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, October 30, 2014

Momentum swing?

     Yes, the unthinkable happened last weekend at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and what I mean by that is the Illini finally won a home Big Ten game with Tim Beckman as head coach.  The Illini defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers 28-24  Whatever the fate of Beckman is at the end of this season, one thing remains clear: this team keeps trying, and win or lose, the effort is there.  Three things can be taken away from the game on Saturday that led to the win.  The first one is the play of Reilly O'Toole.  Although O'Toole didn't have stellar numbers (14-21-0 for 118 yards and one touchdown), he did employ the run a little more than he normally does.  This is normally reserved for O'Toole's main competitor, Aaron Bailey, who saw just one series of action during the game.  Beckman had said earlier in the week that both quarterbacks would see action, but when Bailey came into the game, the offense wasn't flowing the way he wanted it to, so he went back to O'Toole, who finished the game.  O'Toole gained 59 yards on 17 carries, and scored another touchdown via the run, getting his first win as starting quarterback.  Another thing that can be taken away from the game on Saturday is the play of the defense.  Under Tim Banks, the defense has performed miserably so far this season, but against the Golden Gophers, they bent but didn't break.  When the Illini had a lead, they maintained it for the most part, but once again had to hang on for the victory.  Which brings me to my third thing from last week, which is the stellar play of cornerback V'Angelo Bentley.  Bentley has been a one-man wrecking crew on special teams and defense, and his scoop of a recovered fumble that essentially won the game also put him in the record book at Illinois.  Since Bentley arrived in Champaign, he has now scored a touchdown four different ways, running a kickoff back, taking a punt back, getting an interception and returning it for a score, and now, picking up a fumble and scoring.  Not even Red Grange, whom the Illini honored by wearing grey uniforms last Saturday, can claim that.
     So, what can the Illini do for an encore this week?  First of all, their matchup is a very tough one, as they head east to Columbus, Ohio to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes in prime time (7:00 pm CT, ABC).  The Illini haven't won in Columbus since 2007, which coincidentally, was when Juice Williams was the quarterback.  Williams is now on the coaching staff, so he can get in the heads of the players and instill them on how to beat the Buckeyes.  Ohio State had an injury to their signal caller earlier this season, as Braxton Miller suffered a season ending injury.  Enter J. T. Barrett, who may even be better than what Miller is.  Illinois (4-4, 1-3) heads into the Ohio State game with some sustained momentum following the win over Minnesota, but the Buckeyes will be waiting.  Ohio State (6-1, 3-0) needed double overtime to defeat Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, so they will be looking to make a better showing when they face the Illini.  Barrett's numbers weren't that good against the Nittany Lions, only completing 12 of 19 passes for 74 yards.  However, Barrett scored twice on the ground in overtime to seal the win for the Buckeyes.  Barrett was also injured in the game, but fully expects to play against Illinois on Saturday night.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their winning ways last weekend, as they swept a pair of home matches against both Indiana and Purdue at Huff Hall.  On Friday evening, the Illini dispatched the Hoosiers 3-0 (25-18, 25-14, 25-19), and then came back on Saturday night to take down the #13 Boilermakers 3-1 (25-20, 26-24, 26-28, 26-24) in a thrilling match.  The Illini have now won five consecutive matches and have improved their overall record to 16-5 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten.  The Illini, who come in this week ranked #10 in the AVCA poll, hit the road for the first of three matches in a span of 6 days.  On Friday night, the Illini head to East Lansing, Michigan to battle the Michigan State Spartans (6:00 pm CT, BTN), and then will travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday night to face the Michigan Wolverines (6:30 pm CT, No TV).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team is wrapping up the regular season schedule, and the up and down season continued this past weekend, when they split two matches at the Illinois Soccer Stadium.  The Illini defeated Michigan State on Friday night 2-0, and then were defeated by Michigan on Sunday afternoon 2-1.  The Illini will send their seniors out on style Friday evening when they welcome #11 Wisconsin to Champaign for Senior Night.  Illinois will recognize two seniors, Megan Green and Noelle Leary, before the match on Friday night.  The Illini are currently 10-7-1 overall, but just 5-6-1 in conference play.  However, the Illini have earned a spot in next week's Big Ten Tournament, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, November 5th in West Lafayette, Indiana.

     As Fighting Illini men's and women's basketball season approaches, some news off the court (sort of) happened this week.  On Tuesday, a storm drain was blocked, resulting in rain water flooding the State Farm Center floor and covering the basketball court.  The floor may need to be replaced, but it should not affect the schedule of games this season.  Something that will affect the schedule for the beginning of the 2015-16 season is the continued renovation efforts at the State Farm Center.  As a result, the first five games scheduled for November 2015 have officially been moved to the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield.  The capacity of the PCCC is about half the size of the SFC, but the move is necessary to facilitate efforts to get that phase of the construction schedule completed.  More information on this as time goes on.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Decisions, Decisions......

     Sometimes the easiest decisions are the most difficult to make.

     Faced with the fact that their starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, is sidelined with a fractured fibula, the Fighting Illini have turned to a tandem quarterbacking system for this week's Homecoming game against Minnesota (11:00 am CT, ESPNU).

     However, all of the coaches do not necessarily agree with the decision. As the Illini come off of their first bye week of the season, head coach Tim Beckman is willing to try just about anything to get his team a win and in the process, possibly saving his job by season's end. In this, his third season at the helm in Champaign, Beckman has managed to win only one Big Ten game in 19 tries.

     Beckman used the bye week to give his players a much needed break, and also to heal up some of the bumps and bruises that have been plaguing his team so far this season.  The best reason for the bye was that Illinois couldn't lose this past week, since they didn't play.  Harsh, I know, but the facts are nonetheless facts, and this is not a good team right now and without Lunt, it remains to be seen just how good they really are.  Reilly O'Toole is the senior and the veteran, but does he have what it takes to lead Illinois to a victory?  Aaron Bailey is the more mobile of the two quarterbacks, and his performance against Wisconsin two weeks ago gave Illini fans hope that maybe, if pressed into the same situation this week from a starting perspective, that he could possibly be the one.  Lunt will probably miss the next two games, and then there is another bye week in there, so the earliest that he could return to action would be November 15th, when Illinois faces Iowa.  Who knows what the situation will be come that time, but if the Illini are still searching for a win when the Hawkeyes come to town, then the question begs do you even bother bringing Lunt back at that point?

     Illinois volleyball is on a roll as of late, having reeled off three straight match wins, two of those being against nationally ranked opponents.  Having defeated #5 Penn State in State College, the Illini had a mid-week contest at Iowa, and came away with a 3-2 win.  Then, the Illini went into Lincoln on Saturday night and took down the #13 Cornhuskers 3-1.  Having defeated both Penn State and Nebraska, two perennial powers in women's college volleyball, on the road in the same season, is something that just doesn't happen very often at all.  The Illini, ranked #10 in the latest AVCA poll, will return home to Huff Hall this weekend to battle Indiana on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and then #13 Purdue on Saturday evening (5:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini are currently 14-5 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend's matches.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has hit the wall lately, where in their last five games, they have managed to lose four of them and get one tie.  This past weekend, the Illini traveled east to battle the two newest conference foes, Rutgers and Maryland.  On Friday, the Illini lost 2-1 to the #14 Scarlet Knights, but came back on Sunday to tie Maryland 1-1 in double overtime.  Coach Janet Rayfield knows that tying a match isn't a big deal to many, but to her squad, it could be just what they need to get into postseason play.  "We might need that extra point that we received for the tie, and if it comes down to us getting in the Big Ten Tournament by a point, we will look back at this as a positive", Rayfield said of the tie with Maryland.  The Illini are currently 9-6-1 overall and 4-5-1 in conference play, and welcome Michigan State to Champaign Friday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and Michigan on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Finally, it would be remiss if I failed to mention the fact that Wayne McClain's passing last week took me by surprise, much as it did everyone else, including his family.  Having covered Illinois basketball through the Bill Self and Bruce Weber regimes, I got to know Wayne fairly well.  The kind words that have been conveyed over the past few days I can totally relate to, and you will not meet a more genuine man than Wayne was.  Godspeed Wayne!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Time To Regroup

     We kind of saw this one coming.

     The Fighting Illini football team began Big Ten Conference play this past weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the result was pretty much what everyone expected.  However, there were some late developments that made the outcome even more of a given.

     On Saturday afternoon, word began circulating that quarterback Wes Lunt might not play, due to an injury that he sustained in the game against Texas State.  Lunt did not appear on the team's injury report that was issued on Thursday of game week, which is not a big deal, since the coaching staff doesn't have to list everyone on the report.  Lunt was dealing with this injury all week, and didn't practice on Wednesday, which the media wouldn't have known about anyway, since we are not allowed to watch practice.  So, enter Reilly O'Toole into the role of starting quarterback in a hostile environment at Nebraska.  If Lunt would have played, he might have been injured worse because those defenders really gave O'Toole a rough time.  For the game, Reilly was 17 for 38 passing for 261 yards, but threw three interceptions and one touchdown.  Josh Ferguson got the Illini going early with a nice 41 yard touchdown run that was actually a backward lateral.  What was more impressive about this score was the fact that it answered the Cornhuskers' opening score, a 12 yard scamper by Ameer Abdullah.  Abdullah carried the ball 22 times for 208 yards and three touchdowns, and probably could have had close to 400 yards if he would have played the whole game.  Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini decided to rest Abdullah for the remainder of the game, and gave some of his carries to Amani Cross, who also carried the ball 22 times for 109 yards and a score.  The Illini have a major issue with containing teams that run the football, and this game was very evident of that.  The Illini couldn't stop anything, and even Nebraska's quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for 166 yards on 10 for 21 passing.  Armstrong didn't complete a pass in the first quarter, and as a matter of fact, his first pass was a 63 yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell.  A game like this exposes all of the flaws that a struggling team has, and several of them were brought to the forefront on Saturday for the Illini.

     The best remedy for a loss like the one the Illini sustained at Nebraska is to just forget about it and move on to the next game.  Luckily for Illinois, that next game is back at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and is against the Purdue Boilermakers (11:00 am CT, ESPN2), who just happen to be the only team that Tim  Beckman has beaten in his three year tenure at Illinois.  Purdue, who comes into the game with the Illini at 2-3 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, lost their conference opener last Saturday at home against Iowa 24-10, has a similar story as the Illini do.  Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell is in his second season at the helm in West Lafayette, and struggled in his first season in the league last season, much like Beckman did in his first season in 2012.  The Boilermakers struggle to score much like the Illini do, and do not have an air tight defense, so this game could go either way.  Purdue has a couple of decent running backs in Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt, and with the Illini defense not doing well against the run with teams that have durable backs, if that tandem gets into a groove, they could put up some good sized numbers in terms of rushing yardage.  This is also one of the "trophy games" for the Illini, as Illinois and Purdue play for "The Cannon".  Illinois won the trophy last season, and have not won it back to back since the 2002 season.  The Illini are 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten.

     This Saturday will also be the 125th anniversary of Illinois football, as well as an "orange-out" at Memorial Stadium, where fans are asked to wear orange to the game to support the team.  The first 20,000 fans to enter the stadium will be given orange pom poms to wave during the course of the game,

     It seemed like forever since the Fighting Illini volleyball team last played at Huff Hall, but last weekend they finally returned home to welcome the two newest members of the Big Ten, Rutgers and Maryland.  The Illini swept the Terrapins on Friday night, and did the same with the Scarlet Knights on Saturday evening.  The Illini continued their home success on Wednesday evening when they welcomed the #18 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers to Huff Hall for a televised match on the Big Ten Network.  The Illini prevailed in 3 straight games once again to down the Gophers.  The Illini have now won 13 straight games since losing the third game to Creighton last month.  With the win on Wednesday evening, the Illini are 11-3 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten and will continue their streak of home games on Saturday evening when they take on #5 Wisconsin (7:00 pm CT, no TV).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team took to the road this past weekend, and came away with a split, winning on Friday night 4-1 at Ohio State, but falling 2-1 to #8 Penn State on Sunday.  Senior Jannelle Flaws continued her stellar season by scoring twice in the win over the Buckeyes and also scoring the lone goal against the Nittany Lions on Sunday.  The Illini are currently 9-3-0 overall and 4-2-0 in conference play, and will play just once this weekend when they travel north to battle in-state rival Northwestern on Sunday in Evanston (5:00 pm CT, no TV).

     We are nearing the time when the fall sports will overlap with the winter sports, as basketball practice for both the mens and womens teams begin within the next week.  Renovations are coming along as scheduled at the State Farm Center, and will be ready for the first exhibition game, which will be in early November