but they have done the best that they can. Colleen Ward had a monster game for the Illini, as she completed a rare double-double in volleyball, getting 20 kills, as well as 20 digs. The road doesn't get any easier for the Illini, as they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle the #4 ranked Cornhuskers on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, Big Ten Network). This will be an epic matchup of two elite teams, and with the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten, provides yet another hurdle in hopes of a conference championship. The Cornhuskers have been a perennial power in volleyball for many years, so when they joined the Big Ten, the conference itself got a whole lot tougher.

It's hard to believe, but basketball practice has begun, and in a normal year, people would be clamoring for hoops talk. But not this year. With the sudden success of the football team, basketball season takes a backseat for now, but soon the Illini will be taking the court, adding yet another sport in this crossover season of sorts. This should be an interesting season to say the least, with so many new faces. Your first chance to see the Illini in game action is this Sunday afternoon, when the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage takes place at the Assembly Hall at 4:00 pm. Tickets are still available, which are general admission, and parking is free for the event.

Finally, the Illini women's soccer team is on a bit of a roll themselves, winning their last 6 matches. During this winning streak, they have shut out the opponent the last five times, including their latest, a 3-0 win over Northwestern on Thursday in Evanston. The Illini are 12-4-1 overall, and 5-2-1 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle Nebraska on Sunday at 1:00 pm central time. After a rocky start to the season, it seems that Coach Janet Rayfield has her team turning the corner, and at the right time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The state of the Big Ten at the turn

It seems hard to believe, but we are at the halfway point of the Big Ten season, and there have been a few surprises in the league so far. Here is a synopsis, team by team, of what has transpired in the league thus far, and what is to come in the second half.

There are still three unbeaten teams in the conference, and they are Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Fighting Illini. Michigan and Illinois are both 6-0, and much of that success can be attributed to the fact that both teams played at home for the first five weeks of the season. It also didn't help that they played a somewhat soft schedule, although Illinois beat a decent Arizona State team and struggled to beat Western Michigan and Northwestern, teams that were not as good as the scores indicated. Wisconsin is 5-0, due in part to them having their bye week this past week. Both Wisconsin and Michigan will visit Champaign in November, so if they are still undefeated at that point, someone will be losing their first game in the process. Wisconsin and Illinois are in the Leaders Division, while Michigan is on top in the Legends Division.

In close pursuit of Michigan in the Legends are Michigan State and Nebraska, who had to come from behind to defeat a stubborn Ohio State squad. (More about the Buckeyes, who are the Illini's next opponent, later). Iowa checks in at 3-2 overall, while Northwestern is 2-3 and Minnesota brings up the rear in the division at just 1-5. Northwestern had a rough go of it the past couple of weeks, squandering big leads to both the Illini and Michigan, before losing both of them. Minnesota has many more problems of their own, and with ailing coach Jerry Kill in and out of the hospital, things are not looking promising in the Twin Cities at the moment.

Besides the Illini and the Badgers at the top of the Leaders, Penn State and Purdue also sport unblemished marks in conference play. The Nittany Lions are 5-1 overall, while Purdue is 3-2. Ohio State is 3-3 overall, while Indiana is 1-5. Both the Buckeyes and the Hoosiers are winless in conference play so far this season.

Last Saturday at a sun-drenched Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Indiana, the Illini became bowl-eligible in just their sixth game of the season by defeating the Hoosiers 41-20. The game didn't start out very well for the Illini, as Indiana ran the opening kick back for a
touchdown. A couple of turnovers also didn't help the Illini, as they found themselves trailing for
a good portion of the first quarter. When the Illini finally did wake up, they began to play like they
were capable of, led by A. J. Jenkins, who followed up his career day last week with another strong
performance. The defense also came to play, as they made a couple of key plays, the major one being
a fumble return for a touchdown scooped up and taken back for a touchdown by Tavon Wilson. The
running game was much more apparent in this game as well, as the Illini amassed 308 yards on the
ground. Senior Troy Pollard led the attack with 92 yards on 9 carries. The fact that the Illini are already
bowl eligible is something that doesn't happen very often, especially this early. However, the Illini have
a tough game this coming Saturday, when the Ohio State Buckeyes visit Memorial Stadium (2:30 pm CT,
ABC). The Buckeyes have had a rough stretch over the last few months, which has led to several key players off
of last year's team to be suspended, or dismissed altogether. This includes their former coach, Jim Tressel,
who knew of the goings on within the program, but either falsified reports or didn't report what was being
done. New coach Luke Fickell is making the best of a bad situation, and at 3-3, comes into Champaign with
absolutely nothing to lose. The Buckeyes were in a similar situation in 2007 when the Illini came to Columbus
to visit, and Juice Williams and the Illini pulled the major upset, defeating the then-#1 ranked Buckeyes.
Here's hoping that history doesn't repeat itself.

Saturday will also mark a unique promotion for the Illinois-Ohio State game, as the DIA attempts to 'Stripe
The Stadium'. Fans in odd numbered sections are asked to wear orange to the game, while those in even
numbered sections are supposed to don blue attire. Students in the north end zone will wear orange, and the
appearance of the FanCam at halftime will allow fans attending the game to view themselves in the stands
after they get back home. This has worked well at other venues, but it remains to be seen how it will fare
in Champaign. Stay tuned.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to roll through the season, and overcame a huge
weekend unblemished this past weekend with wins over both Ohio State and Penn State. The Illini broke the
Nittany Lions' 68 match winning streak in the Big Ten, by defeating them 3-2. On Friday night, the Illini
took down the Buckeyes 3-0. The Illini had a rare mid-week match on Wednesday night at Huff Hall, and
defeated Michigan 3-1 to improve their overall record to 18-0 and conference mark to 7-0. The Illini next take
the court Saturday evening against Michigan State at Huff Hall. The success of the volleyball team has gotten
such that attendance is now maxing out for all home matches, and some admittance guidelines have been
changed, namely setting aside certain areas of the gym for Go Illini Card members.

Normally by this time of the season, fans are clamoring for basketball season to begin, given the past few
seasons that the football team has had. However, this year with the success of the football team is having, that
is not the case. All the same, Bruce Weber and the men's basketball team held their annual Illini Media Day on
Tuesday at the Ubben practice facility, and if you can take anything from this session, it will be that there is a
lot of new faces in the mix as the season begins. Returning starters Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson, as well as
key reserves Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey will be asked to lead the squad, but don't count out senior
transfer Sam Maniscalco, who will be asked to step up and lead the offense from the point guard position.
As I mentioned, there are a lot of new faces this year, with a lot of potential. Mike Shaw, Mychael Henry, Tracy
Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are all in-state players who should be asked to step up early, while Devin Langford,
who hails from Alabama, and Ibrahim Djimde from Mali. The team will hold a practice and scrimmage before the
Ohio State football game at Assembly Hall to give everyone a chance to see this year's team. The annual Orange
Blue Scrimmage is set for Sunday, October 23rd at 4:00 pm.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rolling Right Along

So, the Fighting Illini football team is 5-0, with some winnable games on the horizon, you say? Yes, the view from this position is nice right now, but the journey to get there has been anything but easy. The Illini won their latest game by 3 points over Northwestern, a recurring theme that has seen them escape by that margin for the third consecutive game. What makes the win over Northwestern so important is that they had to claw their way back against the Wildcats to even make it a game. Imagine the irony! Clawing their way back against Wildcats! Anyway, with the Illini down 28-10 in the third quarter, things weren't looking so good for the orange and blue.
Some fans apparently had enough at that point as well, as some of them in attendance got up and left. But, if there is something that can be said for this season's Illinois football team, it is that you never give up thinking that something good will happen. That cannot be said for previous Ron Zook coached teams. In fact, if this were last season, the Illini more than likely would have lost that game. This team has the will to win, and they showed that mettle on Saturday by orchestrating a miraculous comeback to remain undefeated. Senior wide receiver A. J. Jenkins set a school record with 268 yards receiving on 12 catches, 3 of those going for touchdowns. It seemed like Jenkins was open all day long, and Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found him at every opportunity. When Jenkins wasn't catching passes, Scheelhaase targeted Spencer Harris, another wideout that ended up catching 6 passes for 63 yards. On the day, Scheelhaase completed 21 of 32 passes for 391 yards and those 3 tosses for scores to Jenkins, and also had a touchdown rushing as well. It was refreshing to see the offense come alive, and the 38-35 final score gave people leaving Memorial Stadium a sense of relief that they had come back to win the game, but also that the team is 5-0 and on the verge of bowl eligibility in October, something that hasn't happened around these parts for a long time. In fact, it has been 60 years since the Illini have started a season this successful, and at his weekly visit with the media on Tuesday, Zook stated that "we don't want to lose focus, because when you first develop the mindset to win, then you have to keep that vision to win even more". The Illini will get a chance to expand that vision this coming Saturday when they travel to Bloomington, Indiana to battle the struggling Indiana Hoosiers in their first road game of the season (1:30 pm CT, BTN). This has been a rare occurrence playing the first 5 games of the season at home, but the Illini weathered the storm and have a chance now to really make a jump in the polls this month. Coming into the game with Indiana, the Illini are ranked #19 in the AP media poll and #16 in the USA Today coaches' poll.

The marketing staff in the athletic department at the University of Illinois is putting together a unique promotion for the upcoming Ohio State game, which happens to be the next home game for the Illini on Saturday, October 15. "Stripe The Stadium" will be attempted at this game, where even numbered sections are encouraged to wear blue, and odd numbered sections and the north stands are asked to wear orange. A map of the project can be found by clicking on the following link: This has been tried at some other schools, and has worked pretty well. The only major concern I have about doing something like this at Illinois is that we haven't had a sellout in quite some time, and also the fact that Ohio State notoriously travels well, so there probably will be pockets of scarlet and grey sprinkled through the orange and blue. However, a very cool concept if they can pull this one off, so be on the lookout that day when you watch the game on television for those of you not attending the game in person.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team cleared the first hurdle since becoming the #1 team in the nation with successive match wins over Indiana and #12 ranked Purdue last weekend at Huff Hall in Champaign. In front of a capacity crowd on Saturday night to watch the Illini defeat the Boilermakers (about 500 people had to be turned away), Kevin Hambly's squad rose to the occasion, and rode the crowd to victory. The road doesn't get any easier for the Illini spikers this coming weekend, as they go on the road to face a couple of stern tests in Ohio State on Friday night, then traveling to #9 Penn State on Saturday evening. The Illini currently stand 15-0 overall and 4-0 in Big Ten play.

Janet Rayfield's women's soccer team got back on the winning track as well last weekend, as they swept a couple of home matches at the Illinois soccer complex. The Illini defeated Indiana on Friday evening 4-1, then completed the sweep by knocking off Purdue 1-0 on Sunday. The Illini get back into action this coming weekend when they travel to East Lansing to battle Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. The game is at noon central time, but will on the Big Ten Network as a tape delayed broadcast Sunday afternoon at 5 pm central time. Currently the Illini are 8-4-1 overall and 2-2-1 in conference play.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Success On Many Levels

So, this is what 4-0 feels like? For the first time in 60 years, the Fighting Illini football team has started the season with 4 straight wins, but getting there seemed to be more of a struggle than it really should have been. The Illini gutted out a tough 23-20 victory over the Broncos of Western Michigan at Memorial Stadium last Saturday, and judging from the attendance at the game, you would have thought that the team was 0-4. There were plenty of empty seats in the stadium, which brings two quick thoughts to mind: either word hasn't caught up with a lot of the fandom yet that this a pretty good team, or the Illini have lost a lot of support over the past few years with their repeated lack of success. There is no reason that the stadium should be that empty for a team that has yet to experience a blemish on their win-loss record. I understand that the opponent was not a Big Ten team, but the Broncos are still a very formidable foe and just as recently as 2008 beat the Illini. They nearly duplicated that feat on Saturday, as they outplayed the Illini on both sides of the ball, and were it not for 2 missed field goals by their kicker, very well could have beaten the Illini, which would have sent those in attendance home grumpy. Instead, the running game took center stage for Illinois, led by senior Troy Pollard, who had 14 carries for 133 yards. Freshman Donovonn Young, who continues to look better each time out, also broke the century mark, carrying the ball 12 times for 100 yards on the nose. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was dinged up in the win over Arizona State a week earlier, played it safe on the day, only throwing the ball 20, and completing 14 of those passes for 133 yards and a touchdown pass to tight end Evan Wilson. Yes, I said the tight end! What has seemed to be a lost art for this Illini offense in not involving the tight end in the game plan, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has vowed to integrate his tight ends more into the flow, and it certainly showed, especially with Wilson getting the touchdown grab.

Now, the task at hand is the start of the Big Ten season, and first up is Northwestern on Saturday (11:00 am CT, ESPN2), who the Illini defeated last season at Wrigley Field to officially become bowl eligible. The Wildcats have been on a bye this past week, and are coming off a tough loss to Army the week before. Northwestern will have their starting quarterback of last season under center once again, as Dan Persa returns from a broken leg. Persa missed the latter part of the 2010 season, including the game in Chicago with that injury, and will have revenge on his mind. The Wildcats are 2-1 on the season, with the loss to the Cadets being the only blemish thus far.

So, this is what #1 feels like? For the first time in the program's history, the Illini volleyball team is tops in the AVCA poll, and still undefeated at 11-0 on the season. This is the best start for an Illini volleyball team since the 1985 squad started off the year 30-0. Coach Kevin Hambly has sustained this program very nicely, but some credit must go to former coaches Mike Hebert (now at Minnesota) and Don Hardin for building the program from the roots up. Sure, it is Hambly that has been bringing in the players, so a lot of the accolades must be given to him as well. Hambly downplays the success of the team, stating that "the ranking is nice, but we'd rather be #1 at the end of the season. There is a huge target on your back when you are the top team, and the girls are just taking it one match at a time". The Illini get back into action this weekend when Indiana and Purdue visit Huff Hall. The Hoosiers come in Friday night with an 8-6 overall record and 0-2 in the Big Ten, while Purdue, still unbeaten as well, comes in at 14-0 overall and 4-0 in conference play. The Boilermakers are ranked #12 in the nation, and defeated Northwestern 3-1 on Wednesday night in Evanston. The match on Friday night will be televised on the BTN as part of the Student U. package.

The Illini women's soccer team is not enjoying the success that the football and volleyball teams are having this season, as they are just 6-4-1 entering play this weekend. Janet Rayfield's squad lost successive road games last weekend at Ohio State (2-1) and Penn State (1-0). The Ilini return home to the soccer complex this weekend when they host Indiana on Friday evening and Purdue on Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Uncharted Waters

"WINNING"! To quote the word that Charlie Sheen used a few months back during his problem phase, it's something that Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini have been doing a lot of so far in the 2011 football season. For the first time since the 2001 season, the Illini have started the season 3-0, and have the potential for an even longer winning streak in the weeks to come. As a result of this start, the Illini have their first national ranking at #24 in the media poll, and are receiving votes in the coaches poll. Under the lights at Memorial Stadium last Saturday evening, the Illini survived their first real test of this campaign with a gritty 17-14 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils before a near capacity crowd in Champaign. The Sun Devils, ranked #18 by the coaches coming into the game and #22 by the media, had an explosive offense that took down Missouri a week earlier behind 6'8 quarterback Brock Oswiler, who Zook joked about "needing a stepladder to take him down". While the offense for the Illini didn't exactly burn up the artificial turf on Saturday, the defense, led by coordinator Vic Koenning, stepped up in a big way, coming up with 2 interceptions, a fumble recovery, and 6 sacks of Oswiler. This is a welcome sign, since the Illini lost some key personnel to the NFL a year ago. Getting back to the offense for a minute, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed 11 of 15 passes for 135 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown strike to A. J. Jenkins. Scheelhaase left briefly due to a minor injury, but returned after just one play out of the game, in which freshman Reilly O'Toole came in to lead the offense. Scheelhaase also led the Illini in rushing with 67 yards on 18 carries, followed by senior Jason Ford, who rushed 21 times for 58 yards. This kind of gritty performance is just what the Illini needed and it should prepare them very well for Big Ten play, which starts in two weeks.

So, now that the Illini have started out 3-0 on the season, the question is, when was the last time that they started the year 4-0? For this answer, you need to go way back to the 1951 season, when the Illini finished the season at 9-0-1 and the undisputed national champion with a win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl. There have been two other times since then that the Illini have reeled off 4 wins without a defeat (1963 8-1-1, and a win over Washington in the Rose Bowl), and 1953 (7-1-1), so this is uncharted territory that the Illini are venturing in. However, up next is the game that could be viewed as a trap game, when Western Michigan comes to Memorial Stadium this coming Saturday (2:30 pm CT, BTN). Back in 2oo8, the Illini traveled to Detroit to play the Broncos, and the result was disastrous, as they lost 23-17 to finish 5-7 that year and go from the Rose Bowl the previous year to no bowl. In fact, since John Mackovic left in 1991, the Illini have not had a coach that has produced a winning record in his tenure. Currently, Zook has a 31-45 record at Illinois, but has a ways to go in order to square that record and get over the .500 mark.

Another somewhat disturbing trend for the football team is the attendance factor. Sure, Memorial Stadium was nearly full last weekend against Arizona State, but that can be attributed to the fact that they were playing a quality opponent, and also that it was a night game, which almost always produces an ambient atmosphere. At the time that I am composing this weekly blog, there have only been about 42,000 tickets sold for this weekend's game, which, in my opinion, is downright sad. Yes, the team is 3-0 and I know that Illini football has not been the most consistent program over the past few decades, but this is a fun team to watch. I know the economy is bad and that could very well be a major factor in attendance, but the athletic department is making significant strides to boost attendance, and new athletic director Mike Thomas needs to further address this issue. With the recent changes to the stadium, including removing several hundred seats in the horseshoe due to safety concerns, the capacity of the stadium is just over 60,000 now. You figure in the other stadiums in the Big Ten (Michigan's "Big House" and Ohio State's "Horseshoe" come to mind), and Illinois football still seems somewhat irrelevant when it comes to filling the stands. What's it going to take in order for the stands to be packed for the Big Ten season that lurks in a little over a week? Continued winning will certainly help, and more night games would also benefit. Are you listening Mike Thomas?

Kevin Hambly's Illini volleyball team finished the non-conference portion of the schedule at a perfect 11-0, and are still ranked #3 in the latest AVCA poll this week. The Illini defeated Cincinnati in 3 straight games last Friday night in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge at Huff Hall, then had to once again rally from 2 sets down to defeat Louisville on Saturday night in the challenge. This is a trend that has become all too familiar this season, but the Illini have weathered every storm thus far, and still are undefeated as a result. Up next for the Illini, the start of the Big Ten season this coming weekend, when they travel to Minnesota on Friday evening, before playing at Wisconsin on Sunday.

Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team opened up Big Ten play last Sunday, coming from behind 2-0 to tie Iowa 2-2 in double overtime in Iowa City. The #23rd ranked Illini are currently 6-2-1 on the season, and will continue Big Ten play this coming weekend when they travel to Ohio State on Friday night, then will take on Penn State Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Offense was the name of the game last Saturday, as the Fighting Illini totally dominated their guests from South Dakota State, en route to a 56-3 drubbing of the Jackrabbits at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. South Dakota State, who is a FCS school (Division 1-AA), never really stood a chance on the afternoon, as the Illini pretty much had their way with the Jackrabbits. A win like this gives Coach Ron Zook a chance to play some of his younger players, most notably the ones whose redshirts were removed in the first game of the season. With quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase getting some much deserved rest after the game was well under control, it was time for Zook to see what sophomore Miles Osei and true freshman Reilly O'Toole could do. O'Toole completed all 9 of his passes for 50 yards, including his first touchdown pass to tight end Evan Wilson. Not to be mistaken, this is Scheelhaase's team, and only a catastrophic collapse or an injury will get O'Toole significant playing time. However, O'Toole has proven that he can step in if needed. The Illini racked up 364 yards on the ground, led by an unsung hero named Troy Pollard. Pollard rushed for 101 yards on just 8 carries, while Scheelhaase had 93 yards on the ground. Freshman Donovonn Young, who looks to have a load of potential, had 65 yards rushing, but more importantly, scored 2 touchdowns, including a nifty 41 yard run for a score in the second quarter.

The win on Saturday lifted the Illini to 2-0 on the young season, the first time that they have started out with 2 wins in the their first two games since the 2005 season. Something that is a bit of a concern though is the attendance for the first two games. With the first game being over Labor Day Weekend and last week's game against a lesser opponent, it wasn't a surprise that the stands were not entirely full. The fandom will need to be won back, and this will be achieved by winning games. With 8 home games on the schedule, the opportunity to get off to a really good start is certainly there, and 2 games in, the Illini are making the most of that chance. However, the schedule gets a bit tougher this week, when the Illini welcome the Sun Devils of Arizona State to Memorial Stadium for a prime time matchup under the lights (Saturday, 6:00 pm, BTN). Arizona State comes into the matchup with the Illini at 2-0 as well, but slipped into the national rankings after defeating Missouri 37-30 last Friday night in Tempe. The Sun Devils have a potent offense, led by their quarterback Brock Oswiler, who is a monster that stands 6'8 and weighs 240 pounds. Yes, the Illini have eased through the first two games of the season, but the first real test will be against Arizona State. The key to stopping Oswiler, according to Zook, is to stay in front of him at all times. Besides their quarterback, the Sun Devils also have a very talented linebacker in Vontaze Burfict, who may be the top player in the nation at his position. This should pose quite a matchup between Burfict and Illini fullback Jay Prosch, who are both approximately the same size. The winner of this game will have the inside track to a pretty good season, while the loser will be down, but definitely not out.

The Fighting Illini volleyball team continues their winning ways, and have risen to #3 in the latest AVCA rankings. Kevin Hambly's squad took down Middle Tennessee State, Cal Poly, and Tulsa to take the title in the MTSU Invitational last weekend in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Illini are now 9-0 on the season, and will return home to Huff Hall this weekend to host the Big East/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini will face Cincinnati on Friday evening, while taking on Louisville on Saturday night. Both matches are slated to begin at 7:00 pm. Purdue, whom the Illini will not face in the challenge, will also be involved.

The Illini women's soccer team split a pair of matches last weekend at the LSU Invitational, losing to #11 Pepperdine on Friday night 4-2, then coming back on Sunday to defeat Oregon 5-0. The Illini will begin Big Ten play on Sunday afternoon when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes at 1:00 pm. The Illini are 6-2 on the season, and are ranked #20 in the nation.

Finally this week, Bruce Weber's Illini basketball team may not start practice for another month, but they have been busy on the recruiting trail, landing two players for future classes this week. Junior guard Malcom Hill committed as the second member of the 2013 class, joining Jalen James, who committed a few months ago. Senior guard Michael Orris, who currently plays at Crete-Monee, verballed to Weber just one day earlier. With a young group of players this coming season, the future is once again looking bright for Illini basketball for the next several years. One only hopes that the talent can live up to the expectations.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Good Start

     For the first time since the 2006 season, the Fighting Illini football team has begun the season with a victory.  This was made possible with a 33-15 win over the Red Wolves of Arkansas State last Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium.  Yes, the win could have been more impressive, but nonetheless, a win is still a win, and counts in the standings as such.  It was an extremely hot day for the first week of September, but that didn't seem to bother the players on the field as they welcomed their guests from Jonesboro, Arkansas.  The Illini started out slowly, letting the Red Wolves stay in the game for much of the first half.  Arkansas State even took a brief lead at 8-7, before the Illini stormed back to retake the lead and never look back from there.  It has been well established that the Illini offense will be able to put points on the board, and with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase running the offense, things appear to be in good hands.  As a matter of fact, only 2 Illini receivers caught passes in the game, those being senior A. J. Jenkins (right) (11 catches for 148 yards and 1 touchdown) and sophomore Darius Millines (5 catches for 119 yards and 1 touchdown).  Sure, there were other receivers that saw action during the game, but didn't figure in any of the action.

     In a somewhat of a controversial move, Ron Zook removed the redshirt status of highly touted quarterback prospect Reilly O'Toole, who saw his first action of his career in his very first game.  What this undoubtedly means is that O'Toole has jumped ahead of Miles Osei on the depth chart, and if something would happen to Scheelhaase, then O'Toole would step in and lead the offense.  O'Toole only completed 1 pass in 2 attempts, and dinged up his shoulder in the process.  Nonetheless, Zook doesn't think that the injury appears to be serious, and look for O'Toole to see more action as the season progresses.  Other freshmen that saw action for the first time were running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, tight end Jon Davis, cornerback Valdon Cooper, and punter Justin Duvernois.  The idea of playing these players so early has both good and bad consequences, but in the long run, it gives them some experience once the Big Ten season begins next month.  Up next for the Illini, the second of five home games in a row to start the season, when the Illini welcome the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State to Memorial Stadium on Saturday (11:00 am, BTN).  The Jackrabbits play in the Missouri Valley Conference, and sneaked by Southern Utah 29-28 last Saturday in Brookings, South Dakota, and will be the Illini's only FCS opponent of the 2011 season.

     The Illini women's volleyball team has started off the season meeting the high expectations that it was given, storming off to a 6-0 record and rising to #4 in the latest AVCA rankings.  The Illini finished off Tennessee, Houston, and #21 ranked Dayton to capture their 21st Illini Classic in 28 attempts.  The Illini spikers are heading to Murfreesboro, Tennessee this coming weekend to play in the MTSU Invitational.  They will face host Middle Tennessee State, Cal Poly and Tulsa in the tourney, and look to stay undefeated in the process.

     Janet Rayfiield's Illini women's soccer team also has started the season off on a good note, coming out of the gate with a 5-1 record and a #17 national ranking.  The Illini lost their first match of the season, a 3-1 contest to USC on Friday night, before coming from behind twice to defeat Colorado by a 3-2 score on Sunday afternoon.  The Illini are also headed south this coming weekend, as they travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to participate in the LSU tournament.  The Illini will face Oregon on Friday night, before taking on #24 ranked Pepperdine on Sunday.

     I had a chance to meet new athletic director Mike Thomas after Ron Zook's press conference on Tuesday, and came away very impressed with both his demeanor and his vision for the athletic program.  In the many years of Ron Guenther's reign as boss, I never got the opportunity to talk to him at length, but in Thomas' second week on the job, I have already surpassed that goal.  Thomas talked about some of the changes that his predecessor had undertaken, and his plans to continue those and also expand others.  One thing that will be most interesting to watch is some of the coaching decisions over the next few months.  Since there is a new person in charge, changes could be forthcoming.  So, the current coaches on staff need to impress their new boss in order to stay in favor with him.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Getting Defensive with the Defense - Illini style

Coming off of a 38-14 win over Baylor in the 2010 Texas Bowl, Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini are looking for bigger and better things as the 2011 season begins. Looking at the defensive side of the ball, a couple of key departures and some position switching has left more questions than answers as Camp Rantoul wraps up and the team begins preparation for their first
regular season game of the season. Gone are stalwarts Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson, and the absence of those two players leave a gaping hole for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Stepping over the line of scrimmage to the defense is former offensive tackle Craig Wilson (right, #79) into Liuget's spot, and so far the switch has been one that produced some early dividends. According to Koenning, he should have made the switch with Wilson last season to let him play behind Liuget to give him some experience instead of him learning on the job. Also on the D-Line are Akeem Spence and Whitney Mercilus, two players who saw significant action last season. In the bandit position is Michael Buchanan, who also saw quite a bit of field time a year ago.

The linebacking corps sustained a major hit with the loss of Wilson to the NFL last season, but should return several key players to make up his absence. Trulon Henry moves up a little bit, but will still be essentially be playing his safety position, just a little closer to the line of scrimmage. Ian Thomas also returns at the (Mike) linebacker spot, while sophomore Jonathan Brown and redshirt freshman Houston Bates will battle it out at the (Sam) linebacker position. The (Will) linebacker spot will be flanked by Earnest Thomas for the meantime while Ashante Williams, who is currently suspended for an off-the-field incident, continues to try and get back in Ron Zook's good graces.

The secondary is perhaps one of the deepest areas on the entire roster,
where between seven or eight players could contribute at any given moment. Terry Hawthorne (right #1) leads a talented
group of defenders at cornerback, and even though the job is his to lose for right now, Justin Green and Miami Thomas are battling for time on the field. At the other corner spot, Tavon Wilson is the odds-on favorite, with Jack Ramsey a more than capable backup in case something happens. The safety positions are still up in the air, but as of right now, Henry will occupy one of those spots, with Steve Hull battling Supo Sanni for the other side. Patrick Nixon-Youman will spell Henry if the need arises.

The area of special teams looks to be set, and even though the Illini will be starting 2011 with a new punter, due to the graduation of Anthony Santella, all appears to be safe at that spot as well. Derek Dimke will handle the placekicking duties, where he excelled last season. Dimke has been consistent since he arrived at Illinois, and this year appears to be no different. The punting situation was cloudy at best when training camp began, but cleared up significantly during Camp Rantoul when senior Matt Eller left the team when it was apparent that he would not be the starter come opening day. That nod will go to an incoming freshman, Justin Duvernois, who won the job outright. That led to Eller's decision to leave, and will also mean that Dimke could serve as a backup to Duvernois should something happen. Handling the punt return duties will be either Hawthorne or Ramsey, while Darius Millines and Troy Pollard will be returning kickoffs. Now, this personnel could very well change as the days leading up to the first game get closer.

Speaking of the first game, the Illini will welcome the Red Wolves of Arkansas State to Memorial Stadium to officially kickoff the 2011 season this coming Saturday (2:30 pm, BTN). The Red Wolves are coached by Hugh Freeze and finished the 2010 season with a 4-8 record. The Red Wolves are led by their quarterback Ryan Aplin, who completed 61.5% of his passes a year ago, and threw for nearly 3000 yards and 21 touchdowns. Arkansas State plays in the Sun Belt Conference, and have not played the Illini since the 2002 season. The Illini hold a 2-0 edge in the series, both games being played in Champaign.

It's been quite a lengthy off-season, but it is finally game week! Let the speculation begin in earnest. It's time to settle this on the field!

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The Fighting Illini football team has begun their annual training camp sessions, otherwise known as Camp Rantoul, on the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul. If you are looking at the team for maybe the first time this season, you will undoubtedly notice some differences from last year's team, but at the same time, much of the 2010 squad returns intact. Here now is the first part of a three part preview on training camp, as well as a position-by-position look at the 2011 Fighting Illini.

If there is one thing that is abundantly clear from the start, this year's Illini team should have no problem scoring points, although their workhorse tailback of last season, Mikel Leshoure, opted to turn pro and forego his senior season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns to lead the offense, and after throwing for nearly 2000 yards and running for almost 1000 more as a redshirt freshman last season, is poised to put up even better numbers this time around. While Scheelhaase has the signal calling locked up for the time being, he is being challenged in camp by freshman Reilly O'Toole, who has been having a good first two weeks and taking the majority of the backup snaps. But that doesn't mean that O'Toole will supplant the second string quarterback job from Miles Osei, who has a year of experience under his belt. At this time, there is no sense of burning O'Toole's redshirt just to get him on the field for a few plays. Would the unfortunate circumstance occur of Scheelhaase getting hurt, then you might look to getting O'Toole on the field.

With the loss of Leshoure, the Illini had few options at the running back spot returning, the only real possibility being Jason Ford. Ford came into training camp a few pounds over where Zook and the coaching staff wanted him, but still should see the bulk of the carries this season. However, two freshmen backs are making their case for playing time, as Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are both having a great training camp and making the tailback position that much more competitive. The situation with Young and Ferguson has caused Bud Golden to leave the program, Golden being pushed down on the depth chart far enough below even Troy Pollard.

The receiving corps will be one of the Illini's strengths this season, as senior A. J. Jenkins leads a talented group of wideouts on the field. Scheelhaase will have plenty of options to throw to, led by sophomores Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines. Spencer Harris, another sophomore, has looked good early on, as has true freshman Jordan Frysinger. Clemson transfer Brandon Clear has also looked good early on, and may challenge Jenkins and some of the others for catches.

The tight end position in the past has been one that has not been utilized by Illini coaches, but since the arrival of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, they have integrated the tight end into their offensive sets. Sophomore Evan Wilson leads a talented young group of ends that should catch their share of balls. True freshmen John Davis and Matt LaCosse are both showing promise early on in camp, and senior Zach Becker seems to be healed from his injury plagued career at Illinois. Between the tight ends and the wide receivers, Nate Scheelhaase has a lot of options at his disposal.

Part of a good offensive ground and air game is the job the men up front do, and the offensive line is another strength that the Illini will bring into this season. Center Graham Pocic returns, as does guards Jack Cornell and Hugh Thornton. Tackle Jeff Allen also returns for his senior season, and the only question mark on the line is the spot that injured tackle Corey Lewis occupies. In Lewis' absence are two young players, Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic, who will see action until Lewis returns, whenever that may be.

Up next week, a look at the defense, which has some question marks with the departure of two key players that decided to take their game to the next level a year early.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Are You Ready For Some Football......Big 10 Style?

Now that the calendar has rolled around to August, it is time to think about football and other happenings on the gridiron. The Big Ten Conference held its annual Football Media Days last weekend at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, and as is the case at this time of year, expectations are running high for all of the teams in the league. The conference will have quite a different look this season, as a new member joins the league for the first time since Penn State came aboard in 1990. Nebraska is the twelfth school to enter the conference, and their arrival will make possible the first ever league championship game, set to take place on Saturday, December 3rd at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Four new coaches will also lead squads as the season begins, and one of those is coming into a situation that is unenviable for anyone. But, more on that later. Now, a look around the league to see what everyone is thinking as the season commences.

Illinois coach Ron Zook (right) was the first coach to take the podium in front of the me
dia contingent. Running back seems to be the major concern, as Mikel Leshoure declared early for the draft, leaving the Illini with only one sure back, and due to some off the field
incidents last spring, is even a question mark as their training camp begins. True freshman Donovonn Young might see some action, and even though Zook has not seen him work out, is impressed by what he has heard. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will lead the offense, and is backed by a veteran offensive line that returns virtually contingent, and as expected, the outlook for the Illini are running high. Coming off of a bowl victory in the Texas Bowl last December, Zook and company will need to fill in someholes left by some key departures for greener pastures in the NFL.

When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema (right) went recruiting last spring, he didn't intend on finding a quality quarterback like Russell Wilson. Wilson, who is a transfer, was
highly sought after, and according to Bielema, they did an extensive background check on him to make sure that "they weren't bringing a problem into Madison". The Badgers are the odds on favorite to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, and with four night games this season, should have plenty of national exposure. Bielema is especially looking forward to the game at Soldier Field in Chicago against Northern Illinois, citing that a game in the Windy City will be great for the program and could be a boost to recruiting as well.

Purdue coach Danny Hope (right) thinks that the Big 1o Championship game being played
indoors is a great idea, even though all of the venues in the league are outdoors.
Also, it doesn't hurt that the game is being played right down the road in Indianapolis,which if they are fortunate to get there, will have a huge fan following for the game. But, to get that fa
r, the Boilermakers need to get past the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State, and coming into the season with a two-pronged quarterback tandem of Robert Marve and Rob Henry will hopefully get them on the right path. Also, Purdue brough in a new strength and conditioning person in the off-season, so they are in great shape as the season begins.

Perhaps the biggest story of the off-season in the Big Ten, if not the entire country,
was the scandal in Columbus involving several Ohio State players that eventually led to the dismissal of Jim Tressel. Replacing Tressel at the helm of the Buckeyes is assistant coach Luke Fickell (right), who is walking into quite a firepit. Fickell wants to focus on what they have, not what they don't have, and the absence of several key players involved in the scandal is mainly what he is talking about. Before all of this went down, Ohio State probably was the favorite to win the prestigious Leaders Division, but that is no more. In order for the Buckeyes to represent this division, some magic will have to occur.

Indiana has a new coach this season in Kevin Wilson (right), and from all indications early on, it appears that the Hoosiers are moving in the right direction with this new hire. Wilson, who claimed that he has never watched a down of last season's Indiana team, has gotten off to a good start on the recruiting trail, landing highly touted quarterback Gunner Kiel of nearby Columbus, Indiana. Although Wilson could not speak about Kiel due to NCAA rules, he did saythat recruiting has started off on a good path since he arrived in Bloomington. The coaching staff that Wilson has assembled at Indiana will be no strangers to the Big Ten coaching rigors, since 13 of the 15 on the staff have coached in the conference at one point in their careers. Wilson himself coached under the late Randy Walker at Northwestern, so he is very familiar with coaching in the league. Seems like a good fit for the Hoosiers, and it also appears that Indiana may be on the rise as a result.

Penn State was the last team to join the Big Ten back in 1990, and long-time coach Joe Paterno (right) remembers it well being the "new kid on the block". Now beginning his
46th season as coach of the Nittany Lions, a lot of things have changed since JoPa took over in State College, and he is not sure how much longer he will continue to lead the Lions. Health
issues limited him last season, and he hopes that this season will be much better for him. When asked about the various scandals going on in college sports today, all Paterno wanted to say on the matter was that incidents were handled differently back in the "old days". He cited a specific example of disciplining a player without any knowledge from outside influences. With the advent of the internet and other social media outlets these days, that would no longer be possible.

The Legends Division features the other six teams in the league, including the newcomer to the conference in Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are coached by Bo Pelini (right), and he is
excited to be in the Big Ten because that means that they have 11 new opponents on their schedule and they will be traveling to some new venues as well this year. Pelini didn't think that the Nebraska style fits any one conference better than the other, he just thinks that football is football and you settle
the game on the field. One of the players that was represented by Nebraska was their outstanding linebacker Lavonte David, who was one of the top players in the Big 12 last year, and may have been one of the best in the country at that position. Joining the Big Ten will undoubtedly be tough, and the schedule makers did them no favors, since they have a rigorous inaugural season in the conference.

Iowa had their share of incidents last season, as the issue with training led to several
players getting sick after the season ended was a somewhat major story. Head coach Kirk Ferentz (right) likes the idea of Nebraska in the league, because it gives the
Hawjeyes a new natural rivalry. The Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers will play a trophy game called The Heroes Game,set for the day after Thanksgiving. The schools share a border, and have been familiar with each other over the years, although they haven't played one another very often. Still, Iowa has to be considered to contend for the Legends Division title with the likes of Nebraska and Northwestern.

Michigan enters this season with a new coach, Brady Hoke (right),
who had a verypositive outlook coming into Ann Arbor. The annual rivalry game between the Wolverines and Ohio State will take on a new look this season, as both schools field new coaches as the season begins. Hoke likes the idea of playing the Buckeyes in the last game of the season, and the possibility exists that the two teams could play again the following week in the title game. Hoke said if it happens, it happens. The Wolverines will once again be led on the field by their scrambling quarterback Denard Robinson, who looks to have another big season in Ann Arbor.

Michigan State head coach Mark D'Antonio (right) brings a heavy heart into the start of this season, as he is a close friend of ousted Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, and thinks it
is "gut-wrenching" to see what is going on over in Columbus. The Spartans have a good chemistry on their team, and according to D'Antonio, that is one of the strong points that they have entering this season. Another strong point is Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is one of the top signal callers in the league, if not the nation. Michigan State has been known as a bruising football team over the past few years, and D'Antonio hopes that the perceived notion will continue.

Minnesota enters into this season with a new coach as well in former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill (right). Kill is no stranger to the Big Ten, having coached against several conference teams during his tenure with the Huskies in DeKalb. Kill plans on using
MarQueis Gray as the quarterback for the Gophers, although he may play some wide receiver as well at some point during the season. Kill doesn't have any specific recruiting needs that he gears toward Minnesota, just players that he thinks can play at that level. From his time at Northern, he recruited athletes that could have played in the Big Ten, but chose to play at a smaller level. This could have contributed to the success that Kill has has against Big Ten opponents over the years.

Northwestern will look to rebound from last season, when they lost their starting quarterback Dan Persa to a broken leg. Persa, who is once again healthy, but not 100%, will
look to anchor an offense that was very prolific a year ago, and had it not been for Persa's injury, may have beaten Illinois at Wrigley Field. Instead, the Illini prevailed, downing the Wildcats 48-27 to
become bowl eligible. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald (right) knows firsthand what Persa is going through, as he himself broke his leg a couple of seasons ago, so he can help him out in getting back to the way he needs to be. The Wildcats are a senior-laden group, so they will look to finish out their collegiate careers on a high note.

The stars came out in Champaign on Saturday evening, as the Alumni basketball game featuring many former Illini greats took center stage at the Assembly Hall. Some of the greatest basketball players in Fighting Illini history took the court once again, in front of several thousand fans. Fan favorites such as Dee Brown, Deron Williams, James Augustine, Brian Cook, and many others dazzled one more time, and judging by how many former players are still playing either in the NBA or overseas, the level of play was pretty entertaining. Two of the older players in the game, Steven Bardo and Kendall Gill, still look like they could suit up and play with the younger guys. Before the alumni took the floor, the 2011-12 edition of the Illini conducted a scrimmage, one of 10 practices that are preparing them for a trip to Italy against some of the better European teams. With seven new players this coming season, the team will be a young bunch, and the extra practice time will hopefully remedy that situation.

On tap for next week, a trip to Camp Rantoul to check out the Fighting Illini's first week of training camp, preparing for the first football game of the season, set to kickoff Saturday, September 3rd at Memorial Stadium against the Red Wolves of Arkansas State.