Thursday, September 24, 2009

At the Horseshoe

The Illini are headed to Columbus this weekend for a very tough conference opener. And there's still a lot we don't know about the 2009 squad.

A quick look at the stats shows the Illini second in the conferense in rushing yards per game, third in overall yards per game, but tenth in passing yards per game. Not what we expected, but much of that is skewed by Juice being out a couple weeks ago. In comparison, Ohio State is fifth in passing, 9th in rushing and 8th in overall yards per game. But these numbers don't mean much, given easy non-conference games and that the Illini have only played 2 games.

So will the Illini defense that had miscues against Missouri show up against Terrelle Pryor? Will the explosive offense we expected be able to move the ball down the field on the road? Will the Illini stay healthy?

I have no idea. Given what we've seen so far, this will be a tough game for the Illini. The D will need to step up big, and the offense will need to reach their potential for the Illini to once again shock the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe. Possible? Of course. But likely? Not really.

But whatever happens, go Illini!



Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Ten Snapshot

With the non-conference warm-up games out of the year, 2009 doesn't look to be a stellar year for the Big Ten. Brace yourself now for the conference to be much-maligned. But that's understandable, given what we've seen so far. Here's a quick snapshot of each team.

Illinois: The Illini got off to a very disappointing start with the inability to score against Missouri, a game where they were favored. Benn and Juice have been banged up, and linebacker Martez Wilson is out for the season. The running game against Illinois State was nice, but the next few games will be a challenge.

Indiana: The Hoosiers are off to a relatively strong start, given their football history. They are 3-0, with directional wins over Eastern Kentucky and Western Michigan. Last week they beat Akron. Definitely games a "power" conference should handle, so Indiana is holding their own. They open conference play against Michigan this week.

Iowa: Although the Hawkeyes are 3-0, they started the season with tight win over Northern Iowa. Now, yes, the Panthers are among the best in their division, but the two blocked punts in the final seconds to preserve the lead...ouch. Iowa took care of their in-state rivals, and the win over Arizona was respectable.

Michigan: At #23 in the AP poll and 3-0, Rich Rodriguez and the Wolverines are trending up. They easily took care of Eastern and Western Michigan, but the win over then #18 Notre Dame gave credence to improvements in the program.

Michigan State: The Spartans played a very good game at Notre Dame, even though they lost. However, their loss to Central Michigan is one of the black marks from the Big Ten "cupcake" season. They lost the game on a second-chance field goal -- and that second chance was due to a penalty. But if the Spartans compete like they did against the Irish, they could be pleased with their season.

Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have contributed to the overall conference image with an overtime win against Syracuse and the 5 TD performance of Cal's Jahvid Best. However, Adam Weber to Eric Decker will likely be a common theme throughout the season. Will this season live up to the surprising performance the Gophers had last year? If the Cal game is any indication, maybe not. But they won't be conference push-overs, either.

Northwestern: A close win over Eastern Michigan didn't make the Wildcats look all that impressive, but the GPA match-up last weekend was Northwestern at Syracuse. The 'Cats lost to point guard/QB Greg Paulus. However, their QB Mike Kafka has been playing well, completing 16 straight passes to start against the Orange last week.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes sit at #13 in the AP rankings. They started off the season with a scare at home against Navy. Although they played tough, allowing USC to come from behind to win in Columbus also contributed to the image of a down Big Ten. (I would have liked to see that game, though.) tOSU should get credit for playing a top team early in the season, but a W over the Trojans would have been nice for the team and the conference, especially after the Huskies took care of them this past weekend.

Penn State: Known for a very sweet "cupcake" schedule, #5 Penn State has taken care of business to open the season. JoePa's boys turned in strong performances over Akron, Syracuse and Temple. They can do a lot for the conference image as they host College GameDay this weekend for their conference opener against Iowa, who spoiled their season last year. Oh, and it's good to see Joe Paterno run out with his team, even with the limp. He still commands respect.

Purdue: The Boilermakers and first-year coach Danny Hope have gotten off to a rough start at 1-2. The close loss at Oregon looked fairly reasonable, but their home loss to Northern Illinois last weekend hurt. A win against the Irish this weekend would be a big boost before they tackle conference play.

Wisconsin: Bret Bielema and the Badgers are 3-0, but one of those Ws was a 2OT win over Fresno State at home. They took care of Northern Illinois, and dominated Wofford as expected. The Badgers should be competitve in the Big Ten as usual.

But overall, only 3 Big Ten teams are in the top 25, and performances to date haven't been spectacular. It's a good thing I enjoy Big Ten football, regardless of quality. Could be a long season for some teams...but I'd like to see some better bowl performances out of the conference in a few months.



Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Campfire Report

"Illinois State's backup quarterback has passed for 312 yards. Illinois has passed for 164 yards."

Nervous gasps sounded around a campfire.

"But, Illinois ran for 384 yards, and leads Illinois State 45 -17 with 1:45 left in the 4th quarter."

That report from Illini Cousin #1 recieved sighs of relief and a rousing "Oskee-wow-wow" at a family gathering. (A majority of us share an Alma Mater.) The Illini needed a win after such a disappointing start in the season opener. And they needed to not lose to a non-conference cupcake without their starting QB.

But what the 2-minute report left out was that Eddie McGee led the Illini to victory after Juice went down in the first series. And Martez Wilson didn't play, either. Injuries could cause serious problems for the Illini this year. And so could the start of the Big Ten season. This off week will be spent getting boys healthy and preparing for Ohio State.



Monday, September 07, 2009

Some Answers, More Questions

The Illini opener in St. Louis wasn't what the team -- or fans -- expected. Mizzou capitalized on Illini mistakes for a convincing 37-9 victory. Blaine Gabbert led his team well, and made the rest of the Big 12 take notice. And the Illini...they identified plenty of areas for improvement before conference play gets underway.

The Illini answered many of the questions asked before kickoff...

On offense, the O-line proved they could protect the QB and provide time for Juice to throw, and although Juice went down for a loss 3 times, he only lost a total of 8 yards. Depth at RB was needed, with Mikel LeShoure scoring the Illini TD while Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford nursed ankle injuries. The Illini passed for 215 yards with 12 individuals recording completions. Jarred Fayson made a spectacular catch, which was encouraging, given that Benn left the game after the first offensive series.

On defense, the D-line and linebackers did a solid job containing the Tiger run game. They held Mizzou to 117 yards (the Illini had 110 yards on the ground, making this aspect of the game nearly even). Gabbert's runs seemed to be the most difficult for them to stop, but they improved during parts of the game. However, fatigue became a factor late in the game.

But the Illini raised additional questions that must be answered quickly if the Illini want to contend this season:

Next up: Illinois State and an off week to address some of these issues and prepare for the Big Ten. The Illini have more work to do than expected. But they still have potential to improve on last season. Let's see what these boys and their coaches can do.



Friday, September 04, 2009

Go Get Them Tigers

The Illini football season kicks off against the Missouri Tigers Saturday afternoon (on ESPN). And for the first time in 5 years of this 6-year series, the Illini are favored!

Missouri lost a lot of players from last year's team, leaving them with their share of question marks. Actually, there are plenty of unknowns on both sidelines, according to the coaches. How will Mizzou's new QB perform? Will Martez Wilson provide the defensive leadership we've come to expect from the middle linebacker? Can Juice limit turnovers? Does anybody care about Sean Weatherspoon's tweets?

Here are a few things to watch for this weekend:

The Illini have dropped 4 straight to the Tigers. But the Illini are poised to break that streak. Juice and company have had no problem scoring on Missouri the last 2 years. If the Illini D steps up against Gabbert's offense, they can start the season with a W.

But enough questions. Go get the Tigers...Go Illini!

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