Monday, September 06, 2010

It's That Time of Year

...when the air cools, the fields start to fire (meaning the corn starts to turn brown), and football becomes the game of the day. Get excited!

A hectic summer schedule prevented me from spending much time previewing Ron Zook and his 2010 Fighting Illini, but based on what they showed us in the opener, this rebuilding holds promise. I had no idea what to expect, and low expectations, so I was pleased with the 13-3 halftime lead over Mizzou. It's not a good sign when I start cheering, "Go clock, go!" just minutes into the third quarter, but the Illini didn't give up. They put in a stellar first half and didn't completely fold in the second half. This Illini team has something to build on.

Defense: I want to start here because they were such a question mark last season. At the start of the game, the Illini forced a 3-and-out against a proven offense. Yes, Mizzou sputtered throughout the first half, but give the Illini credit for taking advantage of those first-game miscues. A recovered fumble, solid tackles, deflected passes, and more. Despite being thin, the secondary held well in the first half. The linebackers pursued the ball. And the D-line pressured Gabbert well. The second half was a different story, as Gabbert caught his rhythm. But these guys kept playing and hitting hard.

Offense: It looks completely different with a new QB, but Nathan Scheelhaase has potential. He can run, and that fits well into the option offense that the Illini have run the last few years. His arm is adequate, and he's got some good targets. With time and experience, the passing game could become a complement to the running game. (At least once the turnover tendency is cleaned up.) And the running game will be where the Illini have a chance to shine this year. Behind Scheelhaase, Mikel Leshoure has both power and speed. He will be fun to watch.

Special teams: Here's hoping the 52-yard field goal is a sign of what the special teams are capable of. That was a great boost heading into halftime. Kickoff coverage was solid, as was the kicking game itself. Definitely improvement over last year.

I expect that this season will bring moments that are hard to watch, like the Mizzou drives in the second half. But if we can have periods like the long, steady Illini drive in the first quarter, this season could be a pleasant surprise, as the Illini rebuild. The question, of course, is what does Zook need to accomplish to retain his job?

Regardless, I'm excited that football season is here. Go Illini!

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