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.

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.