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.

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.