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.