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.