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 24, 2012

Bye Week Blues

     The Fighting Illini enjoyed a week off this past week, and judging from head coach Tim Beckman, it couldn't have come at a better time.  The Illini are a bruised and battered bunch, and that doesn't even account for the play on the field the past few weeks.  In the Illini's 5 losses on the season, they have been beaten by margins of 31, 28, 28, 17 and 45, and are currently on the heels of a four game losing streak.  As a matter of fact, they have lost the last nine Big Ten games that they have played, and the last time they won a conference game, they beat Indiana last year in Bloomington to move to 6-0.  You can disregard what I said after the game last year as the final seconds ticked off the clock, because we soon found out that 6-0 didn't look that good when matched with an 0-6 finish to the regular season.  That led to the removal of Ron Zook, and so far in 2012, the situation isn't much better, in fact it is worse.  Judging from the comments from some of the veteran players, I don't believe that they have bought in to the Beckman system, and are just biding their time until they can vacate and move on to the next phase of their lives, whatever that may be.  Beckman has pledged that they are taking things "one day at time", and once certain players get healthy, can hopefully get back to the way that they were before things went south on them.  They can get back on that track Saturday when they welcome the team that they last beat in the Big Ten, the Indiana Hoosiers (11:00 am CT, BTN).  Indiana, although 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten as well, have played well in their five losses, the largest margin being 15 points to Northwestern of all teams.  The Hoosiers came within a few plays of knocking off Michigan State 3 weeks ago, then took Ohio State to the limit before finally losing in the closing seconds.  This is not your father's Indiana team, as Kevin Wilson has the Hoosiers playing respectfully, and it will take a monumental effort for the Illini to knock them off.  Now, when's the last time you heard that?

     Illini basketball is here to save the day, and John Groce's 2012-13 squad was on display for the first time on Monday night, when they hosted the Orange and Blue Scrimmage at the Assembly Hall.  The format was to play three eight minute quarters, but they ended up playing a fourth, in what Groce called "a conditioning move".  Groce seemed very involved on the sidelines, even though he turned the teams over to his assistant coaches, Paris Parham and Jamall Walker.  Groce mentioned to the press afterwards that overall he was pleased with the effort, but there is still a lot of work to do.  He stressed that he wants to get the message across that "practice matters".  Someone that is really becoming a force early is sophomore Nnanna Egwu.  Egwu is doing all of the right things so far, and is looking like the best player on the court at this point.  Seniors Brandon Paul and D. J. Richardson will join Groce up at Big Ten Basketball Media Day at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare on Thursday, so look for a separate blog entry with all of the tidbits and nuggets from around the conference.  The Illini tip off the exhibition portion of the season on Saturday evening when they welcome Lewis University to the Assembly Hall (7:00 PM, CT)

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to struggle through their tough schedule, and welcoming #4 ranked Nebraska didn't help matters much.  The Illini were swept in three games by the Cornhuskers, who were visiting Huff Hall for the first time as a member of the Big Ten.  The Illini will hit the road this coming weekend to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and come into those matches with a 10-10 overall record, but just 4-6 in conference play.

     The Illini women's soccer team finished up their home schedule by splitting two games, losing 2-1 to Northwestern on Thursday, and then rebounding nicely by defeating Nebraska 4-1 last Sunday for Senior Day.  The Illini will wrap up the regular season on Saturday when they travel to Michigan to face the Wolverines.  The Illini carry an 8-7-2 overall record into the match in Ann Arbor, and are 5-4-1 in the Big Ten.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where do you turn from here?

     This season of Fighting Illini football is getting hard to watch.  Very hard to watch.  In a season that has pretty much been lost, the Illini were once again blown out, this time 45-0 at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines at a very rainy Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.  Very little is going right for new Illini coach Tim Beckman right now, and the product on the field is very reminiscent of that.  In a game that saw the Illini only rack up 134 total yards of offense, including just 29, yes, 29! passing yards, it is very evident that something is dreadfully wrong and the fix isn't attainable at the moment.  Illini starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was hurt once again against the Wolverines, and his replacement, Reilly O'Toole, didn't do much of anything.  Illinois knew that they would have their hands full with Michigan's dual threat quarterback Denard Robinson, but did anybody really expect this?  Robinson rushed for 128 yards on 11 carries and scored 2 touchdowns on the ground, while completing 7 of 11 passes for 129 yards and two more scores, including a 71 yard touchdown to receiver Jeremy Gallon.  It is plays like this that give the hint that something is not quite right with the defensive alignment of the Illini.  After all, wasn't Beckman a defensive minded coach coming in from Toledo?  While injuries have certainly been a factor this year for Illinois, that excuse is beginning to lose its identity.  This team is just plain bad, and if it looks this bleak now, next year is shaping up to be even worse. The Illini will lose Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, and possibly Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown.  There are others on the defensive unit that also will be graduating, and the outlook for players that can step in and take over for these departing seniors looks very dismal as well.  However, one true freshman is playing very well early on, and that player is linebacker Mason Monheim.  There are rumblings as of late saying that Illinois may have hired the wrong guy, and the person that they should have looked at is the current coach at Toledo.  I still think that this thought process is a little far fetched, but as each loss continues to mount for the Illini, one has to think whether or not that could become a factor down the stretch.

     Thankfully, (I think), the Illini have a bye this week and don't have to play a game.  That means that they won't lose, and will have a chance to get some players healthy and hopefully back on the field in a week when they take on the Indiana Hoosiers a week from Saturday at Memorial Stadium for Homecoming (11:00 am, BTN).  Earlier in the season, the game against the Hoosiers looked like one that could be counted in the win column, but judging from their game against Ohio State last Saturday evening, that may no longer be a possibility.  The Hoosiers racked up 49 points in a loss to the Buckeyes, and the recent ineptness of the Illini defense to stop opponents does not bode well with Indiana coming into town.  The Illini are 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, and in their 5 losses, the closest margin has been 17 points.  That was the Wisconsin game, in which the Illini played remarkably well for three quarters before falling apart in the fourth.   Yes, there are major issues involving the Illinois football program, and there are basically no answers at the moment.

     It was nice to see professional basketball at the Assembly Hall last Friday night, as the Chicago Bulls entertained the Cleveland Cavaliers in an exhibition game.  Despite the Bulls not having Derrick Rose playing, due to an injury sustained last season, there was still enough talent on the floor to give the smallish crowd something to cheer about.  The attendance could have have been influenced by a couple of different factors, given it was Friday night and the high school football teams are in their final playoff push, not to mention that the Cardinals were playing the Washington Nationals in the NLDS.  Still, it was a good time and I look forward to the NBA coming back to the 'Hall again next season.

     While I am on the subject of basketball, new Illini basketball coach John Groce and his team offically began practice last Friday, and are preparing for the Orange and Blue Scrimmage, which will be Monday evening at the Assembly Hall.  Groce will be taking seniors D. J. Richardson and Brandon Paul to Chicago next week for the annual Big Ten basketball media days at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in suburban Chicago.  This event is always one of great interest to many, and in addition to the men being up there, all 12 of the women's teams will also be appearing, including new Illini women's coach Matt Bollant.  Bollant comes in with high expectations, having had great success at Wisconsin Green-Bay before taking the Illini job.  Bollant will be bringing with him Kersten Magrum, Amber Moore and Karisma Penn.  Look for a full report from media days in next week's blog.

     After losing four straight matches, Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team have managed to get back on the winning track, defeating Michigan State last Saturday evening in East Lansing, and then returning to Huff Hall on Wednesday evening to defeat the Northwestern Wildcats in 5 games.  The Illini have been having their ups and downs this season, so this mini winning streak is a breath of fresh air.  However, the Illini have a tough customer coming into Huff this weekend, as #4 Nebraska visits Champaign for a Sunday afternoon matinee (2:00 pm, ESPN2).  The Illini are 10-9 overall, but just 4-5 in the Big Ten ahead of the match against the Cornhuskers.

     With the regular season winding down for Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team, they have hit a rough patch of their own in the past week, now reeling after a third straight loss.  The Illini were swept last weekend in their trip north of the state border, as they lost 3-0 to Minnesota on Friday and were defeated 2-1 in double overtime to Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon.  The Illini were upset on Thursday evening at the Illinois Soccer Stadium by Northwestern 2-1, and will host Nebraska on Sunday (12:00 pm, no TV).  The Illini are 7-7-2 overall, and bring a 4-4-1 conference mark into the game with the Cornhuskers this weekend.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It's a game of inches, not pinches!

     Here's a quick question to ponder for this week.  What is the difference between the Fighting Illini football team and a dollar bill?  Give up?  You can get four quarters out of a dollar bill!  That statement couldn't have been more evident last Saturday, as the Illini put forth a valiant effort at Wisconsin for three quarters, before once again faltering down the stretch to lose 31-14 to the Badgers.  The defense looked stable for the balance of the game, except for the final 15:00, in which there was a breakdown as the Badgers went to Montee Ball on the ground to put the game out of reach.  The Illini got on the board first to take a 7-0 lead, and went into the locker room at halftime feeling good about themselves tied at 7 apiece.  The third quarter was more of the same, as the Badgers tacked on a field goal to take a slim 10-7 lead, and then the fourth quarter happened.  Ball took over in the final stanza, scoring two touchdowns on the ground, while true freshman quarterback Joel Stave hit Jared Abbrederis on a 59 yard pass play for another score.  Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had two scores on the day, taking it in from 5 yards out for the game's initial score, and then hitting receiver Ryan Lankford for an 8 yard touchdown down the stretch to at least make the score respectable.  Scheelhaase finished the day completing 18 of 29 passes for 178 yards and the score, while taking the honors being the Illini's leading rusher with 84 yards on 22 carries and a score as well.  There has been some rumblings as of late from the Illini players about the choice of plays being run on offense, and there has also been some clamoring about not opening up the playbook more.  After all, what is Tim Beckman saving these plays for?  The Illini are 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, and in serious danger of seeing their two year bowl streak come to a screeching halt.  But were the signs of a collapse of this magnitude there when the season started?  I have mentioned here before that while the defense lost Whitney Mercilus to the NFL last season, they still had guys like Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Terry Hawthorne returning from a unit that was adequate a year ago.  Even though the Illini lost the last six regular season games in 2011, the defense kept them in most of those games and a couple of them could have gone the other way if a couple of plays were reversed.  This could be a lingering hangover from that collapse last season, and I still think it is not fair to place all of the blame on Beckman for this season.  After all, he is using the players that Ron Zook brought to the program, and we all know what kind of a coach the Zooker was.  It doesn't get any easier for the Illini this weekend, as they travel to the Big House in Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines (2:30 pm CT, ABC).  The Wolverines are 3-2 overall and 1-0 in the Legends Division of the Big Ten, and feature one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in all of college football in Denard Robinson.  Robinson can hurt you with his feet just as easy as his arm, and even though the Illini held him in check a year ago in Champaign, keeping him down this time will be a tall order.  The Illini come into the game a huge underdog, at least three touchdowns by some accounts.  There is not much hope of the Illini righting the ship this weekend, but stranger things have happened in Ann Arbor in the past.  I guess that is why they play the games.

     There was a lot of press given to Beckman and his little chewing tobacco incident before the Wisconsin game.  A secondary violation, Beckman admits that it is a bad habit that he has and they he won't let it be a distraction again.  Besides, Beckman has much larger problems to worry about right now with his team going down the proverbial drain before his very eyes.  True, he shouldn't have even done it in the first place, let alone on national television, but in this day and age of social media and cameras being everywhere, nothing is considered private any more, especially someone in the spotlight such as Beckman.

     With football season at the midway point of the season, some people in Illini Nation are beginning to turn their attention to the hardwood to see what new coach John Groce has in store for the Illini this season.  The Illini held their annual media day activities on Wednesday, and Groce met the press for the first time as new coach.  With practice scheduled to begin on Friday, everyone is chomping at the bit to get started, including seniors Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey.  The Illini lost a significant piece of their team last season, when Meyers Leonard left for the NBA after his sophomore season.  Groce knows that replacing Leonard will be a tall order (no pun intended), but feels that he has three capable bodies that should be able to shoulder the load.  Sophomores Nnanna Egwu and Ibby Djimde will be two of those players that will be trying to replace Leonard, as well as the aforementioned Griffey.  Newcomer Sam McLaurin, who transferred from Coastal Carolina, is another big body that could fill that spot if needed.  McLaurin took advantage of the new rule that allows a player to transfer to another school without penalty if that school has a graduate program that is of the student's interest.  If you remember, Sam Maniscalco took advantage of that rule last season, coming in from Bradley.  Groce also is aware that ball handling could be an issue, and is relying on sophomore Tracy Abrams to do the bulk of the point guard duties.  However, Paul and Richardson will be asked to do their share as well, especially since they both have both been in that position before.  Your first chance to see the 2012-13 Illini in action will be on Monday, October 22nd, when they participate in the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage at the Assembly Hall.

     When Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly saw the schedule for the 2012 season, he knew that a chance to repeat as national runner-up would be a tall order.  The Illini have been on a recent slide as of late, losing their fourth consecutive match, this time falling to Michigan in three straight game on Wednesday evening in Ann Arbor.  This followed a weekend that saw the Illini drop matches to ranked teams, first falling to Ohio State on Friday evening, then taking the top ranked Nittany Lions of Penn State to the limit, losing in 5 games.  The Illini will attempt to end the slide this weekend when they travel to East Lansing to battle the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday (5:30 pm, CT, no TV).  The Illini are currently 8-9 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten.

     The Illini women's soccer team is having a much better season than their volleyball counterparts, currently sporting a 7-4-2 overall record, with a 4-1-1 conference mark.  The Illini have been idle since last Thursday, when they defeated Michigan State 3-2 at the Illini Soccer Stadium.  In the win over the Spartans, Vanessa DiBernardo scored a hat trick, and for her efforts, was named the Big Ten player of the week.  The Illini head north this weekend, traveling to Minneapolis on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT, no TV), then heading across the border to Wisconsin to Madison to face the Badgers on Sunday afternoon (4:00 pm CT, BTN).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Off The Rails

     This 2012 Illini football season is eerily beginning to resemble the one that ended in 2011, and for many reasons, that is not a good sign.  When Tim Beckman was hired as head coach of the Illini back in December, he brought with him quite a bit of energy and also promising some up-tempo football.  What we have seen thus far couldn't be further from that.  The Illini's latest beatdown came at the hands of Penn State last Saturday 35-7, as the same problems that have plagued Illinois the past couple of seasons were very evident once again.  In essence, the Illini may have been "Zookered", and at times on Saturday, it looked as if the former coach was once again in charge of the offense and special teams.  Early in the Penn State loss, Tommie Davis mishandled a punt that resulted in the Nittany Lions getting very good field position.  The Illini defense managed to hold Penn State to a field goal, but yet another penalty, this one running into the kicker, gave the Nittany Lions another chance.  This time they scored a touchdown and for all intensive purposes the game was over.  So far in the 2012 season, things have not gone the way that most, including the players and coaches, thought that it would.  Beckman had said repeatedly before the season began that he was worried about depth issues, and while some injuries to key positions have further worsened this problem, a lot of younger players are seeing more of the field than they originally thought was possible.  Under interim coach Vic Koenning last year, the Illini looked pretty good in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, and with Koenning running the defense a year ago, things weren't that bad, despite the six consecutive losses to end the regular season.  That team lost Whitney Mercilus, Jeff Allen and A. J. Jenkins to the NFL, but it is unfathomable to think that those three losses could make this much of a difference.  In the Illini's three defeats in the 2012 season, they have not only been beaten, they have been beaten down, and in a bad way.  There is not any other way to say it than that.  At times it has been down right ugly, and it is starting to show in attendance, which was not great to begin with.  The last three games on the home schedule, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota, do not scream sellouts, and judging from the recent performance of the football team, they won't even come close to getting Memorial Stadium half full for any of those games.

     The road doesn't get any easier for the Illini starting this Saturday, when they travel to Madison, Wisconsin for the first of two straight road games, when they take on the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium (2:30 pm CT, ABC).  The Badgers come into the game with Illinois at 3-2 overall, and dropped their conference opener last Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 30-27.  Wisconsin lost a key member of their offense last season when Russell Wilson took his game to the NFL, but they still return Montee Ball, who figured prominently in their offense last season.  Ball did have an off-season incident where he was attacked, but appears to be healthy once again and ready to welcome the Illini to Madison.  Illinois, who comes into the game at 2-3 overall and also winless in the conference at 0-1, must figure out a way to get their offense moving, while at the same time finding a way to keep the Badgers off the field and off the scoreboard.  If these things do not occur, it will be another long day for the Illini and the fan base, which is already restless, will become even more so.

      The Illinois women's volleyball team made a trip to the Hoosier state this past weekend, and came away with a split, defeating Indiana in 4 games, while losing to Purdue in 5.  The Illini have struggled out of the gate this season with the much tougher schedule, and will return to Huff Hall this coming weekend to face #19 Ohio State on Friday night (7:00 pm CT,,  then welcome top-ranked Penn State on Saturday evening (7:00 pm, CT, The Illini are currently 8-6 overall this season and 2-2 in the Big Ten.

     Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team also traveled to Indiana this past weekend, and came away a bit more successful than their spiker counterparts, defeating Indiana 2-1 and tying Purdue 1-1. The Illini will return home on Thursday evening to face Michigan State in a game that will be televised on the Big Ten Network at 7:00 pm CT.  The Illini come into the game with the Spartans at 6-4-2 overall and 3-1-1 in the Big Ten.