Monday, October 27, 2008

Opportunity Lost

The Illini played ok on Saturday. It's an every-other-week thing right now. Sometimes they are on, energy is high and the opponents better look out. The next week, they are flat and make mistakes that cost the game. And Coach Zook is not happy about it.

The Illini have shown so much promise at times this season. And we saw glimpses of greatness on Saturday. Especially from Brit Miller. He recorded 16 tackles, including 13 solo tackles, 2 stops for a loss and 3 pass breakups (one that was nearly an interception). Juice also showcased his ability to move the Illini down the field, with his wide receivers making plays. He passed for 221 yards, well below his average, but the Illini had every opportunity to maintain control. Hoomanawanui had a spectacular one-handed catch. Benn made great plays, as expected.

But the Illini have also shown so much disappointment, mostly in the form of mistakes that allowed opportunities to slip past the Illini. Juice has improved overall this year, but not so much on Saturday. Three interceptions was more than the Illini could recover from. And so many penalties...

But give the cornered Badgers credit. Vast improvement by Wisconsin QB Dustin Sherer in his second start resulted in quite a few clutch plays that kept them alive. Their defense made plays, and their offense took advantage. This may have been a "mercy victory" as one Badger fan told me, but Bret and his team fought hard for it.

The Illini had opportunity, but couldn't capitalize. As the team endures a tough week of practice, as promised by their coach, let's hope they show fire against the Hawkeyes next week...



Saturday, October 25, 2008

Badger Preview

As the Illini head to Madison, high expectations for Juice and his offense have been re-established after their performance last week against Indiana. But they need to be on their game.

The Badgers are wounded. They are 0-4 in the Big Ten. That's hard to believe. And to think they may actually be 0-5? Not without a fight. The Badgers will show up to defend their home turf. They may have fallen to a weak Michigan team and an uncertain Iowa team on the road, but they had Penn State and Ohio State back-to-back at home. Obviously they are looking to avoid a repeat of those performances as they welcome the Illini for their homecoming.

I look forward to seeing which team Coach Zook brings to Camp Randall. If the team that played at the Big House shows up, we will have lots to cheer. But if the team that played the Gophers shows up, it could be a long afternoon. The Illini have managed to handle Hill and Beckum in the past, but this year's defense will have to work hard to repeat that success. Juice will need to continue directing an explosive offense with few mistakes.

It should be a good game...Go Illini!



On the Court

The Illini are wrapping up a great week on the court...the volleyball court. I finally have something positive to say about the Big Ten Network: I appreciated getting to watch collegiate volleyball -- particularly the Illini.

The Illini swept Purdue on Wednesday night in a great match, and it was fun to watch. The Illini also notched a win against Wisconsin at home, and finished off the week by taking the match at Michigan State in 3 sets.

I saw a lot to appreciate in the Illini play -- solid defense, great hitting and some beautiful kills. But there were plenty of competitive volleys on both sides. And now I need to remember to watch the broadcast schedule for BTN. I'd love to catch another Illini game.

Go Illini!



Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Orange Out

The #19 Illini women's volleyball team will host #18 Purdue Wednesday at Huff Hall. The "Orange Out" game will be broadcast on BTN, giving lots more of us a chance to see two of the Big Ten's five top-25 teams in action. The Boilermakers and Illini are tied for third in the Big Ten.

Should be a great game, with a beautiful orange background. Go Illini!



Monday, October 20, 2008

That's More Like It

The Illini looked like a different team this weekend when they welcomed the Hoosiers into town. Beyond the orange jerseys, they needed about two plays to get points on the board. And that was just the beginning.

Of course, Indiana is having a tough year, and starting QB Kellen Lewis stayed home, but it was encouraging to see the Illini look more like the team that went to Ann Arbor than the team that played the Gophers.

One highlight -- the Illini running game is looking stronger all the time. Jason Ford was given the chance to start, and he made the most of it, with 172 yards and 3 TDs. Daniel Dufrene has pleasantly surprised many, and with Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard, Zook has choices in the running game.

Juice continued to put up impressive numbers, and the Illini offense rolled. Even special teams got involved, with A.J. Jenkins returning a kickoff 96 yards for the final TD. Beyond A.J.'s nice moves, the final downfield block was fun to watch once or twice.

So now the Illini need to focus this week to get ready to face the struggling Badgers in Madison...



Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Top-Ranked Illini Up to Par

The Illini men's golf team claimed the #1 ranking in the Golfstat computer rankings last week. For those who don't follow college golf, Golfstat is the primary rankings used to determine placement in the NCAA Regionals in May. The Illini followed that honor with their third-straight tournament win, the first time they've had a winning streak like that since now-Coach Mike Small was on the team.
The Illini have one more fall tournament before a couple-month winter break, but the signature win this year was the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational, where the Illini beat national contenders, including Oklahoma State, ranked #1 in the college Golfweek polls.
While there's plenty of golf to play this spring, Coach Small has built the type of program you would expect from the 2007 Low PGA Club Professional.
Go Illini!

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Monday, October 13, 2008

So this is how Minnesota fans handle winning

I debated about whether to even respond to the comments some of the Gopher faithful made to my last post. I think I was actually misunderstood so I thought I'd write to correct the record and provide some additional comments.

Minnesota played a very good football game Saturday and deserved to win. They have a very good team and Brewster appears poised to take them far. However, I don't think I can be convinced that Minnesota has more talent than Illinois at this point, which makes this an even worse loss for us and the reason I was expecting a win. We lost because we didn't want the game as bad as Minnesota did and we made way too many dumb mistakes. This isn't whining. It's not an excuse. It's the truth and the reason we lost.

Minnesota fans may disagree with me but if they do it actually diminishes the win for them. It's a pretty big deal to beat a team when you are overmatched, which is what happened Saturday.

As to the classlessness, I revise my earlier comments to say that there was poor sportsmanship on both sides of the ball. However, I just watched the game tape. There is a difference between playing hard and playing dirty. The Gophers did both.

Juice was hit after he was out of bounds (by about two feet). Some of those penalties where the player gets hit out of bounds are questionable but in this one, Hightower showed absolutely no hint of even trying to slow down.

As for the Van De Steeg incident, he actually threw it down on Benn first (when Benn didn't have the ball and wasn't even close to where the play was being made). Benn retaliated when he probably should have walked away and that's when Van De Steeg clearly threw a punch at Benn. I love the Minnesota fan who justifies this by saying they all had full pads on so punching is ok. I'm sure folks would feel the same way if Brit Miller clocked their quarterback or best receiver. Last I checked they're playing football, not boxing.

And apparently the Big Ten likes to reward bad behavior because it named Van De Steeg co-defensive player of the week. Brilliant.

The Gopher faithful who read this may say I'm whining but I still believe it's honorable to play with class. I like to respect the teams that beat the ones I root for but I won't do that if they play dirty.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Laying an Egg and Classlessness

This was a tough Ron Zook-like loss. We win big one week and then turn around and are completely unfocused and lose the next. It reminds me of last year when we beat Penn State and Wisconsin and then travelled to Iowa City and laid an egg. By the way, I'm not sure I want to whoop it up too much that Michigan lost to Toledo today because that loss sure seems to take some of the shine off our performance in Ann Arbor last weekend, even though we beat them handily.

Today we had stupid mistakes early that cost us momentum and I didn't think it looked like we wanted it as bad as Minnesota did, either. We were not crisp and were outplayed by a team we clearly should have handled. It wasn't a gimme win but we should have won.

As for my feelings about the folks on the opposite sideline, this was obviously a big game for Tim Brewster coming back to play against his alma mater. If I recall correctly, Brewster was on Ron Guenther's short list for the head coaching vacancy at Illinois a couple years back. However, Guenther chose Ron Zook over Brewster so it wouldn't surprise me if Brewster wanted this one to show Guenther and the Illini Nation what he can do as a coach.

Call me unimpressed, despite the win.


The punch Gopher DE William Van De Steeg threw at Benn (ESPN showed it on replay plenty of times) and the late hit out of bounds on Juice. That kind of garbage as no place in the game. And of course the irony is that when Van De Steeg put the hit on Juice late in the game that caused the interception, Mr. Van De Steeg shouldn't have still been allowed on the field in the first place.

Despite this, Illinois should have been better prepared for this game, more focused on the field and come away with the win today. Let's hope we do better against Indiana next week.

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Welcome Home, Tim

Dear Tim,
As a proud Illini alum yourself, you know how we take pride in welcoming distiguished Illini back to campus. I hope you appreciate all that the Illini gave you today:

We would have appreciated it if you, like most honored alums, willingly gave back as generously as you were given. Like a TD instead of that goal-line stand. That would have been nice. Or a little more room for Juice in general. Or maybe you should have just asked for the Illini to honor your return with a top-notch performance, instead of just focusing on getting the most out of your team.

I'm sure you noticed that campus and Memorial Stadium have both changed quite a bit since you were there. But excitement for Illini football is running high, much like it was in your day. And, as much as it hurts to admit it, your Gophers played really well, and the Illini looked like the team we saw against Louisiana-Lafayette instead of the team that played Michigan last week. (By the way, as an alum and a Big Ten coach, can you help but smile at their home loss to Toledo? Althought that does make things look worse for Bret in Madison...but I digress.)

On the somewhat brighter side for your alma mater, you got an up-close look at how quickly their offense can put points on the board. And in the 4th quarter, you saw a couple great pass coverage plays, and a beautiful forced fumble as well.

Anyway, congratulations on your return to Champaign. Just don't expect this treatment in the future.

Alma Mater



Friday, October 10, 2008

Remember When?

Remember when, even though the record looked bleak, there was a spark of hope in the football program? Remember when we watched a new coach limp through a season, and then uncover great performances after he'd been around for a year? Remember when we were waiting for the Illini to "turn the corner"?

I hope you do remember -- it hasn't been that long. The Illini were 2-10 in 2006, under 2nd-year coach Ron Zook. That second win, though -- that was at Michigan State on a beautiful September day. The Illini got off to a great start, and led going into the 4th quarter, but the Spartans battled back. But a field goal with just seconds left gave the Illini their first Big Ten win since 2004. The Illini made news because they tried to plant the team flag in the center of the field, creating an "altercation" between teams. And what a feeling that was...hope that the Illini football future looked bright... Especially when, just 15 month later, the Fighting Illini were in Pasadena...

Why do I bring that up now? Because the Golden Gophers, under 2nd-year coach Tim Brewster, are about at that spot today. They are coming off their first Big Ten win under their new coach, and after going 4-0 in non-conference play, there is a spark of hope (maybe even a small flame) for the future of Minnesota football. Granted, those 4 Ws came against teams like Bowling Green and Northern Illinois, but after losing to Bolwing Green in 2007, a win is a definite improvement. And the Big Ten win was against Indiana, another struggling Big Ten team. But it was still a win. The Gophers are hopeing for more -- a signature road win that, no matter what else happens in 2008 -- proves that better days are ahead.

And the Gophers will be looking for that in Memorial Stadium this weekend. While it's unlikely that they will find it, the Illini can't take this game for granted. While Brewster may not have the high-profile experience Zook brought to Illinois, he is working hard to build a program. Zook has his team where they need to be, 3-2 heading into a couple "softer" Big Ten games at home, Minnesota and Indiana. No question the Illini should dominate here, but they can't look past this game or next week's battle against Indiana to the Wisconsin game that follows.

Take care of business at home. Welcome the alumni back with a W. Work on improving the defense. Work on protecting the football. Work on winning, no matter who is on the field.

Go Illini!



Monday, October 06, 2008

By the Numbers...

...a great way to see how the Illini took a step in defining themselves on Saturday:

The Illini offense is clicking on all cylinders, the defense is improving (gotta like a goal-line stand at the 6" line, even if they eventually converted on 4th and 1 or so) and the Big Ten race is looking tighter all the time...

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hey Tupper...It's Just a Coincidence

So I checked Tupper's blog this morning because he always has good insights on the game and find...he has the exact same headline as my post last night ("Big Win in the Big House"). Seeing as how we posted at about the same time (Tupper went live at 8:28 p.m. CDT and I went live at 8:47 p.m. CDT) hopefully he believes me that I didn't copy's just a coincidence!


Saturday, October 04, 2008

Big Win in the Big House

We needed this one today, seeing as how we still have to play at Wisconsin. And as I write this, the Badgers are giving Ohio State all they can handle in Madison.

Anyway, I hope to write more later but my initial observations:

1. Juice is awesome. He's putting the offense and the team on his shoulders. The 50-yard run was the dagger and showed why he's probably going to be in contention for the Heisman next season.

2. The defense is driving me crazy. I thought at the beginning of the year our D-line was supposed to be top notch. They've shown themselves to be anything but. Can someone explain this to me? And this says nothing of the secondary. It's going to be a long game in Camp Randall in a couple weeks if these guys don't figure out how to cover the deep ball.

3. The TV coverage drove me nuts. I lost count at how many times the announcers threw out excuses for Michigan's poor play. It seemed to me that it took until Illinois finally put the game away for them to start giving Illinois the props we deserve. And could they have cut away to anymore shots of Coach Rich?

4. Which leads me to: From what I observed from his demeanor on the sideline, he's the perfect fit for the Wolverines in the tradition of previous coaches: always seems angry.


Big House = Big Game

I've been a bit slow this week, trying to move past my visit to Wrigley on Thursday. The weather was beautiful, the company was fabulous, the seats were incredible (second row of the left-field bleacher), and I didn't have to watch the replays of the errors. Other than the game, it was a great night.

But as the Cubbies fade into their traditional post-season form, the Illini are still defining who they will be this year. We know a few things:
  1. The offense is exciting and very talented.
  2. The defense needs to work on the basics.
  3. The Illini schedule isn't as friendly as it was last year, with both Penn State and Wisconsin on the road.
  4. I've been to Pasadena to see 1-loss USC play, and while I look forward to going back, I'd love to visit Florida or San Antonio about a week after Christmas, just to see what it's like that time of year...

And I think that this week we will learn a lot -- like just how good the offense is and if the defense can learn to consistently stand up the opposing team. Michigan all of a sudden looks really good after their comeback at home against the Badgers last week. But they are still getting to know Rich and their new system. They are quickly improving, as you would expect any team with a coach of that caliber to do, but the Illini are better than many people think.

I must admit that those College Game Day guys really do know what they are talking about. They correctly pointed out -- as did one of our readers -- that the Illini losses are against top teams. Mizzou is at #4 this year, and looking to roll at Nebraska today, and #6 Penn State can practice their road skills against Purdue's weak defense. At the end of the day, our losses will probably look pretty good. And, Lee and Kirk made the point that Juice, Benn and company averaged 33 points in those losses. They picked the Illini this morning, and while their picks mean little, it was nice to get national recognition for what they've done so far this season.

Today's game at Ann Arbor is a big deal for both teams. Michigan has the opportunity to prove they are making real progress or that the second half of last week's game was a blip to preview what may be coming in the next few years. And Illinois can prove that they really do compete against top 10 teams -- and beat everybody else. This game is a big question mark in the Illinois schedule, and a win here would show that Zook's boys are establishing themselves as consistent Big Ten contenders.

There's no question that the Illini are capable of beating the Wolverines. They've shown they can compete on the road in a crazy stadium. The Illini just need to limit mistakes, and take nothing for granted.

Go Illini!



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