Color me surprised.
After an auspicious start to the season, in which they narrowly defeated Southern Illinois 42-34 in the opening game to the 2013 campaign, the Fighting Illini football team were looking for any positive signs to move the program forward.
They received that, and then some.
The Illini had one of the more complete performances in recent memory in defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats 45-17 last Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The offense, which is apparently still very fluid, once again posted great numbers, amassing 522 yards of total offense. Redshirt senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continued his early season success, completing 26 of 37 passes for 322 yards and throwing for 4 touchdowns. Scheelhaase, who seems to be thriving under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, involved 11 receivers into the game, led by junior college transfer Martize Barr, who caught 5 passes for 72 yards, including a nifty touchdown pass diving into the endzone. Steve Hull, Josh Ferguson and Evan Wilson also caught passes for scores, and what is most significant about Wilson is that this offense is finally utilizing the tight end, which couldn't be a better option at this point. With the likes of Wilson, Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis among the stable of tight ends, this crew is proving to be one of the most talented group at the position in several years. Besides the passing game, the Illini also had the running game going as well, as they rushed for 210 yards collectively. Junior Donovonn Young led the attack on the ground with 64 yards on 14 carries and 1 touchdown. Perhaps one reason for the success in this game could have been the return of lineman Ted Karras, who missed the first game with an injury. Karras brings a level of authority to the offensive line, and according to Coach Tim Beckman, "he is very vocal and emotional leader". The defense, which was a concern coming into the season and didn't quell critics after their lackluster effort against the Salukis, fared much better against the Bearcats, and could be considered a success only surrendering 17 points to a team that scored 49 a week earlier against Purdue.
Going into the season, the non-conference portion of the schedule appeared daunting, and the road doesn't get any easier, as the Illini venture away from Memorial Stadium for the first time in the 2013 season Saturday to take on the Washington Huskies for the Chicago Homecoming at historic Soldier Field (5:00 pm CT, BTN). The Huskies, who were idle last week, defeated Boise State two weeks ago 38-6, and feature a high-powered attack from both ends of the offense. Quarterback Keith Price completed 23 of 31 passes for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns in the win over the Broncos, while Bishop Sankey carried the ball 25 times for 161 yards, finding the endzone twice. Jaydon Mickens caught 9 passes for 109 yards to lead the Huskies in receiving, but did not catch any for a touchdown. Against Boise State, Washington averaged just 9 seconds per play, so they can run a lot of plays in a short amount of time. Head coach Steve Sarkisian is a true proponent of the west coast offense, and he is the same person that led the offense for USC the last time the Illini went to the Rose Bowl. Whatever the outcome is against Washington this weekend, it is apparent that the Illini are turning some heads and that this season may not turn out to be such a downer as originally thought. But, I will caution, it is still early.
After splitting matches last weekend in Ames, Iowa, the Fighting Illini volleyball team returns to the confines of Huff Hall to host the 30th annual Illini Classic. Starting on Thursday evening, there will be 4 teams in action, including #2 Texas, #6 Washington and #27 Arizona State batlling the Illini over the 3 day tourney. The Illini will begin play on Friday morning when they take on Arizona State at 10:00 AM, then will play Washington later that evening at 6:30 PM. The Illini will then take on the #2 ranked Longhorns Saturday evening at 7:00 PM, in which promises to be a showdown on the volleyball court. The Illini are currently 3-2 overall on the season.
The Fighting Illini women's soccer team returns home to the soccer complex this weekend to take on Indiana State and Florida International in a pair of matches. The Illini lost once and tied the other game this past weekend in the Sun Devil Classic on the campus of Arizona State. The Illini lost to the host Sun Devils 4-3 in double overtime, and then came back two days later to tie Arizona 1-1, also in double overtime. The match this weekend at home against Indiana State on Friday night at 7:00 pm, and the match on Sunday afternoon against FIU begins at 12:00 noon. The Illini are currently 3-2-1 overall on the season.
Fighting Illini men's basketball coach John Groce received another official visit from a recruit over the past weekend, as point guard Quentin Snider visited campus as a prospective recruit. A decision, although not confirmed yet, could come any day, as early as Thursday afternoon.