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, 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.