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.

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.

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