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.