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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Weathering The Storm

     Last Saturday was a long day at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  A long day.  Faced with the possibility of severe storms around halftime, the Fighting Illini and the Bobcats of Texas State squared off in the Illini's final non-conference game of the season.  Being as I also double as an event staff supervisor inside the stadium on game days, we finally had to put our evacuation plan into place when the storms hit Champaign-Urbana, albeit an hour earlier than previously predicted.  The game itself was another subpar performance by the Illini, although they once again found a way to win the game, coming back from yet another fourth quarter deficit to win their third game of the season. The game started out with a bang, as Josh Ferguson took a backwards lateral from quarterback West Lunt and took it 75 yards for the opening score of the game.  After a missed extra point by Taylor Zalewski (more on that later), the Illini led 6-0.  The game was suspended with 13:35 left in the first half and the Illini trailing 14-6, and the delay lasted for nearly two hours before resuming.  The Bobcats went ahead even further at 21-6, sending a collective groan throughout the stadium of the fans that had managed to hang around and watch the game.  The Illini finally woke up in the second half, where they have played much better this season, as Lunt found freshman Mikey Dudek for a touchdown, as well as Ferguson for another score.  On the day, Ferguson carried the ball 14 times for 190 yards and 3 total touchdowns, two on the ground and one receiving.  A change in the kicking game was also made, with Zalewski being replaced by David Reisner and his glow-in-the-dark shoes.  Reisner connected on all three of his extra point attempts, and also kicked a 19 yard field goal in the process.  However, the Illini showed that they have resilience, as they once again mounted a comeback in the late stages of the game, capped off by a 45 yard interception return for a touchdown by V'Angelo Bentley.  Bentley is now an answer to a trivia question that reads as follows:  Name the only two players in Illinois history to have a kick return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, and an interception returned for a score.  The other player is none other than Red Grange, so Bentley is in very good company regarding that statistic.  Overall, the Illini haven't been impressive in their 3 wins this season, but nevertheless, they are halfway to becoming bowl eligible.  Head coach Tim Beckman has continued to say that the Illini are getting better as a team, but the margin of victory against the teams that you should have beaten by more points, the jury is still out as to how much progress they have made since last season.

     So, bring on the Big Ten season!  The Illini have a tall order in their conference opener this Saturday evening, when they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the #24 Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (8:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Cornhuskers come into the game with the Illini at 4-0 overall, having defeated the Miami Hurricanes 41-31 last Saturday in Lincoln, and boast one of the league's top running backs in Ameer Abdullah,  Abdullah had a great day on the ground for Nebraska in the win over Miami, rushing 35 times for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns on the day, including a TD| reception.  Since the Illini have had some trouble stopping the run against all four of their opponents thus far, it appears that Abdullah will be poised to have another big day on the ground for the 'Huskers.  Nebraska comes into the game as a 20 point favorite, and if the Illini want to entertain any chance of springing an upset on the road, they will have to play a perfect game in order to achieve that.  However, the prospects of that feat look dim at best,  This is the second straight season that the Illini open the conference season at Nebraska, with the Cornhuskers visiting Champaign to open conference play in 2015.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their early season success this past weekend, winning three straight matches at the Creighton Classic in Omaha, Nebraska.  The Illini defeated the host Bluejays on Friday night in 4 games, then came back on Saturday morning to take down Colorado in 4 games as well.  The Illini completed their sweep by defeating South Dakota in 3 straight games.  The Illini wrap up the non-conference season with an 8-3 record, and will begin a string of home games at Huff Hall, a place they haven't played in for what seems like forever.  The Illini will welcome the two newcomers to the Big Ten, hosting Maryland on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and Rutgers on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     As with the volleyball team, the women's soccer team continues to play well, as they won a couple of matches at home this past week.  Last Thursday, the Illini took down Indiana 2-0 in a mid-day matinee, followed by a 3-0 victory over Purdue, in which Illinois' Janelle Flaws scored all three goals in the game in a span of about 10 minutes.  Through the season thus far, the Illini have recorded six shutouts so far, which ties a record of clean sheets through this point in the season in school history.  The Illini are 8-2 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play, and will go on the road this weekend to continue conference play.  The Illini will travel to Columbus, Ohio to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes on Friday night (6:00 pm CT, No TV), then will go further east on Sunday to take on the #8 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions on Sunday afternoon (12:00 pm CT, No TV).

     John Groce must be the hardest working coach that there is in college basketball, and it may be finally starting to pay off.  Groce had two recruits on campus this past weekend, guard Jalen Coleman-Lands from Indiana (La Lumiere Prep) and center Elijah Thomas from Texas (Lancaster), and despite all of the weather related concerns during the football game, both visits supposedly went very well.  Coleman-Lands' visit apparently went so well that on Monday, he committed to the Illini, making him the first recruit from the Hoosier state in 30 years to choose the Illini.  For trivial matters, the last person from Indiana to play basketball at Illinois was Scott Haffner, back in the 1983-84 season.  Coleman-Lands will join D. J. Williams and Aaron Jordan as 2015 recruits, and hopefully Groce can add a couple more players to that list before the signing period in November.  For those of you that are concerned about possible getting too many recruits in a given year, remember one thing: John Groce can count.  As far as the State Farm renovation goes, things are progressing nicely, and the new blue seats are installed in the 200 level (formerly C section).  That is the main change that fans will notice this season, with more changes to be made before the 2015-16 season.  With the addition of the new seating, they have taken out the portal areas in that section of the arena, which means that a basketball attendance record will be set at some point in the 2014-15 season.  The new capacity of the arena for this year will be somewhere just over 17,000.  Stay tuned for more changes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back To Reality

     A lot of things can be taken from last weekend's Illini loss at Washington, but the most obvious observation would be that the Illini received a cold dose of reality in their 44-19 loss to the Huskies on Saturday in Seattle.  A lot of questions were answered, most namely the fact that the defense still isn't quite ready to advance to that next level, and the reality in that statement is we might not know for a couple more weeks just how far they have left to go.  The Illini fell behind early against Washington, and the Huskies' speed was evident, especially on the plays that they ran back for touchdowns coming off of Illini turnovers.  The first two games for the Illini spawned several warning signs, specifically since they didn't blow out either opponent and had to come back in each game in order to win, so the first real test against a power conference foe seemed to tell the story.  For the game, Illini quarterback Wes Lunt was efficient, completing 16 of 26 passes for 230 yards and two touchdown passes, both going to junior college transfer Geronimo Allison.  Allison caught 6 passes for 160 yards, and showed why the Illini coaching staff targeted him as someone who could help immediately on the receiving end, a position that was severely depleted with graduation a year ago.  Freshman sensation Mikey Dudek caught 5 passes for 43 yards, and remains one of Lunt's favorite go-to guys.  With the Illini falling behind 21-3 at the end of the first quarter, the run was once again abandoned, with Josh Ferguson getting the lion's share of the carries, rushing 11 times for 52 yards.  If there is anything positive to take away from this loss, according to Tim Beckman, it would be the play in the second half.  "If you look at the score in the second half, we won that portion of the game 7-6", Beckman said on Monday to his weekly address of the media.  Yes, that's true, but by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the outcome of the game wasn't in question and the Huskies began to grind the game from the rushing standpoint.

     So, what happens next you ask?  The Illini return home this Saturday to take on the Bobcats of Texas State at Memorial Stadium (3:00 pm CT, ESPN News).  The Bobcats come into the game with the Illini at 1-, having derailed FCS school Arkansas-Pine Bluff in their opener 65-0, and losing to Navy last weekend 35-21.  The Illini need an impressive performance on all sides of the ball in their final pre-conference tuneup because the road gets a whole lot tougher after this game.  Even though this is considered a lesser opponent, nothing should be overlooked at this point, as the Illini still try to find their identity.  The Bobcats will be coming into Champaign with upset on their minds, and if the Illini aren't careful and play to the level that they are capable of playing, that scenario just may in fact play out.  We shall see.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team began Big Ten play last week, and through two games in the conference slate, managed a split.  The Illini opened conference play with a 2-0 loss at Iowa last Thursday, then came back on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Nebraska.  The Illini carry a 6-2-0 overall record and a 1-1-0 Big Ten mark into this weekend, when they host their neighbors from the state of Indiana.  The Illini will open up on Friday with a rare Friday afternoon contest, when they entertain the Indiana Hoosiers (2:30 pm CT, BTN).  The annual Soccer Fest game will take place on Sunday afternoon when Purdue comes to town (1:00 pm CT, no TV).  Coach Janet Rayfield has been pleased so far with the start this season, and thinks that the national television exposure on the Big Ten Network will be good for the younger players.  "I know a lot of the younger players have not had an experience of playing on television, so this will hopefully ease their nerves a little bit for the excitement that this presents", Rayfield said on Monday about some of her younger players and getting the nervous jitters out of the way.

     Kevin Hambly's women's volleyball team continues their pre-conference slate away from Huff Hall, and last weekend, came away with winning 2 out of 3 matches in the Blue Raider Bash at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  The Illini defeated the host Blue Raiders in 3 straight games, before being upset by Virginia Tech in 5 games earlier on Saturday.  The Illini bounced back in their third match, taking Washington State in 3 straight games to close out the weekend.  The Illini are currently 5-3 on the season, and will close out the non-conference portion of the season this weekend, when they travel to Omaha, Nebraska to compete in the Creighton Classic.  The Illini will take on the host Blue Jays on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, no TV), before playing a pair of matches on Saturday.  The Illini will face off against Colorado on Saturday morning (10:00 am CT, no TV), before closing out the weekend with South Dakota (5:30 pm CT, no TV).

     Finally, to close out this week's Illini Guy Report, with college football in full swing, the thought of college basketball is not that far off on the horizon as well.  The Illini received some disheartening news late last week, when their starting point guard for the past two seasons, Tracy Abrams, sustained an ACL injury and will miss the entire 2014-15 season.  Abrams, a senior, was counted on to be one of the floor leaders for the Illini, and now in his absence, senior transfer Ahmad Starks and sophomore Jaylon Tate will have to step up and fill the void.  The waiver denial of Starks from last season was actually beneficial, as now the Illini will have him for this season while Abrams takes a medical redshirt.  Abrams will be back for his senior season in 2015-16.  This will also be a busy weekend for recruits on the Illinois campus for head coach John Groce.  Groce will welcome 5-star big man Elijah Thomas to campus, and it was announced earlier in the week that guard Jalen Coleman, a 4 star prospect from Indiana, has moved his visit up and will also visit Illinois this weekend.  Coleman has narrowed his choices down to the Illini and UNLV.  Sooner or later, Groce will land one of these players, but it remains to be seen who will be the first in a series of dominoes to fall.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Aerial Attack

     Things are starting to look up for the Fighting Illini football team through the first two games of the 2014 season.  After coming back in the first week to defeat Youngstown State, the Illini welcomed the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky and their high-powered offense into Memorial Stadium.  The Illini jumped on top early thanks to Josh Ferguson's 1 yard touchdown plunge and that lead held up until Western Kentucky scored the next 17 points to grab a 17-7 lead.  The Illini scored before the end of the first half as a pass intended for Geronimo Allison was dropped and scooped up by freshman Mikey Dudek, who fell on it in the endzone to make the score 17-14 at the break.  In the second half, the teams exchanged scores, and Illini quarterback Wes Lunt continued where he left off in the fourth quarter of the Youngstown State game.  Lunt threw touchdown passes to Martize Barr (8 yards) and Justin Hardee (62 yards), en route to a 35-50 performance for 456 yards, just 6 yards shy of the Memorial Stadium for yards passed for in a game.  The Illini defense even came through, as safety Taylor Barton recovered a fumble and ran it back 77 yards for a score.  With the win, the Illini improve to 2-0 on the season and have a chance to be the fifth team in Illinois history to start a season 3-0.  Western Kentucky falls to 1-1 with the loss, and their aerial show that they had against Bowling Green in week 1 was not nearly as effective against the Illini.

     The Illini will venture away from Champaign for the first time this Saturday, when they travel to Seattle, Washington to battle the Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium (3:00 pm CT, FOX).  The Illini and Washington met last season at Soldier Field in Chicago, a game that the Huskies won 34-24.  However, Washington lost quite a few players off of that team, and will offer a new look to the Illini when they meet on the field Saturday afternoon.  The Huskies come into the game with the Illini at 2-0 as well, and are coming off a 59-52 victory over Eastern Washington last Saturday in Seattle. The Huskies pose a threat on the ground, as running back Lavon Coleman who is averaging just under 100 yards per game so far.  The Huskies have used two quarterbacks this season, starting Jeff Lindquist in the first game, and Cyler Miles in the win over Eastern Washington. Miles was 14 of 24 passing for 180 yards and a touchdown in his win,  This will be a good barometer for the Illini, and if they can somehow sneak out a win on the road, the prospects of a successful season will be well within their grasp.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team ventured out west to play in the Big 10/Pac 12 Challenge against a couple of very tough opponents in UCLA and #2 Stanford.  The Illini lost in 3 straight games to the Bruins, and then came back the next night to battle the Cardinal to the brink, losing in 5 games (22-25, 25-19, 25-20, 22-25 and 12-15).  Despite the two losses, the Illini seemed to play pretty well away from Huff Hall.  The Illini are 3-2 on the season, and this weekend finds them once again away from Champaign, taking part in the Blue Raider Classic in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  The Illini will battle host Middle Tennessee State on Friday evening (5:00 pm CT), and then will play two matches on Saturday, first battling Virginia Tech (12:30 pm CT) and then taking on Washington State (7:30 pm)

     The Illini women's soccer team continues to play well, as they improved their season record to 5-1 last weekend with a pair of wins in the College of Charleston Tournament in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.  The Illini defeated the hosts, College of Charleston 3-0 on Friday night, then came back to defeat UAB on Sunday by a 3-1 score.  The Illini are to begin Big Ten play on Thursday evening, when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Iowa Hawkeyes (7:00 pm CT, No TV), followed by a match at Nebraska on Sunday.

     Finally, this week, some basketball news off the court.  Head Coach John Groce continues his assault on the recruiting trail, but has yet to land one of the big names that he has sought.  The latest disappointment for Illini Nation is Jalen Brunson, the talented point guard out of Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.  Briinson, whose father Rick played at Temple, chose Villanova over the Illini, fueling speculation that the family wanted to get back to the Philadelphia area.  Groce still has a couple of targets on his radar, including Jawun Evans of Texas and Carlton Bragg from Ohio.  One of these times, Groce will land one of these big names, but until then, it's once again being the bridesmaid.

Monday, September 1, 2014

All In A Day's Work

     A win is a win, or at least that is how the Fighting Illini football team feels after their narrow escape over Youngstown State in the season opener last Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  The Illini struggles against the Penguins, getting off to slow start, and taking nearly three quarters before shaking off the cobwebs and taking care of business.  Sophomore transfer Wes Lunt, named the starting quarterback last week for the Illini, had the best debut by an Illini signal caller in school history, completing 24 of 38 passes for 285 yards and 4 touchdown passes.  Lunt, like the Illini, started slow, but came alive in the fourth quarter, going 9-11 for 155 yards and 3 touchdown passes in the final stanza.  "I was just happy to get the win, and it felt really good to put things together finally", Lunt said on Monday of his performance on Saturday.  Two freshmen made impressive debuts for the Illini on Saturday, those being wide receivers Mike Dudek and Malik Turner.  Dudek caught 3 passes for 61 yards, including an 8 yard touchdown, his first career touchdown grab as an Illini.  Turner snagged 4 balls for 42 yards, while junior college transfer Geronimo Allison caught 2 passes for 43 yards.  The defense, a major issue a year ago for Illinois, fared much better on Saturday, as they kept the Illini in the game until the offense took over.  Even more impressive was the red zone defense, which held Youngstown State to just one touchdown, a 2 yard run in the fourth quarter.  Austin Teitsma had a superb game for the Illini, recording a career high 9 tackles, 2.5 of those for losses, and recorded a half-sack.  Teitsma, a senior, plays with a lot of emotion on the field, but is a fun-loving individual off the field.  "I just try to go out there and have fun and give it my all, and we do a lot of joking around in the locker room after games, which eases the tension quite a bit", Teitsma said of his approach to playing.

     Illinois (1-0), now faces a stern test this coming Saturday, when they welcome the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky to Memorial Stadium (11:00 am CT, BTN).  The Hilltoppers are coming off a 59-31 win over Bowling Green last Saturday, a game in which quarterback Brandon Doughty set numerous records.  Doughty completed 46 of 56 passes for 569 yards and threw 6 touchdown passes in the rout of the Falcons.  This is not very good news for the Illini secondary, who will undoubtedly be very busy trying to defend against the pass.  The Hilltoppers can be compared to Louisiana Tech, a team that came into Champaign two seasons ago and lit the Illini up en route to the victory.  Western Kentucky runs a no-huddle offense, which resulted in 97 plays from scrimmage in the win against Bowling Green.  The Hilltoppers play in Conference USA, and are coached by Jeff Brohm, who played his collegiate football at Louisville.  Brohm, as well as secondary coach Mike Cassity, both coached at Illinois during the Ron Zook tenure, so they are very familiar with the Big Ten and Illinois.  For the Illini to come out on top against the Hilltoppers, they will need to limit their mistakes, and also get the offense into high gear to keep up.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team got their season off to a strong start, winning three straight matches in the Illini Classic this past weekend at Huff Hall in Champaign.  The Illini defeated Long Beach State on Friday evening 3-0, then played a pair of matches on Saturday, disposing of Southern Illinois 3-0 in the morning, then coming back to defeat the #20 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in 3 straight games.  For the weekend, the Illini did not lose a game, and gained some valuable experience in the process.  Illini senior Liz McMahon was named Most Valuable Player of the Illini Classic, and on Monday, was also named the Big 10 Player of the Week.

      However, the competition gets a whole lot tougher this coming weekend, when the Illini venture away from Huff for the first time to take part in the Big 10/Pac 12 Challenge in Stanford, California.  The Illini will play UCLA on Friday evening, before taking on what will probably be the new #1 team in the AVCA rankings, the Cardinal of Stanford on Sunday.  A daunting task, no doubt, but Illini coach Kevin Hambly likes the idea of facing the top competition so early in the season.  "We know UCLA will be tough, and Stanford will probably come in as the top team, but we just want to go out there and play volleyball, and see what happens", Hambly said of his early season test.  We will surely know a lot more about the Illini volleyball team after this weekend, and win or lose, one thing is clear:  Hambly does not back down from the competition.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team started their season before any other sports team on campus, and currently stand at 3-1 after the first 4 matches of the season.  After a season opening 3-1 loss to Notre Dame back on August 22nd, the Illini bounced back to defeat Louisville 2-0 and Arizona State 3-1 at home, while venturing on the road for the first time, and coming away with a 1-0 overtime win against Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan on Sunday.  The Illini will once again be on the road this weekend, when they will take part in the College of Charleston Tournament in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  The Illini will face the host team, the College of Charleston on Friday evening (6:30 pm CT, no TV), then will take on UAB on Sunday morning (11:00 am CT, no TV) to conclude the tournament.