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.