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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The Illini version.

This past weekend was a busy one on the University of Illinois campus. All the major sports were in action, either beginning regular season schedules, continuing seasons, or beginning post-season play. Here, in my own opinion, is a synopsis of the weekend.
First, the good. And there is plenty of good to report from campus, as a couple of the women's sports teams are doing very well in their respective seasons. The volleyball team returned to their winning ways, taking down two ranked teams in the process in Penn State and Ohio State last weekend at Huff Hall. On Friday evening, the Illini defeated the Nittany Lions, becoming the first team to sweep them in the season series in quite some time. Likewise, the Illini beat the Buckeyes on Saturday night to improve their season record to 24-3 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten. The #7 ranked Illini are now just one game off the lead in the conference race, and will be back on the road this weekend when they travel to East Lansing on Friday night to battle Michigan State and then further up the road to Ann Arbor on Saturday to battle the Michigan Wolverines.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Illini women's soccer team began NCAA tournament play at home and defeated the defending champions Notre Dame 1-0 to advance to the second round of the tournament. In a very blustery wind, Niki Read scored the only goal of the game, and sent the Illini on to victory. The #16th ranked Illini will now travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma to battle #4 Oklahoma State, who is seeded #2 in the region on Friday evening at 5:00 pm. Auburn and Maryland are also in the regional pod, with the winners meeting on Sunday for the right to advance further still in the tournament.

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini basketball team began the regular season this past Friday evening, and for the week thus far, have won their first two games, although they may not have been as convincing as one might have expected. The Illini beat Loyola-Chicago 67-49, then began the U.S. portion of the Cancun Challenge by taking down SIU-Edwardsville 66-46 on Monday evening at the Assembly Hall. D. J. Richardson tied a career high in points with 20, and Tyler Griffey notched his first double-double of his young Illini career with 10 points and a career high in rebounds with 14. The severely undersized Cougars hung tough with the Illini for a good portion of the game, before their size and athleticism finally wore their guests down. With such a young team this season, Weber has been trying different lineup combinations, but injuries have limited him so far. Among the players that have missed at least one game since the season began have been Sam Maniscalco, Myke Henry, and Devin Langford. Crandall Head, who is currently serving a four game suspension for an off-court incident, is set to return when the Illini face the Bisons of Lipscomb University on Thursday night (8:00 pm, CT BTN) at the Assembly Hall. The game against Lipscomb is another contest in the Cancun Challenge. Then, the Illini will head to Mexico to finish the challenge when they play the Richmond Spiders the week of Thanksgiving.

Even though the Illini women's basketball team has started the season 2-1, I file them in the bad category mainly because of the lack of attention that this program has. After a season opening loss to South Carolina last Friday afternoon, the Illini have bounced back to defeat Cleveland State on the road and Memphis on Tuesday night 62-54. The main issue here are the crowds at Assembly Hall. Often times, you can physically count the bodies in attendance, and the level of play doesn't seem to be helping this matter any. Coach Jolette Law keeps saying that she is going to get things turned around, and every year she is at the helm it doesn't seem to get any better. The Illini now embark on what turns out to be a nine game road trip, since they won't be playing back at the Assembly Hall until they host Alabama A & M on December 28th. The Illini will next be in action on Friday night when they take on the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, then Sunday when they battle the California Bears in Berkeley.

The state of the Illinois football program gets both a bad and an ugly tag, and to differentiate between the two, I will describe them separately. First, for the bad of the equation. The Illini dropped their fourth straight game after winning their first six games to become bowl eligible, and to make matters worse, it came at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines 31-14 as the Illini offense once again didn't fare very well at all. Pressure is mounting for Ron Zook in more ways than one during this losing streak, and it appears that it is finally getting to the coach. On two separate occasions this week, Zook has spoken to the media and the topic about his future as Illinois coach has come up both times. On Monday, a reporter grilled Zook about his future, and was told that this wasn't the time to bring that up. Then, at his weekly gathering with the press on Tuesday, he stated up front that this wasn't about him or about his future, and if anyone wanted to broach the issue with him, then he would be done for the day. Well, the subject was brought up about 18 minutes into the press conference, and that was the end of that. The Illini will face Wisconsin (11:00 am CT, ESPN2) on Saturday in the final home game of the season. It also marks Senior Day for 15 Illini players that will be playing their final home game at Memorial Stadium. The question is, will this be "Senior Day" for Ron Zook as well?

And now, for the ugly. This has been a very bad week for Illinois football, both on and off the field. There have been a couple of incidents that occurred after the game on Saturday that has really marred this program. First of all, senior Trulon Henry was shot in the hand after he returned to a party to get some younger players away from the scene. Henry, who will miss the remainder of the season and possibly the bowl game if the Illini get an invite, was the innocent victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, to make matters worse, two freshmen wide receivers were arrested in a separate incident earlier on Saturday evening. Kenny Knight and Jordan Frysinger attempted to run from the scene on Green Street, but were apprehended by police before they could get very far. I don't know what this says about the speed of our receivers, but if they cannot outrun the police, then maybe they don't deserve to be on the football team. Still, these two incidents cast a darkened shadow on a program that has fallen on hard times in the last month. This cannot help Ron Zook's quest to stay on as Illinois coach, and only an upset win against Wisconsin and a season ending win at Minnesota might be the only thing that saves him at this point. Just sayin'.

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