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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

New Digs, Same Result

     She looks great with the makeover.

     Wednesday night was the grand unveiling of the latest phase of the State Farm Center renovation, and upon seeing it for the first time since all of the seats and latest accentuations were finished, I came away very impressed.  It looked like a totally new arena, and adding to the effect was the dedication of Lou Henson Court.  The ceremony itself was a little disappointing and could have been enhanced by Lou or some former players saying a few words.  Instead, nary a word was uttered during halftime by any of the honored guests.

     Oh yeah, there was a game in all of the camaraderie as well.  With center Mike Thorne Jr. out indefinitely with a torn meniscus, the void that he leaves was very noticeable, what with Maverick Morgan and Leron Black trying to play the five.  The Illini came out strong against Notre Dame, taking a 41-33 lead at the half, and extending that to 10 at 43-33 with 18 minutes to play in the game, before the momentum swung in the opposite direction.  The Fighting Irish began to slowly chip away at the lead and finally were able to forge ahead and never look back from that point on.

     On Saturday, the result was a little better, as the Illini welcomed the Catamounts of Western Carolina to the State Farm Center, and it was essentially the Kendrick Nunn and Michael Finke show for the majority of the game.  Nunn scored 27 points, while Finke added 24, and for a while, they had the bulk of the points for the Illini.  Finke particularly enjoyed the game, since he sat out last season via a redshirt, and is extremely proud of being from Champaign and playing for his hometown school.  The Illini won 80-68 to improve their record to 4-5 overall.  The Illini will now begin a stretch of games that they are favored to win, beginning with Yale on Wednesday evening (7:00 pm, No TV).  The Bulldogs are 5-3 overall and are one of the favorites to win the Ivy League this season.

     Now that football season is officially over, the focus shifts to the off-season and the new athletic director search that will determine whether or not there will be a new coach sooner or later.  Illinois finished off the regular season Thanksgiving weekend at Soldier Field in Chicago by losing to Northwestern 24-14 before a poorly attended game in the "House That Payton Built".  Illinois dropped to 5-7 overall with the loss, and was still somehow in the conversation about qualifying for one of the 80 bowl spots that there are open.  The final decision came down to the APR (Academic Performance Rate) between the other teams with 5 wins, and due to a couple teams winning that needed to do so in order to make a bowl game, that left the Illini on the outside looking in.  In all fairness, it is probably best that this team didn't get to a bowl game, because with all of the turmoil that has surrounded the program these past few months, the focus probably wouldn't have been there.
     Granted, Bill Cubit did a good job of keeping everything together during all of this turmoil, and if there was anyone that deserved a bowl bid, it was him, along with all of the seniors.  It wasn't their fault that Tim Beckman was hired by Mike Thomas, but the thought of a 5-7 team making a bowl game tells me one thing:  THERE ARE TOO MANY BOWL GAMES!!  A loss in the bowl game would have given the Illini 8 defeats on the season, which is entirely too many when you think about it.  Plus, with the cream of the crop in the Big Ten getting better while Illinois and the teams in the middle trying to compete with them, that is simply just not good enough anymore.  The next few months will be very interesting in terms of what happens with the AD search, as well as any more coaching changes within the staff.  Stay tuned.

     Matt Bollant's women's basketball team is off to a good start in his fourth year at Illinois, and they opened up play in the State Farm Center on Sunday afternoon against Lehigh.  Illinois came away with a 76-67 win, and now have a 5-1 record on the young season.  Their lone blemish on the record was a 73-64 loss to Miami in the Big 10/ACC Challenge in Coral Gables, Florida last week.  In the win over Lehigh, Kyley Simmons led three Illini players in double figures with 21 points.  Super sophomore Chatrice White added 17, while freshman Cierra Rice chipped in 12 points.  The Illini have a busy week on tap, as they host both Southern Illinois and Central Michigan this week.  The Salukis come in on Tuesday night (7:00 pm), while the Chippewas visit on Saturday afternoon (2:00 pm).  Neither game this week will be televised.

     If there is one thing that Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly does well besides coaching is to have his team play well at the right time of the season.  An up and down season has turned out to be another run in the NCAA Tournament, and that was further evidenced this past weekend, when the Illini made the short trip down to Louisville, Kentucky to take on Southern Illinois in the first round.  The Illini downed the Salukis in three straight games to take the match, then was rewarded with a match against the host Cardinals.  Illinois had defeated Louisville earlier in the season at Huff Hall in Champaign in 3 straight games, and Saturday was not much different, as the Illini dispatched the Cardinals in four games to advance to the regional semifinals against another familiar opponent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  Illinois lost a heartbreaker in Minneapolis earlier in the season, losing the match in five games.  Minnesota was the regular season Big Ten champion, and along with the #2 ranked Golden Gophers in the regional,  #15 Penn State and Hawaii are also in that bracket, so it will be a tough road to the Final Four, which will be held in Omaha, Nebraska the following weekend.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

End Of The Line?

      As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a few items on the Illinois horizon appear to be eerily familiar, while others have taken either a turn for the better or worse, depending on how you see things.  Don't catch my drift?  Allow me to elaborate.

     First of all, the Fighting Illini football team is once again in a familiar situation, and that is needing a win in their final "home" game against Northwestern to become bowl eligible.  The game, which will be played at Chicago's Soldier Field, was the brainchild of both Tim Beckman and Mike Thomas, both of whom are no longer employed at the university.  The latter hired the former, which was clearly a grave mistake, leading Thomas to be shown the door about 3 months after Beckman himself was fired.  The reason that was given for moving the game up to Chicago for a "home" game was to appease the donors in the city and suburbs because every other year, the IHSA football playoffs alternate between Champaign-Urbana and DeKalb, and this was a year when the championships were in DeKalb.  Sooooooo, now there is nothing going on in C-U this weekend, which is bad for businesses like restaurants and hotels.  Plus, Illinois is hosting Senior Day festivities up in Chicago, which makes absolutely no sense to me as well.  The players apparently voted for this, since quite a few of them live within striking distance of the city and welcomed the chance to have their honors bestowed upon them in an NFL environment.

     It's no secret that the Illinois-Northwestern game last year at Ryan Field was a poor draw, as was the last game in Champaign two years ago, so a change in venue was a viable option.  With many of the students that attend the university hailing from the suburbs anyway, it would be an easier trip for them to make.  Truth is, many of them don't even attend when they are blocks away in C-U, so why would they make the trip some 40 minutes or so to the lakefront to watch the team play?  The university needs to figure some things out, as they are still in turmoil because there is no permanent athletic director in place, and interim coach Bill Cubit is politicking for the job for next season.

     Which brings us to the actual game on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ESPNU).  Illinois needed a win in their last two games in order to become bowl eligible for the second straight season, and they couldn't get the job done last weekend against Minnesota in Minneapolis, losing 32-23 to the Golden Gophers.  Even though the Illini have remained somewhat competitive in their losses, a loss is still that, and they can ill afford to have another one.  One bright spot is that there may not be enough 6-6 teams to fill bowl slots, so the possibility exists that a 5-7 team could go bowling.  This tells me two things:
1) there are too many bowls now, and 2) you get rewarded with 15 extra practices for a bowl for a losing record.  Cubit has done a great job holding this team together despite all they have been through, and the injuries have taken a toll throughout the season.  At his weekly press conferences this season, Cubit has remained steadfast that he would like to continue at the controls, but maintains that it is not his decision to make.  Cubit is an all-around good guy, and personally, I would like to see him stay another season to bridge the gap between he and the next coach.  After all, he is 62 years old, and I don't see him wanting to do this for very much longer.  Plus, with no full-time Chancellor or athletic director, time is closing in, especially with all of the other jobs that are open, or could become open once the regular season is finished this weekend.  We shall wait and see what happens on this subject, as some movement could come as early as next week.

     Another Mike Thomas gem of a decision was to move the first five games of the 2015-16 Fighting Illini men's basketball season to the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, since the State Farm Center is finishing the current renovation phase, and now that the "experiment" in Springfield is complete, the results are in, and they are less than adequate.  I was able to make it over to one of the games, and came away less than impressed about the experience.  The PCCC is much smaller, and didn't feel like a home court atmosphere.  The Illini finished their residency in the state capitol 2-2, although they trailed for a good majority of the time, even in the games that they won.  Add a close loss to Providence on the road, and Illinois sits at just 2-3 overall, leading many to speculate just how warm the seat the John Groce sits on will get if the present situation continues.

     The losses, to North Florida and Chattanooga, were bad, and the way that the Illini played in those games did not help the unease of the fan base, many of which are in the mode of not caring.  Even in the wins over North Dakota State and Chicago State, the Illini trailed late, before making comebacks on both occasions to win the game.  As a matter of fact, it took a three-pointer by freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands at the buzzer to defeat Chicago State 82-79 on Monday night.  A loss to the Cougars would have set the Illini at 1-4, their worst start since 1906, and would have set outrage by Illini Nation.  The loss at Providence was actually their best performance of the season, and if Michael Finke gets his follow-up slam of Malcom Hill's missed layup to fall, all of a sudden maybe the season gets looked at a bit differently.

     Groce does have some leverage for an excuse, with injuries to three of his top players that were expected to compete for a bulk of the playing time.  Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate are all out, with Nunn and Tate expected back within the next couple months.  Sophomore Leron Black is also coming back from an injury as well, and while he has played sparingly, is not totally back, and it shows on the court.  Once Groce gets his arsenal of players back, roles and rotations will change a bit, and hopefully, so will the results on the court.

     Illinois now continues the Florida portion of the Emerald Coast Classic, where they will play UAB on Friday night (8:30 pm CT, CBS Sports Network), and then depending on the outcome of that game, will play either Iowa State or Virginia Tech on Saturday (TBA, CBS Sports Network).

     Matt Bollant's women's basketball team is also feeling the effects of not playing in the State Farm Center, but they played their home games much closer to campus at Parkland College, and so far, the results have paid off.  Bollant's crew is off to a 4-0 start, including a 98-43 romp over Tennessee State on Tuesday evening at Parkland.  The Illini have hit the 90 point plateau three times this season, including the exhibition game, and will play their first true road game next Wednesday evening when they travel to Coral Gables, Florida to face the University of Miami (6:00 pm CT).  After the trip to Florida, the Illini will play 6 of their next 8 games at the newly renovated State Farm Center.

     Finally, Kevin Hambly's Illinois volleyball team begins to wrap up the regular season portion of the schedule on the road, first taking on Nebraska in Lincoln on Wednesday evening (7:00 pm CT), before completing regular season play on Friday in Ann Arbor to face Michigan (5:00 pm CT).  The Illini are 19-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten, so a pair of wins to finish strong will do a lot for Illinois and their quest for an NCAA Tournament invite.

     Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 'I' Stands For Interim

     We knew this day was coming, it was just a little surprising when the news broke.

     Much like the day that Tim Beckman was fired last August, one week before the 2015 football season began, it came as a relatively small shock when news broke early on Monday morning that University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas was let go, and in his place, interim (remember that word, because it will be used as nauseum in this blog entry) AD Paul Kowalczyk was named by interim (there's that word again) Chancellor Barbara Wilson.

     In addition to having an interim football coach in Bill Cubit, who really doesn't know what will happen to his fate until the end of the season, there is also an interin Provost at the University of Illinois, leaving many to speculate as to what direction the athletic department will go in the naming of some of these positions to take the venerable 'interim' tag off.  In order to hire a new football coach, there has to be a Chancellor in place to hire an AD, which in turn will hire the new football coach.

     Confused?  You're not alone.  Since August, there seems to have been news weekly in the athletic circles at the U of I, and it's rather amazing that all of this was concocted by a series of tweets by a former football player that we thought was just venting from his dislike of Beckman and the way that he was treated.

     Thomas. at the press conference announcing the change at the top of the athletic department, was lauded by Wilson, and appeared to do nothing wrong except one thing, the hiring of Beckman as head football coach.  It is evident without a doubt that the hire was a colossal mistake, and the fallout of everything since that fateful day can be linked to it.

     Cubit, who is an all-around good guy and a pleasure to talk to, because he tells it like it is, could possibly get hired as the permanent football coach, but that will probably be dependent on how the rest of the season goes.  As far as recruiting goes, there is quite a bit of indecision right now, and a recruit will not want to come to Illinois if there is not a stable situation, which is what is happening right now.

     Oh yeah, there was a game last Saturday, amidst all of the happenings off the field.  Illinois snapped a three game losing streak in a big way, throttling the Purdue Boilermakers 48-14 last Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Just one week after getting it handed to them at Penn State 39-0, the Illini welcomed back Josh Ferguson to the offense, and he immediately made an impact, rushing 12 times for 133 yards, while catching 6 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.  Ferguson's return made freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn that much better, as Vaughn scampered for 180 yards on 16 carries and two scores.  The spike in offensive performance is a welcome sight, but they will need to continue it in a much larger way if they plan to knock off their next opponent, the Ohio State Buckeyes this coming Saturday (11:00 am CT. ABC).

     The Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) are coming in as the #2 team in the nation, and are currently on a 22 game winning streak, dating back to last season, when they won the 2014 National Championship.  However, the Buckeyes have won a couple games by a slim margin, and are coming off a 28-14 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers last Saturday in Columbus.  The Buckeyes have been in the news recently for some off-the-field incidents involving their star quarterback J. T. Barrett.  Out of the three signal callers that head coach Urban Meyer has at his disposal, Barrett gives them the best chance on a weekly basis, although Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller are not bad options either.

     The Illini (5-4, 2-3) have nothing to lose against the Buckeyes, and if the unthinkable happens, which is an Illinois win over the Buckeyes, then the head coaching job should be given to Cubit immediately after the game.  Hands down.

     Now begins the time of the crossover in sports on the University of Illinois campus, and men's and women's basketball begins with the regular season openers this coming weekend.  Due to construction being wrapped up at the State Farm Center, both teams are forced to begin their regular seasons on the road, so to speak, with the men playing in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center, and the women beginning in Champaign, only at Parkland College.  John Groce's squad will play North Florida on Friday evening (7:00 pm, ESPN3) and North Dakota State on Sunday afternoon (2:00 pm, ESPN3).

     Wednesday was signing day, and Groce inked one player in Te'Jon Lucas, a point guard from Wisconsin.  Lucas fills a void at the position and ends a long recruiting battle trying to find someone to bring in after several near misses.  Groce also announced at the press conference that Kipper Nichols has also signed, but will not be able to play until late in the fall of 2016.  Nichols originally committed to Tulane and had enrolled there, but only stayed two weeks before leaving, and that action has caused him to have to sit out the duration until he is eligible to compete.

     Matt Bollant's women's squad will begin play at Parkland against Chicago State on Friday night (7:00 pm), and then turn around to host Ohio University on Sunday afternoon (2:00 pm).  The first game in the newly renovated State Farm Center is scheduled to be the Big 10/ACC Challenge game on December 3rd against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Should be a pretty tough ticket to obtain.

     Bollant signed four players, including Ali Andrews, Brandi Beasley, Courtney Joens and Sarah Overcash.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini volleyball team continues toward the culmination of their season, and after stringing four victories together, they dropped a match against the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus on Wednesday night.  Illinois will return to Huff Hall on Saturday night when they welcome Rutgers to Huff Hall.  Illinois will also host Wisconsin next Wednesday night.  Currently, the Illini are 17-9 overall and 8-7 overall.

     Not much going on for a week, eh?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Now What?

     The injuries continue to pile up for Bill Cubit's Fighting Illini football squad, and the latest to fall victim is Henry Enyenehi, who is supposedly out for this weekend's game at Purdue (11:00 am CT, BTN).

     In what was a dismal showing last Saturday at Penn State, the Fighting Illini did next to nothing, and the end result was a 39-0 shellacking at the hands of the Nittany Lions in State College, Pennsylvania.  Up until this game, the season was showing signs of promise, and Cubit was beginning to endear the hearts of Illini Nation as a possible successor full time to Tim Beckman, who was let go one week before the season began this year.

     Now, all of that seems moot, as the Illini slog their way into West Lafayette to battle a Boilermaker squad that had their best offensive showing of the season last Saturday in defeating Nebraska 55-45, just the second Big Ten win in the Darrell Hazell era at Purdue. The other conference win for Hazell was last year in Champaign, so the Illini will have revenge on their minds when they battle on Saturday in an attempt to win back the Cannon trophy, the artifact that the two schools play for each time they take the field.

     With Enyenehi's injury, that essentially leaves freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn as the only healthy player in the backfield, although it remains to be seen if senior Josh Ferguson will return to action this weekend.  Ferguson took part in practice on Wednesday, but a final decision won't be made until sometime on Thursday before the week's injury report is released to the media.

     It is a wonder that quarterback Wes Lunt is still healthy and actually a good thing, because if he wasn't, there's no telling how this Illinois team could put a formidable team on the field.  Lunt has a diminished group of receivers as well to throw to, with both Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee out of action, and if not for Geronimo Allison, Lunt would be forced to run the ball himself, which he does not do well at all.

     I guess it all boils down to this:  with many players out of action for whatever reason, Cubit has to put a team on the field and hope that they can grab some magic as the season begins its homestretch run.  Illinois (4-4, 1-3) still has aspirations to go to a bowl game, but they still need two wins in order to even become eligible, and probably really need three of the last four games in order to feel good about postseason hopes.  With Purdue, Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern still left on the schedule, Throwing out the Ohio State game (for obvious reasons), the Illini still have a chance to win the other three games.  Only the Buckeyes game is in Champaign, so they will need to be road warriors in every sense of the phrase if they plan to be playing past Thanksgiving weekend.

     After a rough stretch of matches, Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly feels optimistic that his team can rebound and do what they need to in order to reach the NCAA Tournament.  The Illini got off to a good start this past weekend, by defeating Michigan State (3-1) and Michigan (3-0) at Huff Hall in Champaign.  Then, on Wednesday night, the Illini ventured up to Evanston for a mid-week matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats.  The Illini won the first set, and dropped the next two to go down 2-1.  The Illini won the fourth set and the deciding fifth set by a 16-14 score to take the match 3-2.  With the win over the Wildcats, the Illini improve to 16-8 overall and 7-6 in Big Ten play.  The Illini will return the favor this weekend when they host the Wildcats on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Janet Rayfield's Illinois women's soccer team wrapped up regular season play last week, and just sneaked into the Big Ten Tournament as the #8 seed, which gave them a first round matchup at Penn State last Sunday.  The Illini were defeated by the Nittany Lions 3-1. to finish their record heading into the NCAA Tournament selection at 10-6-3 overall and 4-4-3 in conference play.  Illinois will await their fate and hope that their resume is good enough to get one of the bids for the tournament.

     With November on the horizon, it is nearing time for both the mens and womens basketball teams to begin action, and since the State Farm Center is not quite ready for its tenants yet, the two teams will be playing on the road for the first few games.  The men will call the Prairie Capitol Convention Center home through the end of November, and have their first and only exhibition game on Sunday when they play Illinois-Springfield/  The women will be playing at Parkland College and they will also be starting play soon.  The State Farm Center is scheduled to be ready in time for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on December 2nd when Illinois hosts Notre Dame.

     That's all she wrote for this week, folks.  Hope there are no more injuries to the football team between now and the next blog post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Survival Of The Fittest

     Another close game.   Yet another injury, which lately seems to be the norm rather than the exception.   This can be daunting on a head coach, interim or not.

     Illinois (4-3, 1-2), which seems to continue giving teams good games, but ending up on the short end of the stick, finds themselves in familiar territory as they head east to Happy Valley to visit Penn State.

     The Illini, who fell victim to Wisconsin last Saturday 24-13 in their annual Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, had their chances against the Badgers, but with an ailing team on both sides of the ball, bodies are getting thin in number.

     The latest to be sidelined is tight end Tyler White, who appears to be out for the remainder of the season.  White joins a growing list of players that have seen their last action of the season, including Mikey Dudek, Jamal Milan, Teko Powell, Dre Brown and Patrick Nelson.  Add to that the injuries of Josh Ferguson, Marchie Murdock, and Justin Hardee, the medical staff is keeping very busy this fall.

     In the loss to Wisconsin, freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn continued to impress, as he was the only running back to carry the ball, rushing 13 times for 55 yards and a touchdown.  Vaughn, who has been pressed into extensive action with injuries to Ferguson and Brown, has utilized his opportunity nicely and is making the best of it.  Wes Lunt, who remains healthy despite being prone to injuries over the past couple of seasons, completed 22 of 43 passes for 278 yards, but did not throw a touchdown in the loss.  Lunt's main target continues to be Geronimo Allison, who caught 8 passes for 99 yards against the Badgers.  Interim head coach Bill Cubit figures that Ferguson may miss the game at Penn State this Saturday (11:00 am CT, ESPN2), but hopefully will return to action next weekend when the Illini travel to Purdue.

     Speaking of the Nittany Lions, they narrowly defeated Maryland last Saturday in Baltimore 31-30, behind quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who completed 13 of 29 passes for 315 yards and three scores.  Penn State running back Saquon Barkley rushed 20 times for 65 yards and a touchdown, sending the Nittany Lions to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten's Eastern Division.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini womens' volleyball team has been in a rut as of late, and this past weekend, it was more of the same.  On Friday night the Illini ventured to Bloomington to battle Indiana and came away with a 3-0 win, which was big for the team, since they hadn't had much success lately.  Then, on Sunday, the Illini went up the road to West Lafayette to take on Purdue and things were looking good as the Illini took an early 2-0 lead over the Boilermakers.  What happened next was befitting of the season thus far.  The Boilermakers came back and won the next two games, setting up a pivotal game five, which the Illini also dropped.  The heartbreaking loss drops Illinois to 13-8 overall, and just 4-6 in Big Ten play.  The Illini will have another chance to right the ship this weekend, when they welcome Michigan State on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), then will take on Michigan on Saturday night at home as well (7:00 pm CT).

     The Fighting Illini womens' soccer team wrapped up the regular season on Wednesday night when they traveled to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The Illini came away victorious, defeating the Golden Gophers 3-1 behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  With the win, Illinois improves to 10-5-3 overall and 4-4-3 in the Big Ten.  The Illini will now await their seeding in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins on Sunday.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beginning The Stretch Run

     After a rather pedestrian first half of the 2015 football season, the Fighting Illini enjoyed their bye week, which enabled a few players to get healthy, while others mulled their immediate futures by dealing with various injuries of their own.

     Illinois finished the first half of the season with a 4-2 record, and 1-1 in Big Ten play, and begin the second half of the season welcoming the Wisconsin Badgers to Memorial Stadium for Homecoming on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, BTN).

     Illinois has been bitten by the injury bug numerous this times this season, and the list of players sidelined could very well compete on the first team.  From Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee being out thus far the entire season, the prospects of Dudek playing this season are dwindling fast, while Hardee could return as soon as Saturday, although interim head coach Bill Cubit wasn't overly optimistic about that happening.  Senior running back Josh Ferguson injured his shoulder in the win over Nebraska three weeks ago, and is likely to miss his second straight game against the Badgers as he deals with an AC sprain of the shoulder.  Wide receiver Marchie Murdock also was injured in last week's 29-20 loss at Iowa, and remains questionable as well for Saturday.

     As far as some good things that happened during the bye week was some of the players that have been injured have had the chance to get healthy and also rest their bodies, which have taken on a good amount of wear and tear over the first six games.  H-Back Tim Clary, who was feared lost for the season, has been cleared to play and will hopefully return to the field Saturday to be the lead blocker for freshmen Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Henry Enyenehi.

     The Badgers (5-2, 2-1) are coming off a gritty 24-7 defeat of Purdue last Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, and for a change, are not relying on their ground game for the majority of the offense.  In the past, Wisconsin runners have punished Illinois, whether it was Ron Dayne, or most recently, Melvin Gordon.  The Badgers were led on offense by running backs Alec Ingold and Dare Ogunbowale, who each scored for Wisconsin.  Ingold rushed for 19 yards on 9 carries, but scored twice, while Ogunbowale fared a little better, carrying the ball 18 times for 56 yards and finding the endzone once.  Quarterback Joel Stave, who had a good day from the air, completed 30 of 39 passes for 322 yards, but did not throw any touchdowns.  Stave did, however, throw an interception in the win.

     For the Illini to come out on top against the Badgers, they will need to neutralize the running game, which they have had difficulty in doing thus far this season.

     Since returning home from what seemed like forever on the road, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team has seen their season hit the skids, for lack of a better term.  During that two week span, the Illini have dropped 3 of 4 matches, including ranked teams Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska.  The Illini currently find themselves at 12-7 overall, but just 3-5 in Big Ten play, and will once again venture out on the road this weekend, when they travel to Indiana and Purdue.  The match with the Hoosiers will be Friday night (6:00 pm CT, No TV), while the game with the Boilermakers will be on Sunday (12:00 noon, ESPN2).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team is coming off a big win over Nebraska last Sunday in Champaign, and are beginning to wrap up the regular season and hoping to do so with a strong finish.  The Illini currently sit at 9-4-3 overall and 3-3-3 in the conference, and will entertain Northwestern on Saturday night for Senior night (6:00 pm CT, No TV), before concluding the regular season in Minneapolis against Minnesota next Wednesday (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Speaking of injuries, the Fighting Illini basketball team continues to see their fair share of them, and for fourth year head coach John Groce, the casualties are continuing to mount.  Already having lost Tracy Abrams for a second straight season, this time with an achilles tear, Groce found out two weeks ago that sophomore Leron Black tore his meniscus in his knee and will be out for a few weeks.  As if the news couldn't get any worse, it did with the news last week that guard Kendrick Nunn injured his thumb in a routine practice drill and after having surgery on Wednesday, will be out 8 weeks.  Groce's philosophy of the "next man up" takes on an entirely new meaning, because sooner or later, he will run out of bodies.  Groce plans to get freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands back soon, and with the first game just a mere three weeks away, the bodies need to heal.

Better break out the bubble wrap.  Speaking of wraps, that's a wrap on this week's tour around the Illini sports teams.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Positive Sign?

     I am assuming that the Mike Riley fan club in Lincoln, Nebraska is not increasing anytime soon.

     A bizarre ending to the Illinois Big Ten opener against Nebraska resulted in an Illini win, as they staged an improbable comeback against the Cornhuskers, coming back from a 13-0 fourth quarter deficit to win 14-13 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

     The Illini defense, which was perceived to be a work in progress entering the 2015 season, had performed admirably all year long up to this point, and held Nebraska scoreless into the second quarter of play.  The Cornhuskers put up 10 second quarter points to take a 10-0 lead into the halftime locker room and it was looking like much of the same old story with the Illini, who hadn't beaten Nebraska since 1924 when Red Grange graced the Memorial Stadium sidelines.

     Perhaps there was some of the Galloping Ghost's magic on Saturday, because the Illini began to scratch and claw their way back, while at the same time, holding Nebraska to just a field goal in the second half.

     Something that I am still having a hard time understanding was Riley and his play calling down the stretch in a game that Nebraska seemingly had in control.  With just over two minutes left to play, the Cornhuskers drove into Illinois territory and forced the Illini to burn their timeouts.  At the time, Nebraska still led 13-7 and had a third down from the Illinois 27 yard line, but instead of running the ball to kill the clock, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. went to the air on successive plays, including a 4th down and 7 yards to go from the same spot.  A simple field goal would have clinched the win for the Cornhuskers, but when they went for it and didn't convert, that gave the Illini one final chance to march 73 yards with no timeouts remaining.

     Wes Lunt's first pass downfield was complete to a wide open Marchie Murdock, who brought it down inside the red zone and then Lunt went to work trying to find Geronimo Allison in the endzone. After a couple of incomplete passes, which were followed by a pair of defensive pass interference calls against Nebraska, the Illini found themselves 1st and goal from the 1 yard line, and that is when Lunt finally found Allison for the game winning score with just 10 ticks remaining on the clock.

     However, the win came at a price, as senior Josh Ferguson, who has held the Illini running game together for the most part this season, left the game in the second quarter after injuring his shoulder after a long run.  In Ferguson's place was true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had 24 carries for 98 yards.  Vaughn continues to impress and will be a breath of fresh air, especially if Ferguson misses any significant time.

     This Saturday, the Illini take to the road for the second time this season, and are hoping for a better showing this time around than when they lost at North Carolina last month.  The destination this time is Iowa City, where Illinois will battle the Iowa Hawkeyes (11:00 am CT, ESPNU).  The Illini have not played at Kinnick Stadium since 2007, coincidentally the last time that Illinois went to the Rose Bowl.  Iowa is 5-0 for the first time in a while and won a defensive battle last Saturday, knocking off #19 Wisconsin 10-6 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.  Iowa is led by their quarterback C. J. Beathard, who had a lackluster game against the Badgers, only completing 9 of 21 pass attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown, as well as an interception.  Running back Jordan Canzeri had a good game for the Hawkeyes, rushing a career-high 26 times for 125 yards, Iowa has been bringing it on defense this season, Cornerback Desmond King had two interceptions for the Hawkeyes, who are in a vitual tie atop the Big Ten's Western Division with Illinois (4-1) and Northwestern, who also is 5-0 on the season.

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team ended a mammoth road swing with a pair of tough losses this past weekend, dropping matches to Wisconsin (4 games) and Minnesota (5 games).  The Illini last played at Huff Hall back on August 29th, and since that time, have gone 8-4.  The Illini are currently 11-4 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play, and will host top-ranked Penn State on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN) and Ohio State on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV).  The match against the Nittany Lions will be the annual Illi-noise event, where the fans will attempt to break the decibel level that was set a year ago.  It will also be a welcome sight for coach Kevin Hambly and his team, who has endured a lot on this road venture.

     The Illinois womens' soccer team played one match this past weekend, and took Ohio State to overtime, where the match ended in a 1-1 tie.  According to head coach Janet Rayfield, "it was nice to get the point for the tie instead of taking the loss, but a win would have been nicer".  The Illini are currently 8-2-2 overall and 2-1-2 in Big Ten play, and will be on the road this weekend, when they travel to East Lansing, Michigan to face the Michigan State Spartans on Thursday afternoon (3:00 pm CT, No TV), before staying in Michigan to face the Wolverines on Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor (1:00 PM CT, No TV).

     That's the state of things this week in Illini Nation.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Something To Build On

     Whew, that was a close one.

     The Fighting Illini football survived a major scare, and escaped with a 27-25 win over the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee last Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and were it not for a field goal sailing wide left in the waning seconds of the game, the Illini would be 2-2 heading into conference play instead of 3-1.

     Call it luck if you wish, but there were some good things in the game, as well as some things that still need a great deal of work on.  The offense is starting to come around more and more each week, however, the receivers are still dropping a fair amount of passes, and once Justin Hardee and Mikey Dudek get back (if in fact it is this season), that problem may reverse itself.

     It's not that the receiving corps that the Illini have are not formidable, but quite the opposite.  Malik Turner is starting to make waves, and with top target Geronimo Allison firmly entrenched as quarterback Wes Lunt's go-to receiver.  Allison caught 10 passes for 128 yards in the win, while freshman Desmond Cain had his best game as an Illini, snatching up 7 balls for 48 yards.  The running game continues to get better, as both Josh Ferguson and true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn both eclipsed the 80 yard mark in rushing.  Ferguson ran the ball 20 times for 88 yards, while Vaughn had 13 carries for 80 yards, finding the endzone once.  It is a pleasant sight to see Vaughn doing so well so soon in his Illinois career, as both Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown are both lost for the season due to injuries.

     As far as the final minutes of the game went, one of Illinois' areas of concern this season has been the kicking game, but in this game you wouldn't have really known it.  Sure, Taylor Zalewski missed a 28 yard field goal in the second quarter, but it was the ones that he connected on that drew the most attention.  Zalewski kicked a 23 yarder to end the first half, then went much deeper with a 51 yard field goal with just over two minutes to go in the game to put the Illini back up 27-25.  That gave Middle Tennessee one final chance to drive down the field and win the game, but after getting into field goal range, Cody Clark missed a 43 yard attempt as time expired, giving the Illini a win that they probably shouldn't have had.

     Now that the non-conference season is over, this weekend begins the Big Ten portion of the season as the Illini welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers to Memorial Stadium on Saturday (3:00 pm CT, BTN) for the first time in nearly 30 years.  Nebraska is 2-2 thus far this season, and have been the victim of two bizarre game-ending plays.  Nebraska relies a lot on their quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who is one of the better dual threat signal callers in the league.  The Cornhuskers also have a very reputable receiver in Jordan Westerkamp.  Westerkamp is from the state of Illinois, and is one of Armstrong's main targets.  Nebraska does have a new coach this season in former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, and apparently the focus of the offense has changed from a run heavy offense to one more pass friendly.  This has drawn the ire of many Husker fans, who are used to a heavy dosage of running plays.  Regardless of what happens on Saturday, the Illini need to come out and continue the momentum and gain an edge in the conference standings, because we all know that it gets tougher from this point on.

     Throughout the Illinois women's soccer season, the Illini have fared very well, and they had a major challenge this past weekend, which they survived with flying colors.  The Illini welcomed Rutgers last Thursday night, a team that had not been scored upon to that point in the season.  Allison Stucky and Kara Marbury scored the two goals for the Illini, which broke the scoreless streak set by Rutgers and resulted in a 2-1 Illini victory.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, Maryland paid a visit to the Illinois Soccer Complex and played a thriller with the Illini, with the homestanding Illini pulling out a 2-1 victory in double overtime.  Freshman Katie Murray got the Illini on the scoreboard early against the Terrapins, scoring in the first eight minutes of the contest, but it was a long time before the Illini scored again, which proved to be the eventual game winner.  That goal was scored by senior Nicole Breece, which occurred in the second extra period.  Illini coach Janet Rayfield was happy with the win, saying "it was a lot better getting the win and 3 points rather settling for a tie and the single point".  Illinois improves to 8-2-1 overall and ups their conference mark to 2-1-1 with the victories on the weekend.  Illinois will be back in action on Friday evening when they welcome Ohio State (6:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Life on the road has been a challenge for Kevin Hambly and the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team, and it seems like forever since they have played in the cozy confines of Huff Hall.  All three of the Illinois losses have come away from Champaign, including a loss in 4 games on Wednesday evening against Wisconsin in Madison.  According to Hambly, "we didn't play very well at all than we have in the past", which led to the setback.  Still, the Illini carry an 11-3 record into action this weekend when they finally end the long drought away from home when they travel to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV). After this trip to Minnesota, the Illini will return home to play in front of the home crowd for the next couple of weekends, something I am sure that Hambly and his team is looking forward to.

     Enjoy the weekend folks, and I'll be back next week with recaps of all the action this week as well as a preview of next week's schedule.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

     After two games in the 2015 Illinois football season, people were asking about just how much improvement they had made since last season.

     This past Saturday afternoon, they pretty much got their answer.

     The Fighting Illini were roughed up in a big way, losing 48-14 to the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  But, don't let the final score fool you; Illinois had chances in this game, they just didn't execute when they needed to.

     Illinois had a chance to score early in the game, but chose to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a short field goal to take a quick lead.  According to head coach Bill Cubit, the opportunities were there, but they just didn't take advantage of them.

     "We dropped nine balls and had some penalties in situations that we couldn't have them", Cubit said at his weekly press conference on Monday about some of the reasons for the lopsided loss.

     The running game, which was suspect through the first two games of the season, showed some signs of life against the Tar Heels, as senior running back Josh Ferguson gained 133 yards on 22 carries, including a 1 yard touchdown run.  With his performance on Saturday, Ferguson eclipsed the 2000 yard mark for his Illini career, and becomes the 17th player in school history to reach that milestone.

     Aside from the dropped passes, Cubit also mentioned that there were some mental lapses that happened at inopportune times during the game, and the absence of several key players was very evident on Saturday.

      The losses of Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee really showed, as top receiver Marchie Murdock was held to just 49 yards on 7 catches by quarterback Wes Lunt, who completed 15 of 32 passes for 140 yards.  Lunt did not throw a touchdown pass on the day, but did throw an interception,

     "I'm not sure if it a mental thing with the guys who dropped passes, and there were some crucial penalties that we had when we didn't need them", Cubit added.

     The loss to the Tar Heels extends the non-conference road losing streak to eight seasons, dating back to 2007, when the Illini defeated Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

      So, what lies ahead for Illinois as the pre-conference schedule wraps up this weekend?  It really doesn't get any easier, as a high-powered Middle Tennessee State team comes into Memorial Stadium this coming Saturday (3:00 pm CT, ESPN News) to try and take down the Illini, who may have their tail between their legs after the blowout loss at North Carolina.  The Blue Raiders come into the game with the Illini at 2-1 overall, and are coming off an impressive offensive performance against Charlotte, in which they won handily 73-14.  Middle Tennessee State quarterback Brent Stockstill, who is the son of Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill, had a great day passing the ball, completing 23 of 27 passes for 369 yards and threw 5 touchdown passes.  The Blue Raiders are one of the more prolific offenses in all of the FBS division, and will give the Illini their most stern test of a team not in one of the power five conferences.

   The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their extended stay away from the cozy confines of Huff Hall this past weekend, when they played out west in the Sun Devil Invitational, hosted by Arizona State.  The Illini defeated Texas Southern in 3 straight games, and needed an additional game to dispatch UNLV 3-1.  Kevin Hambly's squad then took on the host Sun Devils, and played a tough match before falling in five games, 3-2.  The Illini will continue their road swing this coming weekend when they travel to the opposite coast to battle the Big Ten's newest teams, Maryland and Rutgers for the start of conference play.  The Illini wrapped up the non-conference portion of the season with a 9-2 record, and enter Big Ten play as the #9 ranked team in the latest AVCA rankings.  The match against Maryland on Friday night will be televised on the Big Ten Network and will begin at 6:00 pm CT.  The match against the Scarlet Knights on Saturday evening will also begin at 6:00 pm central time, but will not be televised.

     Janet Rayfield's Illinois women's soccer team opened up Big Ten play this past weekend, and it didn't start off very well for them.  On Friday evening, the Illini ttaveled to Bloomington, Indiana to battle the Hoosiers, and ended up getting a 0-0 tie.  On Sunday, the Illini made the trip up to West Lafayette to battle Purdue, and lost 3-1.  The lone Illini goal was scored by Katie Murray, which occurred in the 88th minute of action.  This week, the Illini continue their trek through the Big Ten when they return home to face Rutgers on Thursday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN).  Then, after a couple of days off, the Illini will welcome the other newcomer to the Big Ten, the Maryland Terrapins on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV).  The Illini enter play this week with a 6-2-1 overall record, but just 0-1-1 in Big Ten play.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Moving In The Right Direction

     When one looks at the scores of the first two Illinois football games thus far in the 2015 season, you would think that there is a sense of domination going on.  Well, in some way, shape or form, there is a little of that going on.  You certainly cannot argue that the Illini defense has done much better so far, winning 52-3 over Kent State and 44-0 over Western Illinois.  But then again, they defeated Kent State and Western Illinois, not your powerhouses by any means.  Still, scoring 96 points in your first two games speaks for itself, I don't care who you are playing.

     Since taking over for the fired Tim Beckman, Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit has given his team a spark of energy that can be attributed to this early power surge.  Quarterback Wes Lunt was sharp once again in the win over the Leathernecks, completing 33 of 45 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown pass to Tyler White.  The Illinois running game remains a little in question, with senior Josh Ferguson struggling a little bit.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn led the Illini with 53 yards on 15 carries, while Ferguson ran the ball 13 times for just 39 yards, but scored a touchdown.  On the receiving side of the offense, Geronimo Allison continued to impress early, catching 8 passes for 124 yards, but was held out of the endzone.  Marchie Murdock scored twice, once on a 12 yard blocked punt return for a touchdown, and the other score was a 5 yard pass from backup signal caller Chayce Crouch.  But it all points back to defense and the fact that the Illini are keeping opponents out of the endzone in impressive fashion.

     So, what will happen this weekend when the Illini take to the road for the first time this season, a test against the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill? North Carolina on Saturday (11:00 am CT, ESPN2).  The Tar Heels are 1-1 overall on the season, and after losing their opener to South Carolina, the Tar Heels rebounded nicely by defeating North Carolina A & T 53-14 last Saturday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.  Illinois hasn't fared well in non-conference road games, last winning at Syracuse in the 2007 season.  The Tar Heels are coached by Larry Fedora, who is well-known in the college coaching circles.  The Tar Heels are not known for their defense, so this has the makings of a high scoring shootout.  The defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik, is trying to re-vamp the defensive unit and get it back on track.

     North Carolina has a dual threat quarterback in Marquise Williams, who has already completed 34 of 51 passes for 443 yards and 3 touchdowns, but has also thrown 3 interceptions.  Williams has been responsible for 63 career touchdowns during his time in Chapel Hill, and is coming up on the all-time Tar Heel record of 79, set by Darian Durant back in the early 2000s.  If the Illini can somehow squeak out a victory against the Tar Heels on Saturday, they will be in good shape as they return home to conclude the non-conference portion of the season next weekend.

     The #6 ranked Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to play well early in the season, and are coming off a three match sweep this past weekend in Wichita, Kansas.  The Illini did not lose a game in three matches, taking down Kentucky, South Dakota State and Wichita State in successive fashion.  The Illini (7-1) will continue their extended road trip away from the cozy confines of Huff Hall this weekend when they travel to Tempe, Arizona to round out the non-conference portion of their season by facing Texas Southern, UNLV and the host Sun Devils of Arizona State.

     The Illini women's soccer team begins Big Ten play this weekend, when they travel east to battle Indiana and Purdue.  The Illini played one match this past weekend, as they defeated Northern Kentucky 1-0 on a free kick by Hope D'Addario.  The Illini will play the Hoosiers on Friday evening in Bloomington (6:00 pm CT), before heading north on Sunday to battle the Boilermakers in West Lafayette (12:00 pm CT).

     After three years of constant misses, it appears that Fighting Illini men's basketball coach John Groce has finally landed his coveted point guard for the 2016 recruiting class.  Te'Jon Lucas, who is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, verbally committed to the Illini on Wednesday afternoon, ending the drought of recruiting near misses.  Groce has had some misfortune with injuries as of late, losing Tracy Abrams for a second straight year, as well as incoming freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands also being sidelined with an injury.  As of right now, the only true point guard on the Illinois roster is Jaylon Tate, so a commitment by Lucas was just what the doctor ordered.  Now, to get him inked.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Sense Of Normalcy

     Somewhere, Tim Beckman must be laughing.

     In what was perhaps one of the strangest and event-filled weeks in the history of the Illinois football program, the Bill Cubit era finally was allowed to be ushered in, although even that was not easy.

     In what was supposed to be the first Friday night game in school history, Mother Nature wreaked havoc with the scheduled debut, as strong storms blew through Champaign-Urbana about 30 minutes before the scheduled 8:12 pm kickoff.

     Some speculated that it could have been a sign from Beckman, the former coach who was fired last Friday for findings in a yet to be released report, while others speculated that it was just the football gods stating their case that college football should not be played on Friday night, a day that competed with area high school football.

     Whatever you choose to believe, the result was the same, having the game postponed until Saturday afternoon at 1:00 pm.  Since the postponement took place, there was no television for the contest, but it really didn't matter, as the Illini came out of the gate to dominate the Golden Flashes of Kent State, winning handily 52-3 before a very sparsely attended game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

     Illinois wasted no time getting on the scoreboard, as Wes Lunt connected with tight end Tyler White on a 2 yard pass after forcing the Golden Flashes to punt the football.  Lunt certainly wasn't done on the day, hitting Marchie Murdock for 34 yards the very next time the Illini got the ball back.  Lunt then hit Josh Ferguson for 21 yards, then Ferguson ran the ball into the endzone from 11 yards out to give Illinois a 28-0 advantage after 1 quarter of play.

     The second quarter began just as the first one ended, as Lunt went deep once again, this time working with Geronimo Allison for 34 yards, and following a 43 yard field goal from Taylor Zalewski, the Illini held a 38-0 lead at the half, and coasted from that point on.  Lunt went back out for the first series of the third quarter, and gave the reins to redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch, who took control from there.  Crouch added a touchdown pass of his own to freshman Sam Mays, and another true freshman, Ke'Shawn Vaughn scored from 1 yard out as well.  The lone points for Kent State came via a 43 yard field goal from Shane Hynes.  All told, the Illini had 73 players see action on the field on the day, giving some of the younger players a chance to see some game action.  Illinois, who trailed in practically every game last season, did not have that luxury last season.

     So, what can be taken from this lopsided victory?  We know that Wes Lunt is a good quarterback and he showed that against Kent State, completing 11 of 16 passes for 162 yards and the four touchdowns.  We also know that the offensive and defensive lines are as strong as they have been in the past three seasons.  We also are aware that Kent State is not a very good football team, and the Illini may not get a stern test this coming week either, when they welcome the Western Illinois Leathernecks to Memorial Stadium (11:00 am CT, BTN).  Western Illinois defeated Eastern Illinois 33-5 last Thursday night, and according to Illini interim head coach Bill Cubit, the Leathernecks have one of the best front lines of anyone in the FCS division.  Given the week that the Illini had leading up to the first game of the season, a normal week is all that Cubit and his players can ask for at this point.

     The #6 ranked Illinois womens' volleyball team ventured out west for the Big 10/Pac 12 Challenge this past weekend, and came away with a split, losing to #2 Stanford  3-1, then turning around and defeating #21 Colorado 3-0.  The Illini are currently 4-1 on the young season, and will continue their lengthy road trip this weekend when they travel to Wichita, Kansas, where they will battle Kentucky, South Dakota State, and the host Shockers of Wichita State.  Match times for the weekend are Friday at 1:00 pm CT (Kentucky), and a pair of matches on Saturday at 11:00 am CT (South Dakota State) and 8:00 pm CT (Wichita State).

     Illini womens' soccer is also off to a strong start, led by their marquee player, Janelle Flaws, who continues to score goals each weekend it seems.  This past Friday night, the Illini suffered their first defeat of the season losing 2-1 to the host Washington Huskies in the Huskie Nike Invitational in Seattle, Washington.  Kara Marbury scored the lone goal for the Illini, while Flaws assisted on the carom.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Illini defeated the Portland Pilots 1-0, as Flaws scored the only goal of the match in the 81st minute on a penalty kick.  The goal was Flaws' 8th of the season.  This coming weekend, the Illini will wrap up the non-conference portion of their schedule when they welcome Northern Kentucky to the Illinois Soccer Stadium on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT).  Illinois is currently 5-1 on the season.

I'm ready for a normal week of Illinois coverage.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

     Normally in my weekly blog entry I go around the campus with the different Illini sports that happen to be going on at that particular time.

     This is not one of those times.

     This entry is a special edition, based solely on the events surrounding Friday afternoon when everything in the football program took an unexpected turn with the sudden dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman.

     I had gone out for a walk at lunchtime like I normally do, and when I came back in, I checked my email like always, but on this day, something grabbed my attention in my inbox.  At first I thought it was a joke that someone was playing, but as soon as I saw who it was from and started reading the body of the email, I quickly realized that it was no joke and that this was really happening.

     In the email press release, it stated that Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas had dismissed Beckman for what he called findings within the program that essentially led to Thomas making this decision.  It was no secret that the athletic department had been under scrutiny for the past few months when it was alleged that coaches in the football, women's basketball and women's soccer programs had mistreated players either mentally, or  not disclosed injuries or didn't treat players in a manner that was beneficial to their rehabilitation.

     The first such claim came from former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who claimed that Beckman forced him back from an injury earlier than expected, and that surgery that he received was not consistent with what he needed.  At first, when these claims surfaced, people in the media thought it was just a case of a former player waging a battle against Beckman, and using social media as his platform.  But, these recent findings gives the situation a bit more credence, and who knows where this will lead.

     Beckman amassed a 12-25 record at Illinois in his three seasons at Illinois, but went just 4-20 in the Big Ten with one bowl appearance, the 2014 Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  However, Thomas insisted on Friday that the removal of the coach had nothing to do with on-the-field activity, but instead based on the findings of the preliminary report.  Thomas would not go into any further detail about it, either.

     Thomas named offensive coordinator Bill Cubit interim head coach for the 2015 season, with a base salary of $515,000 and an increase of $100,000 each month until the end of the football season.  Cubit has been a head coach before at Western Michigan, where he compiled a 51-47 record.  Ironically, it was Cubit who Beckman defeated in his first game coached at Illinois, a 24-7 win on September 1, 2012.

     Cubit is much more media friendly, and seems to know what he is doing, judging from the way the offense has looked over the past couple of seasons.  But a rash of injuries to key players such as Mikey Dudek, Dre Brown, Justin Hardee and Reggie Corbin over the past few months has severely depleted the depth that Illinois expected to have as this season began.

     The timing of Thomas' move was especially bad, given that the Illini begin play this coming Friday night against Kent State (8:00 pm, BTN), but Thomas stated that it was better to make the move now before the full report with the findings were publicly released.

     With all of the scrutiny that the University has been experiencing lately, with the chancellor first resigning, then being basically dismissed, followed by the provost stepping down from his position as well, things do not appear to be on solid ground.

     Many have suggested that Thomas be the next to be shown the door, but he has claimed that it will be his duty to hire the next football coach after the current season comes to a close.  When Thomas as hired, he came in right away and fired Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law within a span of four months, and this hire would be his second, which many in Illini Nation do not want to see happen.

     So, how did we get in this mess in the first place?  Beckman has never been what you call "media savvy", and his constant missteps in front of the microphone have led to ridicule nationwide.  His callout of media back in February about being more positive towards the program rubbed some the wrong way, but our job in the media is to report the facts as they are, not be a cheerleader for the coach or a staff.

     So, enough about Beckman, he is no longer the coach, and it is time for Coach Cubit to lead this program, at least for the forseeable future.  This year can go one of two ways:  either the Illini rally around their new coach and return to a bowl game, or they will continue down the current path, which will ultimately lead to a new staff and a fresh start once again.

     Whatever outcome plays out, one thing is clear, it will be an interesting journey.

Monday, August 24, 2015

     Finally, some good news to report concerning Illinois sports,

     In a summer that has seen much turmoil and disappointment in Illinois athletics, it was a breath of fresh air to finally see something positive play out.

     On Monday afternoon, something that was long overdue finally came to fruition, the basketball court at State Farm Center being named in honor of Lou Henson.  Henson, who coached the Illini from 1975 until 1996, remains a legend in Champaign, and now he has the honor of the court to go along with it.

     Henson, who has been battling health problems the past few months, was in attendance at the event, which was held inside the 77 Club at Memorial Stadium.  With State Farm Center renovations still ongoing and not ready yet, the most logical venue was across the street in a facility named for another Illini great, Red Grange.  Henson wore a mask and rubber gloves upon entering the room, but once he was announced, he took them off and addressed the crowd in attendance,

     This was not a normal press conference, but instead a celebration to honor Henson and his wife Mary, who split time between Champaign and Las Cruces, Nevada, where coincidentally, Henson also has a court named in his honor.  Due to his health concerns, he cut the celebration short and was due to go to a treatment shortly after his visit with family and friends.  There will be an official ceremony the night that State Farm Center reopens for 2015-16, when Notre Dame will pay a visit to Champaign in the Big 10/ACC Challenge,  The court, which will also be used in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center for the first five games while State Farm Center finishes its makeover, will be moved and unveiled on December 2nd, the evening of the Notre Dame game.

     A fitting honor for a great man, and it is wonderful to finally see it happening, and even better that he gets to see it happen in person.

     Camp Rantoul wrapped up for the Fighting Illini football team, and the injury bug keeps on biting Tim Beckman's team.  If the recent injuries of the past few weeks were not enough to give Beckman grey hairs, the loss of freshman running back Reggie Corbin will certainly cause the silver to fly.  Corbin was probably a good choice to redshirt anyway this season, but another running back down means that the depth at the position is even thinner than before.  So much that Beckman has been employing cornerback V'Angelo Bentley in the backfield on certain formations.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn is back to full contact, and has looked fairly confident in early workouts.  The offensive line was a major question mark the past couple of seasons, but some stability and added depth has given the position a much needed boost.

    With senior Ted Karras returning from an injury to anchor the line, the Illini will look to players such as Joe Spencer, Christian DiLauro and Chris Boles to step up their game and provide protection for quarterback Wes Lunt.  A true freshman, Gabe Megginson, could see action this season, but the coaching staff would prefer to redshirt him and get him even stronger for next season.

     The receiving corps have looked good as well thus far, particularly two true freshmen, Sam Mays and Desmond Cain.  Mays, who could pass for an identical twin of Geronimo Allison from the outside, can move very well, and Cain, who is a bit smaller, could provide the extra punch that the Illini need to do some damage to opposing defenses.

     Speaking of Lunt, he will need to stay upright this season if the Illini have any chance of repeating their bowl appearance of a year ago.  Lunt, who has had a history of injuries dating back to his days at Rochester High School, has the arm strength to play at the next level, and with several weapons at his disposal, could have a breakout season if he can remain in action all season long.  Plus, if Lunt does happen to go down with an injury, the backup situation is not the best, with Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. waiting in the wings.  Both Crouch and George have never taken a snap in a college game, so the experience factor is not strong.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has begun their season, and are off to a good start on the young campaign.  The Illini defeated Oakland 4-1 this past Friday night, behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  Flaws also assisted on another score, and is showing why she is a force to be reckoned with this season.  On Sunday afternoon, the Illini traveled to Normal to face Illinois State and came away with a 1-0 victory on a goal by Reagan Robishaw.  Flaws also assisted on that goal, giving Janet Rayfield's team an early 2-0 start to the season.  The Illini will be back in action this coming weekend, when they welcome TCU to the Illini soccer complex on Friday evening and then will take on St. Louis Sunday evening.  Both games are slated for a 7:00 pm CT start.

     Next week, I will look at the defense and special teams as the season opener draws closer.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

     So, how was your summer?

     I can venture a guess that it was somewhat better than what the University of Illinois experienced over the past few months, most notably the athletic program.

     It has been a tumultuous summer for Illinois and several of its programs, and the hits just, as they say, keep on comin'.

     Let's rewind back to early June where the Fighting Illini baseball team was making history by advancing to the Super Regional of the NCAA Tournament and a series win over defending champion Vanderbilt would have given the Illini their first ever trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

     But instead of taking pride in that accomplishment, which they did, the word began to break about mistreatment of injuries within the Illinois football program, stemming from former Illini lineman Simon Cvijanovic.  In Cvijanovic's claims, he stated that the medical staff misdiagnosed an injury, and actually went in and did something that they were not instructed to do, or so he claims.  When news of this broke, suddenly several former teammates of Cvijanovic's came forward to issue similar claims.

     This is not the news that Illinois football coach Tim Beckman needed for his program, which begins its fourth season with Beckman in command.  Illinois is already dealing with several injuries to key players as it is, especially sophomore sensation Mikey Dudek, who sustained an ACL injury during spring workouts.  Dudek, who garnered all-Big Ten freshmen honors last season, set the freshman record at Illinois for receiving yards, and was expected to be a key component for Beckman and the Illini as they looked to capitalizing on last year's bowl appearance in Dallas.

     Beckman has seen the Illini win total increase from 2 to 4 to 6 in his 3 years in Champaign, but to make that jump on the scale to the next level, which is 8, will take some major undertaking, and also a whole lot of luck.  With the likes of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Champaign this season, the Illini need to get out to a quick start in the non-conference portion of the schedule before the Big Ten season starts in earnest with the Cornhuskers visit.

     As if the football allegations were not enough, about a week or so later, news broke regarding alleged racial bias and verbal abuse within the Fighting Illini women's basketball program.  These claims led to assistant coach Mike Divilbiss being terminated, apparently a mutual agreement between he and the university, and raised even more questions into the program and their head coach Matt Bollant.

      Bollant, who had a very successful run at Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to Illinois 3 years ago, has not seen the success that he envisioned in coming to Champaign, and apparently, it was Divilbiss that may have been the wedge into this problem.  The claims led to several current and former players getting together and filing a lawsuit, which this past week was found to not be credible by the attorney handling the case.  The players still remaining on the team leave for an overseas trip this week and will look for some time away to regroup as a team and get back to basics.

     The news continued to get worse for the Illinois sports landscape a couple weeks ago when it was announced that senior-to-be Tracy Abrams sustained an achilles injury in a non-contact drill in practice preparing for their overseas trip and will miss yet another season for the Illini.  Head coach John Groce seems beside himself over several injuries to key players, and Groce, who will enter his fourth season as coach of Illinois, begins a pivotal season that could either make or break his future at Illinois.

     It has been no secret that Groce has had some difficulty landing a point guard for the 2015-16 season, and the loss of Abrams magnifies that void tenfold.  Also dealing with injuries are freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who was one of Groce's marquee recruiting gets since he has been at Illinois, and Darius Paul, who has had issues of his own since he has been an Illini.  However, a bit of good news on that front happened Saturday, when Groce received word that fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis announced that he will play at Illinois this upcoming season.  Lewis, who last played at LaSalle, is not a flashy player, but he is a another body, and a point guard that Groce sorely needs right now.  

     As if all of this wasn't enough for a summer, earlier this week came perhaps the most shocking announcement of them all.  University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she is resigning from her position, effective Wednesday, August 12th.  This came as a complete shock to many at the university, and with the recent scandals within the athletic department and also around campus with various hiring practices, Wise seems to have had enough.  More information is still coming out regarding this latest debacle, and this may not bode well for athletic director Mike Thomas, who reports to the Chancellor.

     New university president Timothy Killeen, who accepted Wise's resignation, may have had some factor into the decision, and who knows where this will lead in the next couple of months.  Killeen has said that he could have an interim chancellor named within the week, and if that person doesn't have strong athletic ties or a keen interest in sports, things could get very interesting around campus in the next few months, especially with the major revenue sports.  Stay tuned.

     Back to football for a minute if I may.  The Fighting Illini have begun fall training camp with the first three days closed to the public in Champaign.  The Illini will move to Rantoul for the next two weeks of training camp on the former Chanute Air Force Base, where all of the practices will be open to the public.  So, if you are wanting to check out Tim Beckman and the Illini, Camp Rantoul will be the place to be starting Sunday, August 9th.  A full schedule of practices can be found at and clicking on the football link.  Over the next couple of weeks, I will be previewing the Illinois season by groups, culminating with an expanded look at the season leading up to the home opener, which is set for 8:00 pm CT on Friday, September 4th against Kent State.

     Yes folks, Fighting Illini football is back, and if anyone needs some good news right now, it is coach Beckman and the Illini.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Uncharted Waters

     What a season this has been for the spring sports teams at the University of Illinois.  From the historic season that the baseball team is having, to both the mens tennis and golf teams once again achieving elite status in the NCAA Tournament, it truly has been an enjoyable few months on campus.  Well, almost, but more of that later after the good news.

     Heading into the 2015 baseball season, there was some kind of a sense that this Illinois team would be better than in past years, mainly due to a stellar pitching staff combined with a veteran lineup that has been together for a few years.  They have not disappointed in either category this season thus far, as they have compiled a 45-6-1 record to date, including a 21-1 Big Ten mark and a school record 26 straight wins dating back to April.  Much of the success during this record-setting streak can be attributed to the starting pitching of Kevin Duchene, Drasen Johnson and John Kravetz, not to mention the exceptional relief pitcher in Tyler Jay.  After a rainout last Friday evening, the Illini welcomed Rutgers to Illinois Field for a Saturday morning/early afternoon doubleheader, and once again, the Illini did not disappoint, sweeping the Scarlet Knights 5-4 and 6-2.  Highlighting the afternoon as hitting stars was catcher Jason Goldstein and outfielder Casey Fletcher, who continued their good hitting on the season.  Former Big Ten player of the week David Kerian was also instrumental in the sweep, as was brothers Ryne and Reid Roper.  In the series finale on Sunday, nobody expected to see what they did.  After Illinois fell behind on two separate occasions by 4 runs, Dan Hartleb's squad exploded for an 11 run eighth inning to destroy Rutgers 28-13, the most runs scored by an Illini team since the 2004 season (a 32-0 win).  The Illini continued their homestand to close out the regular season by hosting Nebraska in what amounted to a pair of games.  The final game of the series against the Cornhuskers was finally called due to rain on Saturday afternoon.  Four innings were played before the rain came and eventually amounted in a cancelled game.  Illinois will begin the Big Ten Tournament as the top seed and will face eighth seeded Nebraska on Wednesday evening at 5:00 pm from Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  All signs point toward Illinois hosting an NCAA regional, which would be next weekend at Illinois Field in Champaign.

     Mike Small and the Illinois mens golf team is also having a spectacular season, and are fresh off a tie for the regional crown at the Sagamore Club in Noblesville, Indiana last weekend.  The quintet of Nick Hardy, Thomas Detry, Brian Campbell, Dylan Meyer and Charlie Danielson finished four under par, which was good for a first place showing alongside SMU.  Illinois, who needed to finish in the top 6 to ensure themselves a spot in the NCAA field, did much better than that in bringing home the hardware.  The NCAA championships will be held May 29th - June 3rd at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida.

     Not to be outdone was the mens tennis team, who qualified for the NCAA team championships by winning their own regional over both Louisville and Drake.  Unfortunately for coach Brad Dancer, the dream of a national title fell short as they were defeated in the semifinal round by North Carolina in Waco, Texas.  The Illini were seeded #4, but were upended by the #13 Tar Heels, thus ending their season a bit prematurely.  The Illini return a nucleus of players back next season, so the prospects of an Illinois team making a return trip to the tournament seems very likely.

     Just four short seasons ago, the University of Illinois mens track and field team was in a downward spiral and had just lost Tonja Buford-Bailey, who took her talent south to the University of Texas.  Buford-Bailey, who was the Illini womens coach, also helped out with the mens team, and her absence was thought to be a huge loss.  But Mike Turk has turned this program around and this past weekend, captured the Big Ten title in East Lansing.  This win by the track team has capped off an unbelievable spring sports season, boasting four conference championships.  The track team is led by senior D. J. Zahn, who won an individual title in the 400m.  The NCAA Championships will be held in Eugene, Oregon, with the West Prelims to be staged May 28-30 in Austin, Texas.

     As much good news with all of the success of the spring sports teams comes with some not so good news, dealing primarily with the football and women's basketball teams.  Last week it was revealed by former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic that there was some mistreatment in the medical staff, specifically dealing with his injury that ultimately ended his season.  Cvijanovic broke the story last Sunday via Twitter, and since his allegations, there have been several other former players come forward with similar concerns.  There is an ongoing investigation into the matter to determine whether or not there were any rules broken.  Then, exactly a week later, it was reported that several families of former Illinois womens basketball players have accused head coach Matt Bollant and other assistant coaches of misconduct as it pertains to injuries.  Taylor Tuck, Amarah Coleman and Taylor Gleason are the main focus in this particular investigation.  As a result, assistant coach Mike Divilbiss has mutually agreed to part ways from the program, and effectively resigned as a result.  These two instances are casting a very encompassing shadow on a very bright sports season.  Who knows what will happen with either of these situations, or who is right or wrong?  One thing is clear however, in that this will probably not go away any time soon.  Stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Forward!

     What a spring it is shaping up to be on the University of Illinois campus.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to an historic start to the season, compiling a 31-6-1 record, good for a #11 ranking in the country. Stellar pitching, timely hitting, and an exceptional relief pitcher have combined to give the Illini record crowds at Illinois Field this season  Starters Kevin Duchene and Drasen Johnson have anchored a pitching staff that is one of the best in the Big Ten conference, if not the nation, while Adam Walton, Casey Fletcher and brothers Reid and Ryne Roper have given the pitchers quite a bit of run support.  However, the crown jewel of the Illini would have to be closer Tyler Jay, who almost assuredly will be a first round draft choice in the next draft.  Jay has compiled a miniscule 0.71 ERA in 38 innings this season with 43 strikeouts.  Jay is that rare player that can finish a game with zest, but also be called upon to start or go in long relief if needed.  The Illini will host Eastern Illinois on Tuesday evening (6:00 pm CT) before embarking on a stretch of games that will take them away from Illinois Field for the next two weekends.  The Illini will continue Big Ten play this coming weekend when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions.

     After an auspicious start to the season, Terri Sullivan's Illinois women's softball team has turned around their season by winning nine out of their last 10 games, and currently have a 21-22 record on the season, with a 10-5 conference mark,  A lot of that success lately can be attributed to the pitching of Jade Vecvanags, who has compiled a 15-9 record.  Also helping the cause has been Alyssa Gunther and Allie Bauch, who both are hitting near the .400 mark.  The Illini defeated Wisconsin 12-8 and 5-3 on Saturday, and will play a mid-week conference doubleheader on Wednesday when they travel to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats ( 2:00 pm, BTN).

     Injuries have been the name of the game for Tim Beckman and the Fighting Illini football team during spring workouts, with two of their top players that were expected to contribute out for the forseeable future.  Freshman Mike Dudek, who had a record-setting first season for Illinois last season, sustained an ACL injury in a non-contact drill and will be sidelined at least through October.  To add further insult to injury, early enrollee Dre Brown, who figured to get quite a bit of work behind senior Josh Ferguson this fall, also was lost to an ACL tear, but on Saturday at the annual Spring game, Beckman stated that it might not be as serious as your typical ACL injury.  Still, an injury is an injury and it was not something that Beckman had bargained for.  Due to the amount of players out for the Spring game, special rules were put in place for the game.  First of all, the White team, which was comprised primarily of backup players, was given a 17-0 lead out of the gate, and when the Orange team, mostly starters, came back and led 27-17 at the half, the White team was given 17 additional points.

     Due to the shortage of players at several key positions, some of the defensive linemen donned blue jerseys and played on both sides of the ball.  Beckman can ill afford to lose any more players, because depth is an issue at several spots, and although there are a few players coming in the fall that will help alleviate the gap, it is still a concern,

     ?Obviously it was tough to lose Mikey and Dre, but with the guys we have coming in the fall, we should be fine.  Injuries are just a part of the game, and although we lost both players on non-contact drills, we never considered cancelling the game for any reason", Beckman said after the Spring game on Saturday.  The Illini will resume workouts later this summer with their annual trek to Camp Rantoul.  Illinois will kick off the regular season on Friday night, September 4th under the lights at Memorial Stadium against the Golden Flashes of  Kent State University.

     Finally, even though the Fighting Illini men's basketball season ended on a very discouraging note, all hope is certainly not lost.  Head coach John Groce had never experienced a collapse like the one his team embarked on at the end of the season, and one knew that changes were coming as a result.  Sure enough, Austin Colbert, who was beginning to come on at the end of the season, announced last week that he would be transferring out of the program.  However, this past weekend, Groce received a commitment from Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, who can come and play immediately.  Thorne brings a strong inside game to the Illini that should replace Nnanna Egwu adequately.  Groce still is in search of a point guard, and is still very much in the running for Marcus Lovett from Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, or possible another fifth year transfer in guard Dylan Ennis of Villanova.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

     Welcome to the postseason, or as Illinois head coach John Groce calls it, the "third season".  The Fighting Ilini completed the regular season ths past Saturday and although they could have used a win to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, the opposite result happened, as they dropped a 63-58 decision to the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.  The Illini finished the regular season with a 19-12 record overall, with a 9-9 Big Ten mark.  The game started out very well for the Illini, as they jumped out to a quick 15-2 lead before Purdue knew what hit them.  Illinois kept up that intensity for the majority of the first half, only to see the Boilermakers close the gap to 26-21 at the half.  In the second half, Purdue took over, as they dominated early and often in the second stanza to get a double digit lead of their own.  Illinois made one last gasp at the end of the game, but it was a little too late, and they couldn't catch the Boilermakers.  A win would have given the Illini 10 conference wins, but more importantly, the 7th seed in this week's Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.  Instead, the Illini find themselves in a familiar spot, the 8th seed, and will face an opponent that they know all too well, Michigan (11:00 am CT Thursday, BTN).  Illinois and Michigan split their two games this season, with the Wolverines winning in overtime 73-65 in Ann Arbor on December 30th, and the Illini returning the favor on February 12th in Chamnpaign 64-52, also in overtime.  This will be the rubber match between the two schools, with a quarterfinal date with top-seeded Wisconsin awaiting the winner on Friday morning.  It has been an interesting season for Groce's Illini team, with all of the injuries and other off the court issues plaguing the team this season.  Michigan has had a tough season of their own, currently sitting at 15-15 overall, and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  The Wolverines have been beset with injuries as well, losing two of their more prolific scorers, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. for the remainder of the season.  Illinois cannot stand to make an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament if they want to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.  Even a win over the Wolverines doesn't guarantee a berth, but if everything falls right, it could still be a possibility.  Illinois is 0-1 at their home away from home, the United Center, losing earlier in the year to Oregon 77-70.

     With March upon us, it will soon be time for spring football.  Illinois coach Tim Beckman begins his fourth season as the head man in Champaign, and this should be his deepest team in his tenure.  The Illini finished the 2014 season with a 6-7 record, losing to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  Quite a few players return on defense for the Illini, which was a little better last season than the year before.  Beckman has stressed that depth is still an issue at several key positions, and that has been addressed further by more junior college transfers.  With the coaching staff still not complete, Beckman has filled one of the positions by hiring Mike Phair, who formerly coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair brings with him some credibility with working with defensive players, and will give Tim Banks some flexibility as he becomes co-coordinator with Phair.  Spring workouts begim on Saturday, March 14th, and will culminate with the annual spring game on Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm.

     On the topic of football, the University of Illinois announced on Monday that the first home game of the 2015 season has been switched to Friday night, September 4th instead of the following day.  Game time has yet to be announced, but expect it to be in the 7-8 pm time frame.  Even though this will interfere with high school games that evening, Beckman still thinks that this is a good idea.  Only time will tell if they made the right decision.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to their best start in a long time, and have stormed out to a 12-3 record and ranked #19 in this week's poll.  A lot of the early season success can be attributed to the pitching staff of Drasen Johnson, Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay.  The Illini won a series this past weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and returned home on Tuesday afternoon for their home opener against Chicago State, a game that they also won by a score of 7-3.  The Illini will keep the homestand going this weekend when they begin a three game series against the Salukis of Southern Illinois.

     The Fighting Illini women's softball team has started off their season on a not-so-good note, currently with an 8-15 record.  The Illini finished off a 1-4 trip to Los Angeles, California this past weekend, losing to UC-Davis, Providence, and #13 UCLA in the process.  The Illini will begin Big Ten play next weekend at Eichelberger Field in Champaign against Minnesota, with games beginning at 5:30 pm on Friday, 1:00 pm on Saturday, and noon on Sunday.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Stretch Run

     Welcome to "Crunch Time", that point in the college basketball season when teams jockey for position to either better themselves for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, or give their all in just missing out on the big dance.

     The 2014-15 Fighting Illini basketball season will go down as one that has had a lot of twists and turns, as well as ups and downs.  First of all, before the season even started, head coach John Groce found himself without two of his key players that he hoped would contribute to the success of the team.  Tracy Abrams tore his ACL and was lost for the season, and Darius Paul found himself in some legal trouble for off the court incidents and was dismissed from the team.  Abrams is set to return for the 2015-16 season after taking a medical redshirt, while Paul also plans on returning to Illinois after transferring and playing at a junior college in Texas this season.  Injuries have been the name of the game this season, and when senior Rayvonte Rice went out just after the first of the year after fracturing his non-shooting hand in a practice drill.  Then, to make matters worse, Aaron Cosby, the transfer from Seton Hall, sustained an eye injury against Indiana and was lost for a few games as well.  Both Rice and Cosby were then suspended by Groce for a violation of team rules, and while Rice has since been reinstated, Cosby has not and has been advised by Groce to take some time away from basketball to work on some things. It was announced on Friday afternoon at Groce's press conference previewing Michigan State that Cosby and the Illini have parted ways.  Apparently it was a mutual decision while the Illini work on finishing the season and Cosby will transfer to another school once he finishes up his degree this semester.  Got all of that?

     So, Rice was out a total of 9 games, and in that span, the Illini went 6-3 without him, much better than anyone anticipated.  During that span, Illinois defeated Maryland at home and went on the road to defeat Michigan State.  The win over the Spartans was especially gratifying because it gave the Illini some extra momentum on an already three game winning streak, plus added a quality win to their NCAA resume.  Even though the Illini lost at Wisconsin last Sunday 68-49, they still are in good position to make the NCAA Tourney provided that they can hold serve at home, and maybe steal one on the road for good measure.

     Standing in the way will be the Spartans, who make the return trip to Champaign on Sunday evening to play the Illini (6:30 pm CT, BTN).  It seems that the Illini woke Michigan State up with their defeat in East Lansing because since that game, the Spartans have played much better and are once again resembling a Tom Izzo coached team.  The Illini are 17-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten, and still are in the mix of the logjam that is the middle of the pack in the conference race.  With the Big Ten Tournament just 3 weeks away, there still is a lot to play for, and in order to stay out of the bottom four of the league and have to play on Wednesday, the Illini need to finish strong.

     The Illini women's basketball team has struggled mightily as of late, and not because of a lack of talent, but for some unfortunate circumstances in which they have lost games by a close margin.  After upsetting Ohio State last week, the Illini ventured out to Piscataway, New Jersey to battle Rutgers for the first time ever, and came away with an 80-56 loss, their worst loss in the last 5 games.  The Illini are now 13-14 overall on the season, but just 4-11 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Purdue on Saturday for their final regular season road contest.  The Illini will end the season at home for the final two games before heading up to Hoffman Estates to the Sears Centre for the women's Big Ten Tournament the first weekend in March.

     Finally, closing this week's blog with some football news.  Quarterback Aaron Bailey, who was determined to play the position at Illinois and after several chances to move to another position where he would see action on the field, has decided to transfer to another school to finish out his eligibility.  Bailey was the backup to both Lunt and O'Toole this past season, and after O'Toole graduated, Lunt will undoubtedly be the starting quarterback once spring workouts begin next month.  Redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch may be named the backup and Bailey, who didn't wish to switch positions to see the field, is better suited going elsewhere.  Also, Tim Beckman hired a co-defensive coordinator in Mike Phair, who has a coaching resume primarily in the NFL, the last of which was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair will coach the defensive line, a spot vacated when Greg Colby was fired last month.