Sunday, September 30, 2007
The Real Deal
- Rejus Benn. He is explosive, exciting and actually living up to (or exceeding?) the high expectations set for him. I look forward to cheering for him on Sundays in the not-too-distant future, but for now, let's keep getting him the ball. Although the opening kick return was impressive and exciting, I most appreciated the multiple broken tackles after receptions.
- J Leman. A leader, determined to win, he made the difference in one late drive by Penn State, ending it with his first career interception. Our defense allows big plays, but they have managed to make critical red zone stands that make all the difference. And Leman is the heart of the defense.
- Turnovers. The Illini still have their share, and Juice could certainly improve in accuracy. But they are capitalizing on turnovers recovered by the Illini defense.
- Special teams. After dreading punts, field goals, and other special teams plays for a couple years, it's exciting to see these units make plays more often than not.
- QB options. Juice Williams is exciting to watch, but having a reliable option to bring in, even in key situations, is very reassuring.
Best of all, we already have the upset I was looking for to get us headed toward bowl eligibility. With the Big Ten beating up on each other, we have a legitimate chance in almost every game on our schedule. Wisconsin struggled against Michigan State, Indiana beat Iowa in Iowa City, and Northwestern led Michigan for much of the game. Our schedule looks a lot better now than it did last spring.
"I will not be denied"
Illinois football is back, baby! And now the question is, just how good is this team?
We will find out a lot next Saturday against Wisconsin. I certainly didn't expect us to win yesterday. As a matter of fact, I didn't expect us to win any of the games in this stretch against Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa or Michigan.
But the factor I didn't take into account is that three out of four of them are at home. Penn State is a good football team so my thinking is the sky's the limit on this season.
It's great to have awesome talent on the field again. And I will enjoy this fall to its fullest because I have a feeling the hoops program is going in the opposite direction.
As for the QB "controversy," I think Zook needs to start Juice next weekend. He showed great progress with his passing in the first half yesterday and if he can adjust as Wisconsin adjusts, it'll be even more progress. Give the guy the start but use McGee if you need to.
What do you think?
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Speaking of colors, has the plywood wall at Memorial Stadium been painted yet? It looked hideous on TV.
Juice/Michael Robinson comparisons and Zook on Joe Pa
I can see Supinie's point. However, I'm still not convinced we can hang with and have a chance to beat Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan or even Iowa in Iowa City unless Juice's completion percentage starts to go up.
I'm not asking for Peyton Manning. All Juice has to do is complete about 5-6 more passes a game and it'll make a huge difference. Steady improvement should be the goal and so far that's been happening. The offense is already clicking much better than last year. Once Juice and his class become upperclassmen I think we'll really notice a difference.
Anyway, Supinie also has some quotes from Zook on Joe Pa. My favorite:
Zook doesn’t expect to hang in there as long as the 80-year-old Paterno.
“I just hope I’m living at 80,” Zook said.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
However, I do believe cancer awareness is a worthy cause, and one that deserves support. Although my first reaction to the plan for Illini Madness was a bit uncertain, I respect this effort, and would wear the pink shirt for Illini Madness. After all, this is a "family" event, and as the Illini nation, this is an appropriate venue to make a strong statement in support of Coaches vs. Cancer. All the attendees will be cheering for the 2007-08 Fighting Illini team, and I trust that potential recruits will be impressed by our support for a worthy cause.
But, I ask those planning to attend Illini Madness to leave the pink shirt at home when it comes to actual games. Orange is the only appropriate color for Assembly Hall when another team is visiting, although blue is acceptable. But unless Orange Crush is using pink to mock opponents, the pink shirt should be relegated to class, random errands, household chores, etc., especially if it is as ugly as she claims.
Illinois: 1-0 (3-1)
I agree with Mark Tupper's assessment of Juice. The kid is talented, and he has an incredible arm. He can throw the football, but can he pass? In Tupper's words:
"I love the kid, especially his toughness and the dilemma he presents defenses while running the option. But when it comes time to throw the ball downfield, it's still an uncertain adventure, and Saturday was no exception. He missed two wide-open touchdown chances (one to Joe Morgan, one to Brian Gamble), and there will come a time when those failed chances will cost Illinois a game.
"I realize he's not a finished product, and he did make two excellent throws over the middle to Rejus Benn on one Illini touchdown drive. He also had a couple of drops, but those shouldn't affect his other throws."
The offense was a bit sloppy, and the Illini are -3 in turnover margin. Better than last year, but even though the Big Ten is a weak conference this year, we need to protect the ball better against higher quality opponents -- like Penn State and Wisconsin.
The defense did lots of really good things, and Leman leads the Big Ten in tackles, with 11 more than Penn State's Dan Connor. They racked up 7 sacks, contained Thigpen and Hardy, and capitalized on the Hoosiers many mistakes. However, Indiana did seem to be able to move down the field fairly almost at will much of the game, and Illinois is 10th in the Conference in Red Zone defense. Indiana hurt themselves with penalties and turnovers that gave Leman & co. the energy to make a stand. The defense showed that it "would bend but not break" as Brian Barnhart said almost constantly during the radio broadcast. That worked well against Indiana and what appeared to be a very weak Syracuse team (congrats to the Orange on their upset of Louisville! Makes me feel much better about our decisive win), and I would expect similar results against Minnesota and Northwestern. But I think they will need to step it up a notch for the stronger Big Ten teams.
The most dramatic improvement over last year, in my opinion, is on special teams. I felt less inclined to wince every time we punted, and the blocked Indiana punt was a huge plus.
Dare the Illini start thinking Bowl? We only need 3 wins to be eligible. Penn State and Wisconsin would be huge upsets, and Iowa on the road won't be easy. Zook and his staff will have a wide variety of film to figure out how to beat Michigan, although the Wolverines are improving. Ball State should be a W for homecoming, but I'm a bit nervous since they nearly upset Nebraska in Lincoln. Minnesota is struggling, so that is a realistic place to win on the road. Ohio State at the Horseshoe will be very, very tough, but we finish the season with Northwestern at home (the team that let Duke beat them in Evanston -- did you know Duke had a football team?). We should be able to get at least 3 of those games, with a realistic chance for an upset in nearly-sold-out Memorial Stadium. My biggest concern is the attitude of this young team. The next couple weeks will be hard, but if they can remember how to win, we have a shot...Go Illini!
Monday, September 24, 2007
UPDATE: Mendenhall was named Big Ten Player of the Week. Will Davis was named co-Defensive Player of the Week. Click here for the release from the Big Ten.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
1. Great win on the road! Should do a lot to help change the culture of losing and build confidence. (BTW, I'm glad we beat IU on the gridiron because I'm a lot less confident of our chances on the hardwood.)
2. Our defense just rocks the house. J Leman and V. Davis are studs, even though V got beat for a TD...he made up for it later in the game with the IT. I thought he was gonna go out of his mind when he got beat. It's nice to see guys get really upset when they're scored on.
4. Can we please hire Peyton Manning to come over to Champaign and teach Juice how to hit his receivers? I know some of the drops weren't his fault but if he were to execute the passing game like he does the option, we'll really be dangerous.
5. Big Ten Network. Totally see Alma Mater's point below but disagree. Sports TV is a huge business and this is all about money. I would say now that BTN has Direct TV and Dish, the heat really is on Comcast to pony up. If they offer something like the Tennis Channel, they should offer BTN.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Well, Comcast, one major cable carrier in the heart of Big Ten country who is still "negotiating" with the BTN, has taken note. They have launched their own campaign, saying that the BTN should be a choice -- rather than making everyone pay for it. The ad I saw reminded me of a political campaign.
I am disappointed in the BTN. I used to be able to watch most games on a local channel. Now, even if I make an effort to see a game, I have no guarantee that I will be able to hear or see it. But I am irritated by the campaigning from my cable carrier, too. I appreciate their spin on the network to back their position, but I'm disgusted with both sides. I just want to watch football (and basketball).
Labels: Big Ten Network
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Off topic: Why Delaware won't play Delaware State
In any case, shout-out to Jeff Pearlman for this piece on why the University of Delaware won't play Delaware State in football. Hint: it may have to do with skin color.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Jerrance Howard new assistant
What remains to be seen is if this will give the program the boost it needs in the recruiting department.
Although I like Jerrance and know he's loyal, I wonder if he's old enough to have the recruiting connections he needs. And of course there is still the question of Weber's ability to close the deal.
Memo to Notre Dame recruits: Charlie Weis will throw a fit if you decide to transfer
All former Irish QB Demetrius Jones wants to do is transfer to Northern Illinois.
Who can blaim him?
He lost his starting job to this guy under, according to Jones, some not-so-cool circumstances.
The Irish are 0-3.
They have no offensive touchdowns through three weeks.
They are stuck at the top (or bottom depending on how you look at it) of ESPN's Bottom 10.
And the list goes on....
Probably not the best time for Charlie Weis to be treating is players, I mean former players, like dirt. But that's ok.
All those guys Notre Dame is trying to recruit can come to Illinois and play for someone who understands his players.
Monday, September 17, 2007
From what I heard and saw, the Illini were able to move the ball nearly at will, and the defense held the Orange most of the game. According to radio color announcer Kurt Kittner, the first two scores for 'Cuse were linked directly to Illini mistakes. And since he was on the field the last time the Illini were a respectable football team, I guess I'll take his word for it.
The Illini are in good shape headed into conference play. A near-win against a very good power conference team, a shut-out against Western, and a convincing performance against a weak power conference team. Bring on Indiana, Minnesota (struggling in non-conference play) and Northwestern (who lost to Duke at home -- did you know Duke had a football team?). We should be able play with Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan (who apparently can play defense when the O-line is non-existant) at Memorial Stadium. Iowa and Ohio State on the road will be a challenge, but add Ball State for Homecoming, and a .500 season is a real possibility.
Let's keep the team healthy, and get ready for Big Ten football!
Labels: Illini football
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Given the defensive and offensive ratings of the Orangemen, the Illini should have a strong chance to win today. But it is a road game, and we have lots of inexperience. But I'm still drinking Zook's orange koolaid, so a W is entirely possible. And the game is on ESPN-U, a channel I know I can find...
Labels: Illini football
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Monday, September 10, 2007
SI.com on the state of Illini hoops
Where we were.
Where we are.
Where we could be going.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Big Ten Network
However, Skinny Sweetcheeks and I have Direct TV so we get all the overflow channels
and we couldn't be more pleased. Although some of the reporting on Friday Night Tailgate is a little goofy, they've got the right idea about what this fan is looking for. And being able to watch every single Big Ten game on Saturday is heaven.
I was also encouraged Dish Network picked it up recently as well but the uncertainty past 2008 is a little less encouraging, especially if you live outside Big Ten Country.
Big Ten Network Disappoints
It was an effort to make sure I could watch this game, and I didn't see much. Let me just say that, so far, I am unimpressed with the Big Ten Network.
But at least the Illini won!
Labels: Big Ten Network
Friday, September 07, 2007
The Illini should win this home opener, but no team can be taken for granted, as Appalachian State and Bowling Green reminded the Big Ten last week. Coach Zook has made it clear that he is ready for a win, and so is the Illini Nation.
After one game, the Illini lead the Big Ten in with 316 passing yards, yet they place last in rushing at 119 yards. Interesting stats for an offensive coordinator tagged one of the "rising stars" among Big Ten assistants. Mike Locksley has a great chance to build his coaching resume with the talent on the Illini roster this season. With Juice and McGee both able to run the offense, and Benn leading the receivers, we should be able to score.
There are a lot of questions, of course, (turnovers, special teams, etc.) but the most important one in my mind is: What nearby establishments carry the Big Ten Network? I would like to watch the game.
Darius Miller (Webster's project) to UK
"Yeah Coach Webster was a big part of it. He recruited me the most at Illinois and when he decided to come to Kentucky that really helped. He is a great guy and I like him a lot."
As I've said before, the assistant opening for the Illinois hoops program is a great opportunity to bring in a powerhouse recruiter. I just wish Webster didn't leave since it's pretty obvious he was the best recruiter on staff.
Again, it goes without saying that this is a pivotal time for the hoops program. I hope a top-notch recruiter can right the ship but Weber has to land him first.
And even if he does, I don't think my biggest fear is unreasonable: Webster was getting recruits interested in Illinois and Weber couldn't close the deal. Therefore Webster left for greener pastures to avoid a meltdown.
If true, Illinois needs a recruiter who can close. Otherwise, mail it in...we're done.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Webster leaves...time to make a big-time hire
Tracy Webster is joining Billy Clyde at Kentucky. Great get for UK. Webster has awesome ties to Chicago, is close with Darius Miller (who I would assume is now going to UK) and was the lead recruiter for Jereme Richmond .
Now it's time for Weber to go out and get a big-time recruiter. I would suggest taking into account relationship to the Chicago Public League coaches.
I will go as far as to say this decision could make or break Weber's tenure at Illinois. He makes a slam dunk hire, we are back in business. He whiffs and the program will not survive. Not with Self, Gillispie and Sampson choking off our talent pool.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Season Opening Thoughts
Mizzou was coming off a bowl appearance and believe they can take the (relatively soft) Big 12 North this year. They are on the rise under head coach Gary Pinkel. The Illini, on the other hand, have won a grand total of 4 games in 2 years under Zook. We now have talent, a touch of experience, and have generated excitement in Champaign. But according to ESPN's Pat Forde, both teams are underachievers.
The stats all stacked up for a Tigers victory, but the Illini gave them a run for their money. I started watching during the third quarter, with Illinois down 37-13, and Juice on the sidelines due to a hard hit to the head. I was depressed. Then I watched an impressive comeback, led by back-up QB Eddie McGee, a redshirt freshman. Before I knew it, the score was 37-34. (Note: This is NOT an ideal time to be told you can’t watch the rest of the game.) The Illini had a final drive and were within 23 yards of the winning TD, but an interception by Mizzou on the 1-yard line with under a minute to go gave the Illini the loss.
Based on what I saw/heard, the Illini had every opportunity to either be completely humiliated or win the game. Given those choices, I am glad we landed somewhere in the middle since we couldn't secure the win. There isn't much shame in a close loss to a solid Big 12 team (compared to a school from the division formerly known as 1AA, for example). I'm guessing that many will say that we are past the point of moral victories, but given how bad this could have been, I see promise for the season (and I really want something to be optimistic about right now).
Highlights and lowlights:
- The defense allowed 40 points -- that's a lot
- But as the offense mounted a comeback, they held the Tigers to a field goal
- J Leman had a monster game, leading the nation with 20 tackles, including 10 solos and 1.5 for losses
- Special teams looked better than last year at times, with a blocked punt returned for a TD and no rugby-style punts
- But special teams also allowed a blocked extra point
- The offense was fun to watch, and I saw one impressive reception by Benn
- We have a reliable backup for Juice; Eddie made his share of mistakes (turnovers), but he also helped us stay in the game with a great TD pass to capitalize on a Mizzou turnover
- Next week is an ideal opportunity to build confidence, but we can't take a W for granted, as Appalachian State, Bowling Green and others have reminded us
Labels: Illini football
Time to stop the bleeding
Bruce Weber is a fantastic basketball coach. You don’t lead a team to the national championship game without being good at the x’s and o’s. Nor can you get there without great players. Weber had both. Hence his success.
However, since the title game against North Carolina, if there is anything else conceivable that could have gone wrong, I’m not sure what it is. Even though much of what has happened can’t be pinned completely on Weber, it’s time for Ron Guenther to step in and stop the bleeding. This program can still be successful with Weber at the helm but there needs to be a few course corrections in order to get there.
The biggest issue is recruiting. Many of the misses aren’t Weber’s fault. But that doesn’t change the reality that Illinois is two years removed from an appearance in the national championship game, an event that should have propelled the program’s recruiting ability into the upper echelon of programs nationwide.
Therefore it’s not unreasonable, in the wake of the magical 04-05 season, for fans and the university administration (of which Ron Guenther is a part) to expect Illinois to be in competition for the Big Ten title most every year and within striking distance of the Final Four every few years.
However, this is not the case.
It’s important to give a coach the benefit of the doubt. So I’ll use the premise that Weber did all he could with the Eric Gordon situation. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s consequences are extremely damaging.
Therefore, recruiting for the ‘08 class is a true measure of Weber’s capability in this area and so far the results are borderline disastrous as almost all of Illinois’ top targets, even those from within the state, have decided to play elsewhere. Two of them (one a legacy) are even headed out to Oregon.
Illinois’ current and future rosters consist of a hodgepodge of three-star recruits and JUCO players. Some of these players may turn out to do pretty well for Illinois but they are not the top flight players who don’t need insurance policies that Illinois should be getting.
Therefore, it’s not unreasonable, especially given the talent other Big Ten programs like Michigan State and Ohio State are bringing in, to expect Illinois to finish somewhere near the middle of the Big Ten pack the next few years. At a bare minimum we cannot expect Big Ten title runs year in and year out and the occasional Final Four, which, in this fan’s opinion, should be expected given the recent title run.
So what to do? It is time for Ron Guenther to step in and hire a Jimmy Collins-type recruiting assistant for the basketball program. This is the only way to stop the current bleeding.
It doesn’t matter if the current situation isn’t completely Weber’s fault. It doesn’t even matter if it was mostly out of his control. There is no more room for error. Without a course correction and a drastic improvement in recruiting the Illinois basketball program is going to be fighting to stay in the middle of the Big Ten standings year in and year out.
This should not be acceptable to anyone. Not to the fans. Not to the coaches. Not to the university administration. No one. Especially given the recent success of the program.
And, the ultimate success of the program should be laid at the feet of Guenther, who should have been aware of Weber’s recruiting contacts and prowess when he was hired. If he wasn’t, there is a problem with the athletic director.
Speculation time: Will this happen? I doubt it. My impression could be wrong and I would be happy if it is but both men don’t exactly seem to be open to change. Again, I hope I’m wrong.
Which leads me to the next situation: Jamar Smith.
Jamar Smith was convicted of a felony. I realize he has apologized for what he did but that doesn’t change the fact that Weber and Guenther were the ones fighting to have someone convicted of a felony stay on the team, even if he does have to redshirt a year. Therefore, what makes Illinois any different than the Miami Hurricane football teams of the 80’s or Bob Huggins’ Cincinnati basketball teams?
If this kind of publicity doesn’t make them wince, they must not care about the image of the university. I’d be awfully surprised if fans aren’t getting tired of seeing national headlines like this.
I realize all situations are different and sometimes folks deserve a second chance but this is a poor precedent to set for the university and the students, not only because of the DUI but because Jamar Smith is underage. I cannot think of an absolutely worse standard to set for a state university where it’s already difficult to control the booze flow, especially among those who are underage, than to let a high-profile athlete who is under 21 stay on the team after he commits a DUI.
The message this sends to students and student athletes is there are no consequences for their actions and as an alum I’m disgusted by it. Unfortunately this is the latest in a long string of problems our players have had with the law and until a tougher standard is employed, I’m afraid it won’t be the last.
In conclusion, it’s time for Ron Guenther to make a very serious mid-course correction in the Illinois basketball program and hire a recruiter who will close the Illinois border and bring the state’s best players to Champaign.
Guenther and Weber should also rethink their policy for Jamar Smith or at least toughen their policies in the future.
The ultimate success of Illinois basketball hinges on these two issues.