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 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.

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