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.

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.


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