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.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Picking Up The Pieces

     As this 2012 football season moves forward for the Fighting Illini, the questions concerning the team continue to mount.  Witness the beating that the Illini took last Saturday when they were soundly defeated by Louisiana Tech 52-24 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  Everyone knew what this Bulldogs team could do offensively, since they had scored 56 points in each of their first two games.  But for Illini coach Tim Beckman, his specialty is defense, and you figured that if the Illini could find a way to hold La. Tech down on offense, then they might have a chance.  It looked good at the start of the game, as the Illini scored first on a pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford.  It seemingly looked even better for Illinois near the half, going into the break trailing 21-17.  But, much like last season, turnovers at the wrong time seemed to befall the Illini, as they committed six miscues, including a muffed punt return that Louisiana Tech pounced on in the end zone.  You cannot keep giving teams as good as La. Tech chances and expect to win games.  Thus, the result was the blowout that it was.  It has generated talk around Illini Nation that Beckman may be in for a long season, but the season is only four games old and they are 2-2 heading into the Big Ten portion of the season, which begins this Saturday when the Illini host Penn State (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  Injuries have played a factor in the two losses, but that cannot be viewed as the only reason why the Illini suffered blowouts in both of their setbacks.  Scheelhaase is back, but not quite 100%, as evidenced by Beckman pulling him in the second half last Saturday in favor of Reilly O'Toole, who actually moved the Illini down the field at times.  The offensive line, which was a major concern to begin with, got a little worse with Graham Pocic nursing an injury, and Hugh Thornton suffering an injury of his own in the loss to La. Tech.

     This Saturday's Big Ten opener will be unique in many ways, not only because it will match up coaches in their first conference games of their coaching career, but more remembered for not seeing Joe Paterno on the Penn State sidelines for the first time in 46 years.  Since the scandal broke in Happy Valley, talk has focused on how the Nittany Lions will be received at each school they visit this season.  That topic has taken a place on the back burner for the time being, as the chatter this week has focused on the Illini's two recent blowout losses, and wondering what will happen this week.  Back during the summer, several Illini coaches made a trip out to Penn State to inquire about a player who eventually transferred to Illinois.  That talk has resurfaced this week, fueled mainly by some members of the Penn State media contingent that cannot seem to let well enough alone.  The Nittany Lions continue to be portrayed as the victim in this, and even though the Illini coaches went about the situation the correct and ethical way, there are some that still think that it was underhanded and wrong at what they did.  I say, let the teams decide it on the field and let well enough alone.  Penn State has their own problems to deal with, and will for the forseeable future.

     Don't fault Illini basketball coach John Groce for not landing the latest recruit that he went after, Demetrius Jackson of Mishawauka, Indiana.  After all, Notre Dame, who Jackson ultimately chose over the Illini, had been recruiting the guard since he was a freshman in high school.  Groce came in on the recruitment   late, and since he became head coach at Illinois, Groce has been turning heads with his work ethic in regards to recruiting.  After getting Kendrick Nunn's commitment a week ago, Illini Nation was abuzz with the possibility of landing Jackson or even Xavier Rathan-Mayes, another guard that is near the top of Groce's wish list.  The Rathan-Mayes recruitment is still ongoing, but it is clear that Groce intends to get Illinois back to relevancy sooner rather than later.

     Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini volleyball team split their matches this past weekend, getting swept by Minnesota on Friday evening before rebounding to defeat Wisconsin in 5 sets on Sunday afternoon.  The Illini, who have endured a very tough schedule to begin the season, enter play this coming weekend at 7-5 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten.  The Illini will make their annual trip through Indiana this weekend, traveling to Bloomington on Friday evening to battle the Indiana Hoosiers (6:00 pm, CT BTN), then will head north from there to West Lafayette on Saturday evening to take on the Boilermakers of Purdue (7:00 pm, CT  BTN).

     The Illini women's soccer team split their matches as well this past weekend, defeating Ohio State 1-0 on Friday night and then dropping a 4-0 contest to #11 ranked Penn State on Sunday afternoon.  The soccer team also make a swing through Indiana this weekend, traveling to Bloomington on Friday night to battle Indiana (6:30 pm CT, No TV), then finishing up their Indiana trip in West Lafayette on Sunday afternoon against Purdue (12:00 CT, No TV).  The Illini are currently 5-4-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend's action.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Better Days Ahead

     The past weekend for sports on the University of Illinois campus couldn't have gone much better than it did.  From football to women's soccer, every team in action excelled, as well as one that occurred off of the field.  First things first with football.  After the "Debacle in the Desert" last Saturday evening in Arizona, the Illini gridders came back against a team that they should have had no problem in beating, which ended up being the case.  The Illini cruised from the start en route to a 44-0 victory over the Buccaneers of Charleston Southern University, a FCS opponent that hadn't won a game in the last 14 tries.  If ever there was a game where injuries didn't play a factor, this was the game to make that happen.  The Illini are a bruised and battered group, with the top four players on the offensive side of the football out with some sort of injury.  Of course, the marquee name on this list is Nathan Scheelhaase, who sustained an ankle sprain in the opening game win over Western Michigan, and hasn't played since. However, running back Josh Ferguson was held out of the game Saturday with concussion-like symptoms, while center Graham Pocic and wide receiver Darius Millines also are dealing with injuries and didn't see action.  According to Illini coach Tim Beckman, "it's something that I have never seen in all my years of coaching", he spoke about all of the injuries at the same time.  True, they probably didn't need these players against Charleston Southern, and it was a sigh of relief to see some of the younger players step up in the absence of so many starters.  True freshmen Dami Ayoola (RB) and Justin Hardee (WR) filled in nicely, both leading their respective positions in yards from scrimmage.  Ayoola finished the game with 55 yards on the ground, and scored on a 28 yard run that was a sight to behold.  Ayoola appeared to be tackled after a short gain, but somehow managed to slip away from his tacklers and bandied into the end zone for the score.  Hardee was the favorite target of quarterback Reilly O'Toole, catching 5 passes for 99 yards.  Although Hardee didn't find the end zone in the game, it was still a nice sight to see another young player doing well in Beckman's system.  Beckman has said along that if a freshman is good enough to play, then he will be seeing plenty of action.  Ayoola and Hardee definitely didn't disappoint as a result, and hopefully more of those days are to come from this duo.  Now that the Buccaneers are out of town, the real fun begins, as the next two weeks pose challenges of a different kind.  This coming Saturday's opponent, Louisiana Tech (7:00 pm, BTN), has a high powered offense, and leads the nation in red zone offense.  They have only scored 56 points in each of their first two games, but have allowed at least 37 points in those games as well.  So, could a shootout be in order?

     Does Beckman have a quarterback controversy on his hands?  With Scheelhaase still out and his status still uncertain for Saturday's game, it appears that Reilly O'Toole has the inside track, especially since he threw for 313 yards and  5 touchdowns  against Charleston Southern.  Granted, it was against an FCS opponent, but it still was good to see the Illini air it out like they did.  Beckman has said repeatedly that a player won't lose his starting status due to an injury, but it O'Toole begins to produce, it begs the question of who would be the better fit down the stretch.  One would think that Scheelhaase would be the logical choice, since he has the most experience, but if O'Toole can get the job done, a healthy O'Toole might be a better fit than a less than 100% Scheelhaase.  Whatever the case, Beckman won't tip his hand to anybody, especially the media.  At his weekly press luncheon on Tuesday, the question was posed about this very topic, and he stayed true to form by not elaborating on what he was thinking.  Why give the opponent any information?  We in the media will be the last ones to know anyway.

     Perhaps the most positive news of the entire weekend came off the playing field, as Simeon senior Kendrick Nunn gave an oral commitment to Illini coach John Groce to play basketball for the in-state team.  It was Nunn's official visit, and apparently he liked what he saw, because Twitter was abuzz with his decision minutes after the football game ended.  Since signing day is not until November, nothing is official until he is signed on the dotted line, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.  Now Illini Nation is hoping that he can bring some of the other talented players in the class with him to Champaign to get the Groce era off to a strong start.  Stay tuned for more on this story as it continues to develop.
     After a sluggish start to the season where they started off 3-4, Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team bounced back nicely in Austin, Texas at the Texas Invitational by defeating Cincinnati, LSU and the host Longhorns, who were ranked #6 in the nation.  The three wins gave the Illini the invitational title, and more importantly, vaulted them back over the .500 mark at 6-4 overall as the conference season begins this coming weekend when the Illini return to the confines of Huff Hall to battle Minnesota on Friday night and Wisconsin on Saturday evening.

     Coach Janet Rayfield returned from being an assistant coach on the U20 women's World Cup soccer team in Japan just in time to get their conference season off to a good start, defeating Iowa 2-1 on Sunday afternoon at the Illini soccer stadium in Urbana.  Vanessa DiBernardo, who was a member of that team, wasted little time in getting her first goal of the season, while freshman Nicole Breece was able to find the net for the eventual game winning goal.  The Illini continue their home cooking this coming weekend, when Ohio State pays a visit to Champaign on Friday night, followed by Penn State on Sunday.  The Illini are 4-3-1 on the season as the conference portion of the schedule begins.


Thursday, September 6, 2012


     The Tim Beckman era began in style last Saturday in Champaign, resulting in a 24-7 victory over the Western Michigan Broncos at Memorial Stadium.  But what exactly did we learn from the win?  Certainly it appears that the defense has left off from where it was last season, despite not having one of the stalwarts from that unit in Whitney Mercilus, who left a year early for the NFL.  The defensive unit had 4 takeaways on the day, including an interception by Michael Buchanan, who will undoubtedly follow in Mercilus' footsteps to the NFL next season.  There was also an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Ashante Williams. another good sign.  Offensively, the news wasn't as good.  It certainly started off promising, as Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase connected with wide receiver Ryan Lankford for a 64 yard touchdown in the game's opening few minutes.  After that play, however, the offense resembled one more suited for former coach Ron Zook, and not Beckman.  The news would get progressively worse for the Illini during the second half, as Scheelhaase would leave the game with an apparent ankle injury, giving way to sophomore Reilly O'Toole to guide the offense the remainder of the way.  Miles Osei, who was converted to a wideout during the Camp Rantoul workouts, would come into the game for the final few minutes to run out the clock and preserve the victory.  It was no secret that the offensive line was inexperienced, and up until the final few days leading up to the first game, undecided as to who would exactly start where.  Beckman is notorious for not tipping his hand in regards to information, especially if he knows that the opposing team could possible use that knowledge to their advantage during the game.  Beckman knew that Western Michigan would know his scheme pretty well, since he spent the last three years coaching against them at Toledo.  One thought possibly is that Beckman was not letting too much out of the bag for the Illini's next opponent, which is Arizona State on Saturday evening in Tempe, Arizona (9:30 pm CT, ESPN).  This will be a stern test for the Illini, since it is their first game on the road, as well as on the west coast, where the Illini haven't had the best of luck in the regular season in the past few years.  The Sun Devils  won their opening game as well, routing Northern Arizona 63-6 on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, behind a balanced attack on offense.  The Sun Devils rushed for 305 yards, while passing for 249 yards.  Gone is quarterback Brock Oswiler, and the new signal caller, Taylor Kelly, completed 15 of 19 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown.  This is obviously not as talented a team as the one that came to Champaign last season, but it is on the road and in a hostile environment, so nobody really knows what will happen.  I suspect that if Scheelhaase is good enough to play on Saturday night, then the Illini will probably be favored. Then again, nobody will know what the result will be, since Beckman will keep the verdict to himself up until kickoff.  Stay tuned.

     Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini volleyball team has had an auspicious beginning to their season, losing their first two matches of the season in Dayton, Ohio, before coming back to defeat Ohio University to salvage one match in the opening weekend.  The Illini then hosted Iowa State in a rare two match series, winning one and losing one.  But don't let the 2-3 record fool you.  The Illini are still a talented squad that have a lot of potential as the season wears on.  The Illini will be back in action this weekend in Cincinnati when they take part in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge against host Cincinnati and also Louisville.

     Much better news on the soccer front, as Janet Rayfield's team is off to a 3-1-1 start to the 2012 season.  Wins over Western Michigan, UC-Santa Barbara and Milwaukee have propelled the Illini to a promising beginning.  The Illini will be in action as well this weekend, when they travel east to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to battle Virginia Tech and host Wake Forest.

      Even though the calendar says it is fall, basketball season is not far off, and the schedules for both John Groce's men's team and Matt Bollant's women's team have been announced.  Highlights of the men's schedule include trips to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and to Spokane, Washington to take on Gonzaga.  The Illini's annual trips to St. Louis and Chicago are also on the docket, as is the Big 10/ACC Challenge against Georgia Tech at the Assembly Hall.  The women will make Assembly Hall their home for a good portion of the non-conference season, only playing away from home three times between October and January.

     Fall sports season is here, and it's time to get after it!