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.

No comments: