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.