At least the updates to the stadium were easy on the eyes.
The Fighting Illini raised the curtain on the 2013 season this past Saturday, and judging by the way the team looked on the field, there is still a lot of work to be done. There is a philosophy that says a win is a win, but I don't think you can apply this here. True, the Illini did win the game 42-34 over the Salukis of Southern Illinois, but very easily could have lost the game if a couple of plays had gone the other way. The Illini offense, led by new OC Bill Cubit, looked revamped, as redshirt quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a career high in passing yards with 416 yards, which is good for tenth all-time at Illinois. The superb outing by Scheelhaase earned him the Big Ten offensive player of the week, and as it turned out, he needed every bit of them for the Illini to come out with a victory. The offense appears to be fine, but the defense, now that is another story. The Illini wasted no time getting on the scoreboard, as they moved down the field and came away with a Taylor Zalewski field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. A lot of preseason hype was placed on true freshman Aaron Bailey and the wonderment of when he would see his first collegiate action. Bailey was able to score his first touchdown in the third quarter, as he rushed up the middle for a 2 yard score. Scheelhaase's favorite target was wideout Ryan Lankford, who caught 6 balls for 115 yards, but was held out of the endzone. Running back Josh Ferguson caught 4 passes for 103 yards, including a 53 yard touchdown strike from Scheelhaase. Junior Donovonn Young had an auspicious start, only gaining 6 yards on 12 carries, but scoring from 2 yards out. No matter how you slice it, the win just didn't feel very good, and it proves the notion that this defense isn't very good and is going to allow a large number of points this season. Special teams looked somewhat better than they did last year, especially the kick return team. Sophomore V'Angelo Bentley returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, and swung the momentum back to the Illini. It turns out that Bentley's return was the difference in the game, as the Salukis made a late push to make the game interesting. It is also worth noting that the next series after Bentley's return, he was burned by a SIU wideout for a touchdown. Turning a positive into a negative? Could be.
This has to have the Illini's next opponent, the Cincinnati Bearcats, licking their chops as they come into Champaign this coming Saturday (11:00 AM CST, ESPN2). The Bearcats welcomed Purdue's new coach Darrell Hazell to the Big Ten with a 42-7 thrashing of the Boilermakers in their season opener at Cincinnati. The Bearcats used a balanced attack, rushing for 221 yards on the ground, while getting 204 yards through the air. Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux completed 13 of 20 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown, but also threw an interception. All told in the game, 12 receivers caught at least one pass for the Bearcats. For the Illini to even stand a chance in this game, the defense needs to improve markedly, and fast. As with all of the high powered offenses in the Big Ten, the Illini need to find a way to defend the pass, or else it will be another long season.
Fighting Illini men's basketball coach John Groce got some great news this past weekend, as 5-star power forward Leron Black verbally committed to the Illini. Black, who was highly sought after by Indiana and Tennessee, is from Memphis, Tennessee and brings the total of recruits to 2 for the 2014 season. Champaign Centennial junior Michael Finke is the other player in the class that has given Groce a verbal commitment. Still waiting on the decision from big man Cliff Alexander, who still has the Illini listed among his choices, although Kansas and Michigan State are also in the mix.
The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team began the 2013 season on a good note, by going 2-1 in the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational on the west coast. The Illini began play by upsetting #17 Florida in straight sets, then dropping a match later on Friday night to the host team. The Illini came back on Saturday night and defeated Kentucky to complete a successful weekend. The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Illini, as they are headed to Ames, Iowa this coming weekend to battle #14 San Diego on Saturday afternoon, then coming back on Sunday taking on the #11 host Iowa State Cyclones.
The Illini women's soccer team are also underway on the season, and after an opening loss to Notre Dame, the Illini have now reeled off three straight wins, capped by home victories over College of Charleston (6-2) and Illinois State (5-1) to run their season record to 3-1. The Illini will venture west this coming weekend to battle Arizona State on Friday night, then will take on Arizona on Sunday afternoon. The Illini hope to have their star Vanessa DiBernardo in tow, as she was called up to the US women's national team for play on Tuesday. This is a huge honor for DiBernardo, and will be a significant loss for the Illini if she misses any time due to the callup.