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 30, 2013

     This seems to be a recurring theme lately.  The Fighting Illini football team, for whatever reason, is beginning to resemble the way they looked last season.  After a somewhat surprising 3-1 start to the season, the Illini hit the Big Ten portion of the schedule, and unfortunately, back to reality.  The Illini have remained somewhat competitive up until the last game, a 42-3 drubbing at the hands of Michigan State.  Jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead, things were looking up as the game neared halftime.  But, as is often the case, a pivotal play in the game swung the momentum completely the other way, and what could have been an Illini touchdown was instead a Spartan goal line stand that ultimately resulted in a 99 yard drive by Michigan State to put the game officially out of reach.  To add injury to insult, the Illini lost their top receiver as well, Ryan Lankford, to a season ending shoulder setback.  The Illini could only muster 128 yards of total offense, 103 of those coming courtesy of Nathan Scheelhaase, who completed 13 of 21 passes in the game with an interception.  The Bill Cubit fueled offense has apparently ran out of gas, and a lot of questions need to be answered as the season progresses forward.  Tailback Josh Ferguson led the Illini in rushing yards with 26, and the disappearance of Donovonn Young was just as puzzling as the Illini's performance on the field.  In the absence of Lankford, the Illini will need to rely on Steve Hull, Devin Church and Justin Hardee to pick up the slack for the remainder of the season.  The Illini fell to 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, and extended their conference losing streak to 17 games.

     So, where does it end?  The Illini continue their quest for the elusive first Big Ten win for Coach Tim Beckman on Saturday morning when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  This will be the first trip back to Happy Valley since the whole Paterno/Sandusky scandal broke out, and ironically, it was just after the Illinois-Penn State game back in 2011 when everything was revealed.  Penn State comes into the game with the Illini at 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten, and are coming off one of their worst losses in the history of the program, a 63-14 loss at Ohio State.  The Nittany Lions start a freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, and feature a talented tailback in junior Bill Belton.  It's hard to gauge whether or not progress has been made since last season, but the mere fact that the Illini have won 1 more game than they did all of last year stands for something, doesn't it?

     The Fighting Illini men's basketball team began exhibition play last week and despite a sluggish start, defeated McKendree University 101-66 at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  The Illini fell behind early 17-6, as McKendree started out red-hot from behind the arc.  Coach John Groce said in his postgame press conference that "he wanted to see if they could work their way out of it, and they did".  The Illini recovered nicely and took a 47-39 lead into the locker room at halftime, and came out in the second half and outscored their guests by a 54-27 margin.  Tracy Abrams led the Illini in scoring with 16 points, while newcomers Rayvonte Rice and freshman Jaylon Tate each added 13.  Jon Ekey, a transfer from Illinois State, also scored in double figures with 12 points. The Illini will wrap up the exhibition portion of the season on Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Timberwolves of Northwood University to Champaign.  Game time is set for 5:00 pm central time.

     Credit Illini volleyball coach Kevin Hambly with scheduling aggressively, and the fact that he has done so may cost him come tournament time,  The Illini have had a grueling schedule, and with so many Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25, it certainly has't gotten any easier.  After upsetting #16 Wisconsin last Saturday night in Madison 3-1, the Illini felt like they were maybe back on the right track to a NCAA tournament berth.  The Illini ventured to Nebraska to face the 11th ranked Cornhuskers, and Lincoln is always a tough place to play, regardless of whether or not Nebraska is ranked.  The Illini didn't take care of business against the Huskers, falling 3-0 to drop their record to 9-12 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten.  The Illini are in serious danger of not qualifying for the NCAA tourney, which they will be a host for later this fall.  The Illini need to get back to business and soon, and that will start this weekend when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team concludes the regular season on Thursday afternoon when they battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini are desperately seeking a victory in order to get them into the Big Ten Tournament, which starts next week in Champaign.  The Illini split their contests last weekend, losing at Michigan 2-0 on Friday night, then coming back on Sunday afternoon to defeat Michigan State 2-0.  The Illini enter the Minnesota match at 9-7-2 overall and 4-5-1 in Big Ten play.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Still Searching

     Nobody said that this would be easy.

     The 2013 Fighting Illini football season is at the halfway point, and although they are a little better off this season than they were last year at this time, the main focus continues to be the Big Ten losing streak, which is currently at 16 games.  Granted, the beginning of the conference season was a brutal stretch, with games at Nebraska, and then home contests with Wisconsin and Michigan State.  The Illini lost to the Badgers 56-32 last Saturday, and as expected, Wisconsin kept the ball on the ground for the majority of the game, racking up 289 of their 478 yards via the run.  The Illini found themselves in a familiar position early in the game, as they fell behind 21-0 in the first 10 minutes of the game, thanks to some mental errors and turnovers.  Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a decent day, completing 20 of 27 passes for 249 yards, but did not throw any touchdown passes.  Scheelhaase did have a one yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the two passing scores were done by the other quarterbacks on the roster, Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Aaron Bailey.  O'Toole found Spencer Harris for a 29 yard score late in the game, while Bailey's touchdown went to tight end Matt LaCosse shortly before halftime.  Bailey continues to impress in his short time in Champaign, and it should be quite a battle next season when he and Wes Lunt competes for the starting job for 2014.  O'Toole seems to be the odd man out next season, but keep in mind that he will also be competing for the starting job, even though it appears to be a two horse race between Bailey and Lunt at this point.

     The Illini will take on a Michigan State Spartans team this Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ABC) that comes into the game at 6-1 overall and unbeaten in conference play at 3-0. It is homecoming in Champaign, and the Illini would like nothing else than to give the alumni returning to campus a victory.  The Spartans don't have much of a prolific offense to speak of, but their defense is the main reason that they have been so dominant this season.  This could provide a problem for Scheelhaase and company, and should give the defense a cause for concern to step it up another notch to keep the game close.  This also is the best opportunity to end the streak, although there are much more winnable games on the schedule in the upcoming weeks.  The Illini currently sit at 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten, and will look to break through the barrier that is the Spartans defense, who have only allowed 95 points on the season in their 6 games.

     Basketball has begun on the University of Illinois campus with the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage taking place last Thursday night at the State Farm Center.  The team, who is very young this season, split into two teams and most players spent time on both the orange and the blue teams.  The blue team prevailed 59-51, with Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu each scoring 17 points to lead in scoring.  Sophomore walkon Mike LaTulip added 15 points, including a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line.  The three players that are ineligible to play this season because of transfer rules all looked pretty good, and they would be in the mix to play if they could.  Darius Paul, Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby all have to sit out this season, but Starks, if he would have received the waiver from the NCAA, could fill in handily at the point guard position.  Alas, he cannot play, so it is a moot point.  The Illini have their first of two exhibition games on Thursday evening when they welcome McKendree College to the State Farm Center.  The purpose of the exhibition games are to fine tune what the guys have been doing in practice, and also to match up against someone other than themselves.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team split two games this past weekend against ranked teams, losing to #4 Penn State on Friday night in 5 games, and then defeating #17 Ohio State on Sunday afternoon 3-1.  Bucking the trend of the Friday-Saturday routine, the Illini ventured north to Evanston on Wednesday evening to battle the Northwestern Wildcats in a mid-week showdown, and were stunned in 5 games after taking a 2-0 lead.  The Illini will travel to Madison on Sunday afternoon to battle the Wisconsin Badgers in what has emerged as a must-win match.  The Illini are fighting for their NCAA tournament lives right now, as they are 8-11 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten.

     The Illini women's soccer team had one match this past weekend, and it was one to forget, as they lost at Penn State 5-0 on Sunday afternoon.  The soccer season is winding down, and the Illini will welcome Michigan and Michigan State to Champaign this weekend for their final home matches of the regular season.  The Illini will battle Michigan on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), and then will entertain the Spartans on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT), hoping to improve their place in the Big Ten standings.  The Illini currently are 8-6-2 overall and 3-4-1 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend's action.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

     It is not common for a football team to have two bye weeks during the season.  It is an even rarer feat for those bye weeks to occur within 4 weeks of one another.  This is exactly what Tim Beckman and his Fighting Illini football team have experienced over the past month, and it is something that he has never seen before in any level of coaching.  The drawback of this break in the action is now the Illini embark on the stretch run of the season, which consists of seven straight games, and within that stretch, they hope to break an ominous record, that being the 15 game losing streak in the Big Ten.  The schedule doesn't lay out favorably, since the next few weeks feature games that the Illini will not be expected to win.  The last time out, the Illini ventured to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers of Nebraska, and although the offense had been playing pretty well leading up to that game, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and his offensive unit was smacked back to reality in a 39-19 loss, extending the Illini's conference slide.  The Illini took the bye week in stride, working on some of the issues that have led to this long streak, but at the same time, much of it cannot be helped.  Take the defense, for example.  The Illini have had major concerns on defense all season long, and it doesn't help when you only have 2 seniors that have seen significant action in the past.  Defensive end Tim Kynard and linebacker Jonathan Brown, who was injured last season, anchor the unit, which is comprised primarily of sophomores and a few freshmen and juniors sprinkled in.  Beckman has used plenty of freshmen this season, and with sophomores Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina seeing considerable action again this season, the break has been a welcome one.  But, as with everything, now it is back to business, and the meat of the schedule still to come, beginning with a prime time showdown with Wisconsin under the lights at Memorial Stadium this Saturday (7:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Badgers manhandled Northwestern last Saturday 35-6 to improve their record to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten.  Even though the Badgers have a new coach in Gary Andersen, it is pretty much the same Wisconsin squad, with a strong ground game still the norm.  This season, the Badgers have the conference's leading rushing attack (298.2 ypg), as well as total offense (519.5 ypg).  Wisconsin sophomore Melvin Gordon leads the team with 145 yards per game, and that total is good for #3 nationally.  The Illini, who are 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, need to step it up on defense or else they will see that conference losing streak extend another game.

      After spending their second consecutive weekend away from Huff Hall, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team came away with another split against their Indiana counterparts.  On Friday night, the Illini were defeated 3-1 by #20 Purdue in West Lafayette, but avenged the second loss on the weekend by besting Indiana in straight sets 3-0 on Saturday night in Bloomington.  The Illini are currently 7-9 overall on the season, and 3-3 in the Big Ten, and return to the confines of Huff Hall this weekend against yet another pair of ranked opponents.  On Friday evening, the Illini welcome always tough Penn State (7:00 pm CT, BTN) , who carry a #4 national ranking into Champaign.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Illini will host #17 Ohio State (2:00 pm CT, No TV) for their annual "Workout For The Cure" event, where they will wear pink jerseys to continue the awareness of breast cancer.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team hits the road this week, when they travel north to battle in-state rival Northwestern on Thursday evening (6:30 PM CT, No TV), then will travel to State College on Saturday to battle #17 Penn State (11:00 am CT, BTN).  The Illini defeated #20 Wisconsin last Saturday in Champaign 3-2, and will carry a 7-5-2 overall record into Evanston, with a 2-3-1 mark in conference games.

     The calendar says October, so that means that basketball season is right around the corner.  Your first chance to see the 2013-14 Fighting Illini men's basketball team happens on Thursday evening at 7:00, when they will conduct their annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  You will need a program to identify this season's team, as there are 9 newcomers to the roster.  The only players with any prior experience for second year coach John Groce are senior Joseph Bertrand, juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, and sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip.  The Illini have a talented freshman class, with Simeon players Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill from Belleville, and a couple of out of state players, Maverick Morgan (Springboro, OH) and Austin Colbert (Chesapeake, VA).  Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season after transferring in from Drake, is now eligible, and will benefit greatly from the year on the sidelines.  Transfer Jon Ekey from Illinois State, will become eligible immediately, and will look to fulfill the role that Tyler Griffey provided last season.  A trio of players have to sit out after transferring in from other schools, and will look to gain that experience that Rice received last season when he did the same thing.  Aaron Cosby, who came in from Seton Hall, and Darius Paul, the younger brother of former Illini Brandon Paul, came in from Western Michigan.  A third player, Ahmad Starks, was denied his waiver to play this season after transferring in from Oregon State to be with his grandmother, who is ill.  Starks is from Chicago, and was hoping to play before the NCAA stepped in and did not grant his hardship waiver.  The Illini will play the first of their two exhibition games on October 24th when they welcome McKendree College.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

On to conference play.

     Time to address the elephant in the room.

     The Fighting Illini football team wrapped up their non-conference portion of the 2013 season by thrashing winless Miami (Ohio) 50-14 last Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign to run their season record to 3-1 overall. The prolific offense for the Illini kept on moving full steam ahead, as they racked up 601 yards of total offense, led by another strong performance by redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase, who completed 19 of 24 passes for 278 yards and 5 touchdowns.  Even though he doesn't want to admit it, this resurgence for Scheelhaase can be attributed to new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who has brought new life to a dying offense.  The constant game of keeping the defense on their toes has been a staple of Cubit, and he often says that he doesn't consult with other offensive coordinators, he talks with defensive gurus to see what bothers them.  Genius!  Anyway, Cubit has opened up his bag of tricks in every game this season, and there is undoubtedly more in the coffers as the Big Ten season begins this weekend.  Scheelhaase involved 11 receivers into the action against the Redhawks, led by Josh Ferguson, who caught 5 balls for 77 yards and a score.  Ferguson has been a favorite target of Scheelhaase's so far this season, and the junior has taken full advantage of the favor.  Perhaps an even more encouraging sign has been the usage of the tight ends in the offense.  Matt LaCosse caught his first two touchdowns on Saturday, finishing the game with 68 yards and catching 3 passes.  All told, the Illini tight ends caught four touchdowns, something that Illini Nation has been wanting to see for a very long time.  As far as running the ball goes, the load was shared by 7 players, led by Donovonn Young, who had 11 carries for 70 yards.  Ferguson was just as effective in the backfield, getting 8 touches for 74 yards, making him a dangerous commodity from either facet of the offense.  The Illini amassed 305 yards on the ground with two scores, one by sophomore Devin Church in garbage time, and the other by true freshman Aaron Bailey, who continues to impress.

     Now, back to the subject of that pachyderm in the room.  The Illini are currently on a 14 game losing streak in the Big Ten, dating back to the 2011 season.  Going into the season, the early conference schedule looked daunting, with games against the top tier of the league looming.  The Illini will take to the road for the first time this season when they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle the Cornhuskers of Nebraska (11:00 am CT, ESPNU) on Saturday morning.  Nebraska comes into the game at 3-1 as well, but their defense has been a subject of concern in the early stages of the 2013 season.  The Cornhuskers defeated South Dakota State 59-20, but in their 4 games thus far this season, they have allowed scores of 34, 13, 41 and 20.  What does this mean?  Simply, a win is ripe for the picking and a chance to put this long conference losing streak in the rear view mirror.  Besides the defensive woes, Nebraska is also dealing with their starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez, having an injury and may not play against the Illini.  If Martinez cannot go, look for either Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg III to start under center.  The mood in Lincoln has been a little tempered this season, as head coach Bo Pelini has come under fire for some comments that he made a couple years ago.  If the Illini can somehow come away with a victory Saturday in Lincoln, it will be a statement win and could re-establish the Illini as a team to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.  But, not to put the cart before the horse, that is a tall order.

     The Fighting Illini men's basketball team held their official opening of the practice season with an "Illini Street Jam", and judging by reports that I have heard, it was a rousing success.  The team came in a military truck, and both the men's and women's teams were introduced to the crowd.  The teams had camoflage shirts on, and when head coach John Groce was announced, he came out in full military attire and began doing push-ups.  The women's team couldn't take part in any drills since their practices didn't officially begin until Monday, but they did take part in some of the activities not requiring touching a basketball.  In other news concerning the program, the long-awaited news of the status of transfer guard Ahmad Starks' fate was announced, and it was not good news for Groce and the Illini.  Starks, who is from Chicago, had transferred from Oregon State to be closer to his ailing grandmother, who helped raise him as a child.  According to the NCAA rules, a player can transfer from one school to another and use the hardship waiver if he is within 100 miles of his home.  Chicago to Champaign is about 125 miles, so the possibility of this waiver being denied was always apparent.  Groce was quoted as saying that "he was disappointed in the decision, but they need to move on and prepare for the 2013-14 season".  Surely it is a blow to the Illini team, as they now have just 11 players on the roster, with 10 of those on scholarship.

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team continues to work their way through the season, and split a pair of matches this past weekend in Champaign.  On Friday evening the Illini welcomed Iowa to the State Farm Center, and the Illini came away with a 3-0 victory (25-19, 25-18, 25-21).  On Saturday afternoon, the team returned to their more familiar surroundings and welcomed a tough Nebraska team that came in ranked #12 in the nation.  The Illini lost in straight sets (25-20, 25-14, 25-22), but made it close except for the second game.  The Illini are 5-7 overall and 1-1 in conference play, and will hit the road this weekend, traveling to Michigan State on Friday evening to battle the #9 ranked Spartans (6:00 pm CT, No TV), and then complete their swing in Michigan by taking on the #14 ranked Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Saturday night (6:00 pm CT, BTN).

     The Illini women's soccer team split a couple of games this past weekend, defeating Iowa Friday evening 2-1, while dropping a close match 3-2 to Nebraska on Sunday afternoon for the program's annual "Soccerfest" event.  The Illini are 6-3-2 overall and 1-1-1 in conference play, and will also be on the road this weekend, heading to both Purdue and Indiana.  The Purdue match begins on Friday evening at 6:00 pm CT and they will wrap up the weekend with the game against the Hoosiers on Sunday at 11:00 am CT.  Although there will be no live television for either match, the contest against the Hoosiers will be streamed digitally on the BTDN.