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 21, 2016

Back To The Drawing Board

     Nobody said that this was going to be easy.

     With the Lovie Smith era now three games old, the Fighting Illini are feeling the effects of a lackluster past couple of seasons of recruiting, and the results on the field have been less than desirable for Illini Nation.

     The latest setback was a 34-10 defeat at the hands of Western Michigan this past Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and with the loss a week earlier to North Carolina added in there, the fan base in Champaign is getting mightly restless.

     Illinois watched the Broncos jump out to a 21-0 lead before Wes Lunt unveiled a little trickery, finding Ainslie Johnson down the sidelines for a 56-yard touchdown catch.  It was one of the few bright spots on the afternoon, in which a MAC team won in Champaign for the first time in recent memory.

     Western Michigan has quite a bit of talent, and with a depleted Illini offensive line due to some injuties, the Broncos controlled the flow of the game.  Corey Davis, who is one of the best wide receivers in college football, was held in check by the Illini, only catching four passes for 97 yards.

     Speaking of the offensive line, injuries to Gabe Megginson and Austin Schmidt has left a thin line scrambling for depth, and although both Schmidt and Megginson expect to be back for the Illini's next game, their health remains a concern.

     Illinois has a bye this week, and according to many of the players , it couldn't come at a better time./  Normally, you want a chance at redemption after a tough loss like the Illini sustained against the Broncos on Saturday, but with the disconnect going on within the team, they need a chance to regroup.
     Illinois will use the week off to get the linemen healthy, as well as figure out where the running game has gone.  Since the first game against Murray State, the Illini running backs have been bottled up, and that can mainly be attributed to two factors:  1) the opponent, an FCS school and 2) poor offensive line production with second-stringers forced to play early minutes.

     Illinois will next take the field on Saturday, October 1st when they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Nebraska will no doubt have revenge on their minds after losing in Champaign last season.

     The Illini women's soccer team began Big Ten play this past weekend. and came up on the short end of a pair of matches.  Last Thursday, the Illini welcomed the Purdue Boilermakers to Champaign, and Purdue won 2-0.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Illini and Indiana went toe-to-toe, with the Hoosiers coming away with a 1-0 victory in overtime.  With the losses, the Illini fall to 3-7 overall and 0-2 in conference play, and will take to the road this coming weekend, as they travel to the easternmost parts of the conference, first taking on Maryland on Thursday (6:00 pm CT, BTN), before heading to Piscataway, New Jersey to battle Rutgers on Sunday (12:00 noon, no TV).

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team has had their share of ups and downs so far this season, and last weekend was one of the ups, as they traveled to St. Louis to compete in the Billiken Invitational.  The Illini won all three matches, not losing an entire game, as they defeated Omaha, Murray State and St. Louis by 3-0 scores.  On Wednesday night, the Illini began Big Ten play at Purdue, and went the distance against the #10th ranked Boilermakers, upsetting them in 5 games.  The Illini lost the first set 25-21, then bounced back in the second and third games, winning 25-20 and 25-23.  Illinois lost the fourth set 27-25, and then took the fifth and final game, 15-11.  With the win, the Illini improve to 8-4 overall and 1-0 in Big Ten play, and will return to Huff Hall for the first time in nearly three weeks, when they welcome the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.  Match time on Saturday will be 7:00 pm central time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Off And Running with Lovie

     The Fighting Illini football team has begun the Lovie Smith era, and after two weeks, the results are a mixed bag of sorts.  On the positive side of things, the Illini did what they needed to do in beating an under-sized Murray State team 52-3 in the opener at Memorial Stadium.  The focus then shifted to the big game under the lights in prime time against North Carolina, a team that had steamrolled the Illini a year ago in Chapel Hill 48-14.

     Trying to capture some momentum that they had acquired in the win over the Racers, Illinois wanted to impress the sold out crowd with a strong performance against a team that had lost a tough game in the first week of the season to Georgia.

     The game started out really well for the Illini, as Ke'Shawn Vaughn took the third play from scrimmage on their first possession of the game, 65 yards to the house for a touchdown.  The assembled crowd was up for grabs, and after the Tar Heels tied the game a few minutes later, the Illini went up 14-7, and things were beginning to look up.

     However, a costly fumble by Illinois signal caller Wes Lunt gave Carolina the ball with great field position, and they capitalized on the gaffe, scoring and then eventually going ahead for good.

     Lunt realized his error, but there were other mistakes, such as dropped passes and penalties, that ultimately did the Illini in.

     "The atmosphere was great, the fourth phase (the fans) were awesome, but what it boiled down to was that we are not quite ready for prime time yet", Smith said following the game on the eventual outcome.

     For Illinois (1-1) to effectively right this ship that has been circling in murky waters for a few years now, they need to cut down on the unforced errors, and Smith agrees.  It is clear that the Illini are still not on the level of the Ohio States, Michigans and Michigan States, and it is evident that Lovie deserves a chance to work his magic and bring in his own level of players.

     Illinois will get another chance to redeem themselves, as they welcome the Broncos of Western Michigan to Memorial Stadium this coming Saturday (3:00 pm CT, ESPNNEWS).  The Broncos are coming off a 70-21 dismantling of North Carolina Central last Saturday in Kalamazoo, and feature a high-powered offense similar to the Tar Heels.  Led by head coach P. J. Fleck, the Broncos come in to the game with the Illini at 2-0 on the season, and have a win over Northwestern on their resume.  The Broncos defeated the Wildcats 22-21 two weeks ago in Evanston, and Fleck, who was a candidate to replace the fired Bill Cubit last season at Illinois, is one of the most sought after coaches around right now.  Ironically, Cubit, who coached at Western Michigan before coming to Champaign, was coach of the Broncos when they defeated the Illini back in 2008 in Detroit.  For the Illini to come out on top against Western Michigan, they will need to step up the offense, as well as neutralizing some of the more costly errors that they have been guilty of in the past few games dating back to last season.

     After a 3-0 start to the season, Janet Rayfield's Illinois womens' soccer team has run aground on some hard times, losing 5 of the last 6 games to fall to 3-5 on the season.  The Illini were defeated 1-0 by Miami (Ohio) last Friday night, but broke their five game skid by defeating Evansville 1-0 on Sunday.  Illinois will begin conference play on Thursday night, when they welcome Purdue to the Illinois Soccer Complex (7:00 pm CT).  Then, on Sunday, the Illini will entertain Indiana in an afternoon matinee (1:00 pm CT).

      Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini womens' volleyball team will continue their play away from Huff Hall when they travel to St. Louis this weekend to battle Omaha on Friday (4:30 pm CT), then match up with Murray State on Saturday morning (10:00 am CT) and the host St. Louis Billikens on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT).  The Illini fared pretty well this past weekend, as they went 2-1 on the weekend, losing to Oregon 3-0, then coming back to beat both Belmont and St. Mary's (Cal.) by that same score.  The volleyball team currently stands at 4-4 on the season.

     With basketball season on the horizon, Illinois mens' coach John Groce already has endured a bit of bad news, as his sophomore guard Jalen Coleman-Lands will miss the first few weeks of workouts due to a broken bone in his hand.  This is all that Groce needs, after enduring one of the most unlucky seasons for injuries in recent memory.  Coleman-Lands was hurt during the early part of last season as well, but recovered to post some good numbers in his freshman season.  Here's hoping the news is as good this time around as well.