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, October 26, 2011

Cause For Concern?

Don't look now, but the Fighting Illini football team has all of a sudden become relevant again. Starting the season off with 5 straight home games, and parlaying those into 5 wins, plus a win at Indiana to make them bowl eligible in 6 tries, things were beginning to look up for a program that has struggled through mediocrity and instability over the past few decades. Then came Ohio State and the first loss, followed by a road trip to Purdue, which also ended in defeat 21-14. The result is a 6-2 football team that has more questions than answers, but who do you point the finger at for the blame?
Is the coach to blame? Ron Zook has never been known as a good game management coach, and this year that is really beginning to show signs of validity. Some of the decisions that Zook has made in the last two games really make one shake their head. From admitting to not knowing what the score was at Indiana when he elected to go for 2 points to punting on 4th down at the Purdue 33 when the Illini were down by two scores, Zook has really made people stop and think about what might be going on in his head. It seemed that things were looking up when he turned over the offense and defense to Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, respectively last season, but Zook still is in charge of the special teams, and that is one of the many issues that this team has. Normally Illini Nation would be happy with a 6-2 record, given the limited success that this program has sustained over the years. It doesn't get any easier for the Illini, as they travel to Penn State on Saturday to battle the Nittany Lions (2:30 pm CT, ABC). Penn State comes into the game with the Illini at 7-1 overall and atop the Leaders Division of the Big Ten at 4-0. Their only loss has been to #2 Alabama. Of course, their schedule has been relatively weak up until now, and after the game on Saturday, they finish up with Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Are the fans to blame? You have to wonder why a team that came into the Ohio State game 6-0 couldn't sell Memorial Stadium out, but I think a couple factors are at play here. First of all, Illini fans are taking the "wait and see" approach, and now that they have lost a couple of games, the chances of getting a sellout for the final two games are diminished somewhat. Another possible factor could be the stagnant economy. A lot of fans simply don't want to delve out the money to see this team play lesser opponents, ones that only lost by a scant few points. But, you really cannot pin the blame on the fans, because they are not the ones out there on the field. Yes, some are critical, but they have that right to do so.
Are the players to blame? For the most part, the players are the ones that are out there on the field trying to do what the coaches tell them to do. As I mentioned before, the special teams units have been brutal this season, and were it for a couple of plays that would have gone the other way, maybe one of those losses could have been adverted. There is no clear cut leader that has stepped up and taken control, which is what you need to have success in a program. Zook mentioned a few weeks ago that the team needs to understand how to deal with winning. Judging from the past couple of games, I don't believe that it is going very well at the moment.

The Fighting Illini volleyball team saw their winning streak come to an end last Saturday night, when they were defeated in 4 sets by Nebraska in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers were #4 in the country, and very tough at home, so the Illini losing wasn't a total shock. This will almost guarantee that the Illini will lose their top ranking when the new poll comes out. The Illini return home this weekend to begin the second half of the Big Ten season when they host Wisconsin on Friday night and Minnesota on Saturday. The Illini are currently 20-1 overall and 9-1 in conference play.

The Illini women's soccer team continues to win, and their current streak is up to 7 now, by virtue of a pair of wins over Northwestern (3-0) and Nebraska (3-1). The Illini have secured a second place finish in the conference no matter how the final weekend shapes up with the wins. The Illini are currently 13-4-1 overall and 7-2-1 in the Big Ten, and will conclude the regular season on Friday evening when they host Michigan for Senior Night.

The Fighting Illini basketball team held their annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage last Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall. Due to another engagement, I wasn't able to attend, but from what I heard about it, the team looked pretty good. This will be a very young and inexperienced team, so expectations shouldn't be too high as the season begins. Earlier on Wednesday in practice, freshman Devin Langford broke his finger, and after surgery, will miss approximately 4-6 weeks. Langford was a redshirt candidate to begin with, so this may be the "break" that he needs to get that elusive medical redshirt. The regular season tips off next Tuesday night when the Illini take on Wayne State in the first of two exhibition games.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back To The Drawing Board

After a quick 6-0 start to the football season, the Fighting Illini was knocked back down to earth last Saturday, as they suffered their first loss of the 2011 season, 17-7 to the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. This was the first time in quite a few years that the Illini were favored over the Buckeyes, and who could blame them? Given Ohio State's 3-3 record coming in, as well as the recent suspensions over "tattoo gate", the Buckeyes were reeling and headed for a downward spiral. But that all changed with Dan Herron returning from his hiatus. Herron proceeded to crack the century mark in rushing yards and score a touchdown in the process, but it could have been much better for the Illini, had they not repeatedly turned the ball over. Nathan Scheelhaase, who had carried the team on his shoulders for the first half of the season, led the team in rushing, as the Buckeyes came to play on defense. The loss dropped Illinois to 6-1 overall, but they still have a 2-1 record in the Leaders Division, which is more important than it has ever been. The Illini will get a chance to get back on the winning track this Saturday when they travel to West Lafayette, Indiana to battle the Purdue Boilermakers (11:00 am CT, ESPN2). The Boilermakers are 3-3 overall, and 1-1 in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, and are coming off a 23-18 loss to Penn State last Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania. The Boilermakers have had some issues at the quarterback spot, but signal caller Caleb Terbush, who hails from Metamora, Illinois, will get the starting nod. Terbush would have started last season, but academic issues sidelined him for the year. Last year's starter Rob Henry is out with an injury, leaving the backup duties to Robert Marve, who started several games last season as well. With the meat of the schedule coming up for the Illini in the next few weeks, this game is crucial for the Illini to get to maintain their stranglehold in the Leaders Division.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their winning ways this past week, by defeating Michigan State in 5 games last Saturday, then traveling up to Evanston to sweep Northwestern to run their unbeaten streak to 20 games without a loss. Cementing their hold on the top ranking in the country hasn't been easy for Kevin Hambly's spikers, but they have done the best that they can. Colleen Ward had a monster game for the Illini, as she completed a rare double-double in volleyball, getting 20 kills, as well as 20 digs. The road doesn't get any easier for the Illini, as they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle the #4 ranked Cornhuskers on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, Big Ten Network). This will be an epic matchup of two elite teams, and with the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten, provides yet another hurdle in hopes of a conference championship. The Cornhuskers have been a perennial power in volleyball for many years, so when they joined the Big Ten, the conference itself got a whole lot tougher.

It's hard to believe, but basketball practice has begun, and in a normal year, people would be clamoring for hoops talk. But not this year. With the sudden success of the football team, basketball season takes a backseat for now, but soon the Illini will be taking the court, adding yet another sport in this crossover season of sorts. This should be an interesting season to say the least, with so many new faces. Your first chance to see the Illini in game action is this Sunday afternoon, when the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage takes place at the Assembly Hall at 4:00 pm. Tickets are still available, which are general admission, and parking is free for the event.

Finally, the Illini women's soccer team is on a bit of a roll themselves, winning their last 6 matches. During this winning streak, they have shut out the opponent the last five times, including their latest, a 3-0 win over Northwestern on Thursday in Evanston. The Illini are 12-4-1 overall, and 5-2-1 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle Nebraska on Sunday at 1:00 pm central time. After a rocky start to the season, it seems that Coach Janet Rayfield has her team turning the corner, and at the right time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The state of the Big Ten at the turn

It seems hard to believe, but we are at the halfway point of the Big Ten season, and there have been a few surprises in the league so far. Here is a synopsis, team by team, of what has transpired in the league thus far, and what is to come in the second half.

There are still three unbeaten teams in the conference, and they are Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Fighting Illini. Michigan and Illinois are both 6-0, and much of that success can be attributed to the fact that both teams played at home for the first five weeks of the season. It also didn't help that they played a somewhat soft schedule, although Illinois beat a decent Arizona State team and struggled to beat Western Michigan and Northwestern, teams that were not as good as the scores indicated. Wisconsin is 5-0, due in part to them having their bye week this past week. Both Wisconsin and Michigan will visit Champaign in November, so if they are still undefeated at that point, someone will be losing their first game in the process. Wisconsin and Illinois are in the Leaders Division, while Michigan is on top in the Legends Division.

In close pursuit of Michigan in the Legends are Michigan State and Nebraska, who had to come from behind to defeat a stubborn Ohio State squad. (More about the Buckeyes, who are the Illini's next opponent, later). Iowa checks in at 3-2 overall, while Northwestern is 2-3 and Minnesota brings up the rear in the division at just 1-5. Northwestern had a rough go of it the past couple of weeks, squandering big leads to both the Illini and Michigan, before losing both of them. Minnesota has many more problems of their own, and with ailing coach Jerry Kill in and out of the hospital, things are not looking promising in the Twin Cities at the moment.

Besides the Illini and the Badgers at the top of the Leaders, Penn State and Purdue also sport unblemished marks in conference play. The Nittany Lions are 5-1 overall, while Purdue is 3-2. Ohio State is 3-3 overall, while Indiana is 1-5. Both the Buckeyes and the Hoosiers are winless in conference play so far this season.

Last Saturday at a sun-drenched Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Indiana, the Illini became bowl-eligible in just their sixth game of the season by defeating the Hoosiers 41-20. The game didn't start out very well for the Illini, as Indiana ran the opening kick back for a
touchdown. A couple of turnovers also didn't help the Illini, as they found themselves trailing for
a good portion of the first quarter. When the Illini finally did wake up, they began to play like they
were capable of, led by A. J. Jenkins, who followed up his career day last week with another strong
performance. The defense also came to play, as they made a couple of key plays, the major one being
a fumble return for a touchdown scooped up and taken back for a touchdown by Tavon Wilson. The
running game was much more apparent in this game as well, as the Illini amassed 308 yards on the
ground. Senior Troy Pollard led the attack with 92 yards on 9 carries. The fact that the Illini are already
bowl eligible is something that doesn't happen very often, especially this early. However, the Illini have
a tough game this coming Saturday, when the Ohio State Buckeyes visit Memorial Stadium (2:30 pm CT,
ABC). The Buckeyes have had a rough stretch over the last few months, which has led to several key players off
of last year's team to be suspended, or dismissed altogether. This includes their former coach, Jim Tressel,
who knew of the goings on within the program, but either falsified reports or didn't report what was being
done. New coach Luke Fickell is making the best of a bad situation, and at 3-3, comes into Champaign with
absolutely nothing to lose. The Buckeyes were in a similar situation in 2007 when the Illini came to Columbus
to visit, and Juice Williams and the Illini pulled the major upset, defeating the then-#1 ranked Buckeyes.
Here's hoping that history doesn't repeat itself.

Saturday will also mark a unique promotion for the Illinois-Ohio State game, as the DIA attempts to 'Stripe
The Stadium'. Fans in odd numbered sections are asked to wear orange to the game, while those in even
numbered sections are supposed to don blue attire. Students in the north end zone will wear orange, and the
appearance of the FanCam at halftime will allow fans attending the game to view themselves in the stands
after they get back home. This has worked well at other venues, but it remains to be seen how it will fare
in Champaign. Stay tuned.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to roll through the season, and overcame a huge
weekend unblemished this past weekend with wins over both Ohio State and Penn State. The Illini broke the
Nittany Lions' 68 match winning streak in the Big Ten, by defeating them 3-2. On Friday night, the Illini
took down the Buckeyes 3-0. The Illini had a rare mid-week match on Wednesday night at Huff Hall, and
defeated Michigan 3-1 to improve their overall record to 18-0 and conference mark to 7-0. The Illini next take
the court Saturday evening against Michigan State at Huff Hall. The success of the volleyball team has gotten
such that attendance is now maxing out for all home matches, and some admittance guidelines have been
changed, namely setting aside certain areas of the gym for Go Illini Card members.

Normally by this time of the season, fans are clamoring for basketball season to begin, given the past few
seasons that the football team has had. However, this year with the success of the football team is having, that
is not the case. All the same, Bruce Weber and the men's basketball team held their annual Illini Media Day on
Tuesday at the Ubben practice facility, and if you can take anything from this session, it will be that there is a
lot of new faces in the mix as the season begins. Returning starters Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson, as well as
key reserves Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey will be asked to lead the squad, but don't count out senior
transfer Sam Maniscalco, who will be asked to step up and lead the offense from the point guard position.
As I mentioned, there are a lot of new faces this year, with a lot of potential. Mike Shaw, Mychael Henry, Tracy
Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are all in-state players who should be asked to step up early, while Devin Langford,
who hails from Alabama, and Ibrahim Djimde from Mali. The team will hold a practice and scrimmage before the
Ohio State football game at Assembly Hall to give everyone a chance to see this year's team. The annual Orange
Blue Scrimmage is set for Sunday, October 23rd at 4:00 pm.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rolling Right Along

So, the Fighting Illini football team is 5-0, with some winnable games on the horizon, you say? Yes, the view from this position is nice right now, but the journey to get there has been anything but easy. The Illini won their latest game by 3 points over Northwestern, a recurring theme that has seen them escape by that margin for the third consecutive game. What makes the win over Northwestern so important is that they had to claw their way back against the Wildcats to even make it a game. Imagine the irony! Clawing their way back against Wildcats! Anyway, with the Illini down 28-10 in the third quarter, things weren't looking so good for the orange and blue.
Some fans apparently had enough at that point as well, as some of them in attendance got up and left. But, if there is something that can be said for this season's Illinois football team, it is that you never give up thinking that something good will happen. That cannot be said for previous Ron Zook coached teams. In fact, if this were last season, the Illini more than likely would have lost that game. This team has the will to win, and they showed that mettle on Saturday by orchestrating a miraculous comeback to remain undefeated. Senior wide receiver A. J. Jenkins set a school record with 268 yards receiving on 12 catches, 3 of those going for touchdowns. It seemed like Jenkins was open all day long, and Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase found him at every opportunity. When Jenkins wasn't catching passes, Scheelhaase targeted Spencer Harris, another wideout that ended up catching 6 passes for 63 yards. On the day, Scheelhaase completed 21 of 32 passes for 391 yards and those 3 tosses for scores to Jenkins, and also had a touchdown rushing as well. It was refreshing to see the offense come alive, and the 38-35 final score gave people leaving Memorial Stadium a sense of relief that they had come back to win the game, but also that the team is 5-0 and on the verge of bowl eligibility in October, something that hasn't happened around these parts for a long time. In fact, it has been 60 years since the Illini have started a season this successful, and at his weekly visit with the media on Tuesday, Zook stated that "we don't want to lose focus, because when you first develop the mindset to win, then you have to keep that vision to win even more". The Illini will get a chance to expand that vision this coming Saturday when they travel to Bloomington, Indiana to battle the struggling Indiana Hoosiers in their first road game of the season (1:30 pm CT, BTN). This has been a rare occurrence playing the first 5 games of the season at home, but the Illini weathered the storm and have a chance now to really make a jump in the polls this month. Coming into the game with Indiana, the Illini are ranked #19 in the AP media poll and #16 in the USA Today coaches' poll.

The marketing staff in the athletic department at the University of Illinois is putting together a unique promotion for the upcoming Ohio State game, which happens to be the next home game for the Illini on Saturday, October 15. "Stripe The Stadium" will be attempted at this game, where even numbered sections are encouraged to wear blue, and odd numbered sections and the north stands are asked to wear orange. A map of the project can be found by clicking on the following link: This has been tried at some other schools, and has worked pretty well. The only major concern I have about doing something like this at Illinois is that we haven't had a sellout in quite some time, and also the fact that Ohio State notoriously travels well, so there probably will be pockets of scarlet and grey sprinkled through the orange and blue. However, a very cool concept if they can pull this one off, so be on the lookout that day when you watch the game on television for those of you not attending the game in person.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team cleared the first hurdle since becoming the #1 team in the nation with successive match wins over Indiana and #12 ranked Purdue last weekend at Huff Hall in Champaign. In front of a capacity crowd on Saturday night to watch the Illini defeat the Boilermakers (about 500 people had to be turned away), Kevin Hambly's squad rose to the occasion, and rode the crowd to victory. The road doesn't get any easier for the Illini spikers this coming weekend, as they go on the road to face a couple of stern tests in Ohio State on Friday night, then traveling to #9 Penn State on Saturday evening. The Illini currently stand 15-0 overall and 4-0 in Big Ten play.

Janet Rayfield's women's soccer team got back on the winning track as well last weekend, as they swept a couple of home matches at the Illinois soccer complex. The Illini defeated Indiana on Friday evening 4-1, then completed the sweep by knocking off Purdue 1-0 on Sunday. The Illini get back into action this coming weekend when they travel to East Lansing to battle Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. The game is at noon central time, but will on the Big Ten Network as a tape delayed broadcast Sunday afternoon at 5 pm central time. Currently the Illini are 8-4-1 overall and 2-2-1 in conference play.