Sunday, November 23, 2008
It's always disappointing to see a team fail to reach their potential, and Illini football fans had a front row seat for that this year. There were bright spots -- especially the emergence of the wide recievers and the win in Ann Arbor. It will be interesting to see what will happen next year.
But the end of the football season depressed me, so let's move on. The Illini women's soccer team fell to North Carolina in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, but the volleyball team won at home on senior night (barely) to secure at least a tie for third place in the Big Ten. Men's golf finisted the fall portion of the season at #6 in the nation.
And Bruce and his boys are off to a surprisingly promising start. The Jackson State game today was a stat-stuffer, with the Illini shooting over 60% during the competitive part of the game. Mike Davis didn't miss a basket in the first half. The Illini are making free throws. Most baskets come with an assist. The biggest lapse for the Illini was the offensive rebounds they allowed Jackson State to secure, and that will become a bigger issue as the competition gets tougher. But early on, there's lots of promise for a better-than-average season. So let's move on..
Saturday, November 22, 2008
What's on the Line?
Today will be the last time the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk will be awarded, as Northwestern and the Illini agreed to retire the trophy after this year. In my opinion, this isn't as intense a rivalry as others in the Illini sports tradition. Mizzou and Indiana on the basketball court. Michigan just because they are Mighigan. Iowa anywhere, especially if you are from the western side of Illinois...NU isn't as high on my list. But the reason for retiring the trophy? That's what annoys me. Maybe the new trophy can be called Lincoln's Nose or the Cornfield Cup...any other suggestions?
Anyway, the game. The Wildcats have been surprising this season, and the Illini have been disappointing. And yet, because of the loyalty of Illini fans and the $$ we are willing to spend, a win today could give us a place to go over the holidays.
The challenge for the Illini hasn't changed this season. Minimize mistakes (turnovers, penalties) and captialize on the big plays that Juice and his recievers can make. The Wildcats have 23 seniors (including RB Tyrell Sutton) playing for the opportunity to have led just the 5th team in school history to have a 9-win season. Should be an entertaining game.
Labels: Illini football
Thursday, November 20, 2008
That would be team free throw stats for the Illini in a 69-63 win over Vanderbilt. In Nashville.
That's right, 100% free throw shooting from the Illini. That's a big change. And it looked even better compared to the Commodores, who were 13-for-21 at the line.
The Illini used 18 assists, 37 rebounds and a 13-1 run in the middle of the second half to hold on in a tight game against a young, aggressive Vandy team. And they made free throws down the stretch. Demetri McCamey had a great game with 23 points, and Mike Davis added 11 points and 12 rebounds for his second double-double in 2 games. Not bad.
We still have a lot to learn about this team, but Vandy was the first significant competition the Illini have faced to date. They didn't lose a game in Nashville last season. So this was a good confidence-builder for the Illini. It's early, but perhaps things are looking up... And this win comes the day after the Illini women beat Mizzou to go to 3-0 on their young season. Go Illini!
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
So just who are the 2008-2009 Fighting Illini? First, the starters:
1 - Trent Meacham, redshirt senior. A local guy who went to Dayton before transferring home to Illinois, Trent is a shooter. He is off to a solid start so far,but as the competition gets more serious, Trent will need to find his shot under pressure.
3 - Chester Frazier, senior. Yes, this is Chester's last season. At point guard over the last couple years, Chester has tried to duplicate the energy of Dee Brown, and while he's not quite there, you can appreciate his effort. He has a tendancy to get out of control, but he can rebound better than most guards and aggressively go to the basket.
24 - Mike Davis, sophomore. In this young season, Mike has earned a starting spot over Calvin Brock. His athleticism was on full display against Texas A&M-CC, with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
32 - Demetri McCamey, sophomore. Last year he showed what he was capable of when he scored 31 points against Indiana. Let's hope he develops into a consistent threat this season.
54 - Mike Tisdale, sophomore. The tall, lanky center from small-town Illinois has a bit more meat on his bones this year, which he will need once the conference season starts.
Then there are guys we expect to see quite a bit of over the course of the season:
13 - Jeff Jordan, sophomore. Jeff walked on to the team last year, and was rumored to be the most athletic guy on the team. The thing is, when he's on the court, the camera usually spends equal time on his dad, if he happens to be in the stands. And though the stats may not match, there may be a bit of a family resemblence...
23 - Dominique Keller, junior. A juco transfer, Dominique came to help the Illini build their strength under the basket. He was ranked #18 among junior college players by Rivals.com, and fans can look forward to seeing what he can do in D-1.
25 - Calvin Brock, redshirt senior. Calvin has experience and potential that should make him a key contributor in his final season. He has been inconsistent, which may be part of the reason he's coming off the bench right now, but he is fun to watch when he's on.
50 - Richard Semrau, redshirt sophomore. Injuries and health have been major issues for Richard thus far in his Illini career, but he will be expected to back up Tisdale this year.
And perhaps the most anticipated player of the year:
33 - Alex Legion, sophomore. Alex started his college career at Kentucky, but after one semester with former Illini assistant and current Wildcat head coach Billy Gillespie, Alex transfered to Illinois. The Detroit native is known as a shooter -- something the Illini desperately need -- and he will be eligible to play in mid-December, after sitting out the required year after transferring.
It's still quite early in the season, and this team has quite a bit of youth, but Bruce Weber teams can easily play above their potential. That sure would be nice to see this season.
Labels: Illini basketball
Sunday, November 16, 2008
- Hold on to the ball. Points off Illini turnovers were more than the difference in the final score. I know it was cold -- I was there -- but dropping kickoffs on the return, the missed option pitch and other miscues didn't help the Illini cause.
- Play by the rules. While the Illini did a much better job avoiding penalties than they have in many games, the late hit out-of-bounds that gave the Buckeyes a 1st down instead of 4th-and-4 was critical. The Buckeyes turned that mistake into points, too.
- Solid tackling. There were a few great hits, but there were just as many attempts at shoestring tackles that tOSU escaped. And a few complete misses.
- Execution on special teams. Again, I know it was cold, and the ball isn't easy to catch in the wind. But that's part of the fun of football in Illinois, right? And the blocked punt...hard to watch. But the Illini do get credit for the punt they downed at the 1 yard line.
I'm afraid I've been a bit repetitive this season, but these have been consistent challenges for the Illini.
The Buckeyes have a very good team. Beanie Wells is a very talented back, and it's fascinating to watch him let the play develop and take advantage of it, unless he's running on your team. Terrelle Pryor is an elusive runner, as well, and the Illini got a taste of what Juice gave tOSU last year. And they made the most of every opportunity the Illini provided, including the blocked punt into the Illini endzone for a safety.
But the Illini did give the full house at Memorial Stadium a few things to cheer about. Jeff Cumberland's TD catch was amazing. He showed off his good hands in that play. And how can you not appreciate an attempt at a lateral from a line backer? Brit Miller ended up with an illegal forward pass in an apparent fumble recovery return. Granted, the runner was called down before the ball came loose, erasing the entire play, but you have to appreciate the effort. The defense made some great stands, as well, including one deep in tOSU territory.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw from Coach Zook was the use of Eddie McGee in a wide range of plays. He took snaps for called QB runs, took over for Juice in the 4th quarter, attempted and completed passes, tried to run an option play, caught a few passes and finally left the game late with a toe injury. Eddie appeared a bit more inexperienced than he actually is when he went under center late in the game -- mostly thanks to the miscue on an option pitch. He's clearly willing to take on anything for an opportunity to get in the game, and that's encouraging. Based on his play the last couple weeks, it will be interesting to see what role he plays next week...and next season.
Personally, I got my first look at the renovated Memorial Stadium on Saturday -- and it was a perfect look, thanks to fabulous seats on the east side. Wow! It's a big change, but it looks great! The sky boxes and press boxes are way up there, but the new construction fits into Memorial Stadium better than some renovations I've seen. (Though keep in mind that I'm mainly comparing it to the spaceship that landed on top of Soldier Field.) The scoreboard is fabulous, though it's not easy for those sitting in the horseshoe to see.
But the highlight, in my opinion, is the new student section. The placement of the Marching Illini in front of Block I in the north endzone looks sharp, and allows them to radiate energy around the stadium. Fun stuff.
- The Illini volleyball team gave Penn State all they could handle before falling in their Friday night match.
- The men's basketball team got off to a 1-0 start against Eastern Washington.
- Attending the game Saturday reminded me just how much I appreciate my Alma Mater. Despite the loss, I can proudly say "Go Illini!"
Friday, November 14, 2008
Seniors' Saturday v. tOSU
The Illini seniors have fought through a couple really tough seasons, an amazing run to the Rose Bowl, and this season -- which hasn't quite lived up to expectations. But the potential for this Illini team is there. They can play like the team that upset #1 tOSU in Columbus last year, except that often they don't.
So what do we need to see to make it 2 in a row over the Buckeyes?
- Fewer mistakes -- as in interceptions, fumbles and penalties. The Illini hold the distinction of the most penalized team in the conference. But those types of mistakes can be minimized.
- Solid protection for Juice. He needs time to throw, or a hole for the ball carrier to run through. He didn't get much of that last week, and I'm sure Jim Tressel shared some of those highlights with his defense.
- Brit Miller to outplay James Laurinaitis. Miller has had an outstanding senior season, but he hasn't gotten much recognition. Laurinaitis has earned the reputation of one of the best in the country. But if Brit and company can hassle young Pryor more than James and his boys get to Juice, the Illini will be in pretty good shape.
- Solid play on special teams -- and at least one outstanding play. Special teams haven't been all that special this year, but we know we have the speed for a kick-off or punt return for a TD. Or a blocked kick. Or something else. And we will need to see that.
- A loud, supportive crowd. This game is sold out, according to the Illini ticket department. But it's going to be a bit on the chilly side (wind, rain/snow, high somewhere in the 30s). Illini fans need to show up, cheer loud and do their best to stick it out with the Illini all game. I'll be there (my first visit to the new Memorial Stadium) ready to cheer on Ron and his team.
A win will be a challenge, but this should be an "on" week in the every-other-week pattern the 2008 Illini have fallen into. Besides the statement that beating the Buckeyes would make, bowl eligibility is once again on the line...
Labels: Illini football
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Showdown in Champaign
And the #17 Illini are ready for them. Penn State has 52 consecutive match wins as they come to Champaign, where the Illini were very competitive in a 5-set loss last season. And the Illini will feature current Big Ten Player of the Week Laura DeBruler, and 2-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Ashley Edinger.
Plus, the Illini have a fascinating history. In 2004, the USC Trojans brought a 52-match win streak to Huff Hall, where they lost to the then-#16 Illini.
This year, the Illini have been solid at home, with only 2 of their 6 losses at Huff Hall. And they have the best Illini record ever against ranked teams this year. All that to say it should be a great game. If you are in the Champaign area, check it out Friday night. If not, get a glimpse of a few highlights from recent home games. These girls are fun to watch!
Monday, November 10, 2008
Bowl Hopes Busted?
Reasons to cheer (yes, there were a few):
- Benn is a playmaker -- and he's so much fun to watch.
- Despite sub-par play, the Illini still had a chance to tie it up at the end of the 4th quarter -- they were still in it.
- Jeff Cumberland's YACs, carrying a (much smaller) defender on his back.
- Defensive pressure on the QB. Hiller made plays, but the Illini D made him work hard several times.
- As hard as it is to admit in some cases, the refs did a good job making the right calls.
Reasons to cringe:
- The O-line really struggled to protect Juice. I give credit to the Broncos defense for penetration, but there's a reason the O-line is critical. They need to give the QB time to make a play, or create space for the ball carrier.
- Penalties. Holding on Hicks was the most painful, erasing a pick-6, but there were plenty of others...
- Turnovers. Again, credit to Western Michigan for taking advantage of them, but the Illini didn't take care of the ball the way they needed to.
- Dropped passes. No question the WRs have improved greatly over last season as a group, but watching passes slip through or bounce off their hands is painful.
- Special teams has been a relatively weak area all season, and we had a couple more examples, including the missed FG, reasonably long kickoff returns from the Broncos, the punt that almost could have been downed inside the 10 but went into the endzone, the punt that pinned the Illini at the 1...lots of room for improvement here.
The Illini once again didn't seem to have the fire or energy to play, but hopefully they will find it this week. Ohio State will be a tough game, even though it's at home. I'm confident that the defending national runners-up remember how they got their single regular-season loss. But a strong performance and a W would get the Illini to 6 wins -- and maybe the opportunity to head back to Detroit after Christmas...or maybe not.
Labels: Illini football
Friday, November 07, 2008
Meet the Broncos
The 2008 Broncos have an offense which is averaging 444 yards and 31.8 points a game, and a QB that Zook compares to Minnesota's. QB Tim Hiller leads the nation's #6 passing offense with a 68.5 completion rate, 28 TDs and just 5 interceptions. So once again, the Illini defense will need to show they can step up, and it may be a bit more challenging since the Broncos don't have names as recognized as Iowa's Shonn Greene. It may not be as easy as Illini fans expect.
There will be plenty to watch for Saturday, and WMU is capable of the upset, but the Illini have a lot to play for -- bowl eligibility.
Juice and his offense are very capable of out-scoring the Broncos, and the defense should be able to contain Hiller and his offense. But the Illini team that last played in Michigan is the version of the team that needs to show up, because the team that showed up against Louisiana-Lafayette may not be able to hold on against the Broncos.
Labels: Illini football
A Fresh Start?
Mark Tupper says he needs to see a lot more of the Illini to get a better idea of what this season may bring. I haven't seen this year's team yet, but Bruce tends to coach teams to overachieve their potential. While I think the middle of the Big Ten is probably realistic, it will be interesting to see what the season brings...
Labels: Illini basketball
Monday, November 03, 2008
Illini Defense Comes to Play
So the Iowa defense is their strength, but it was the Illini D standing strong -- especially early in the game. I was incredibly impressed that Iowa came away with just 6 points in 3 trips to the Red Zone. The Illini defense watched Shonn Greene carefully, and they didn't let him get too far. He did have a couple plays for distance later in the game, but the Illini gave him his season-low game total rushing yards and season-low yards per carry. The forced fumble for a TD was one of the top highlights of the day, and Vontae's last-second interception sparked a deep sigh of relief from the sidelines and stands. It would have been nice if the defense that stood Iowa up on the goal line had also played the 4th quarter, but allowing Iowa to tie the game certainly made it interesting.
Juice and his offense didn't find as many of the big plays that characterized them earlier in the season, and the dropped passes hurt. The turnovers almost lost the game for the Illini, but the first interception was a lucky tip of a pass that was on target, and give the Iowa D credit for the Ford strip. But Benn played well, and, for the record, he hates Iowa. (Another reason I love the kid.) And he's not alone. The team really wanted to beat Iowa. And it was great to see the offense respond on that last drive, complete with clutch receptions by backup QB Eddie McGee, to bring the Illini back from the brink.
So while this didn't look like the team that hung tough with Penn State and dominated Michigan and Indiana, this did look like a team that can win a couple more games. And they will need to do just that to have a chance to play during the holidays.
Five wins with Western Michigan coming up in Detroit. Although the Illini will be without Mikel LeShoure, who has a broken jaw thanks to a teammate, they should be able to get win #6 and a bit of momentum before facing Ohio State at home.
A few additional notes:
1. It's hard to watch with Iowa fans, especially when you are imposing on their hospitality.
2. I'm quite disappointed in the Iowa fan who created an event schedule that forced me to miss the very end of the game. I just needed another 15 minutes, and I would have liked to watch the game-winning field goal.
3. Although my niece may be raised with mixed Iowa-Illinois games loyalties , she does, at 16 months, believe that Herky says, "Gobble, gobble!" And although she came up with that on her own, I certainly didn't discourage her from repeating it...
Labels: Illini football
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Our Turn Now?
After a tough season, Coach Ferentz has his team on track for a solid performance. And the Hawkeyes always seem to know how to get to the Illini. Last year, the Illini lost a heartbreaker in Iowa City. This year, they have the tools to win -- they just need to put it together on the field, and limit mistakes.
Since the Illini were flat last week, I expect them to be fired up today. The Illini defense will likely have their hands full with Shonn Greene, but Juice and his receivers should give the Hawkeyes all they can handle, as well. It should work in our favor to be playing at Memorial Stadium.
Labels: Illini football