Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not-So-Happy Visit to the Valley

Ron Zook had his team ready to play when they got to Happy Valley. And play they did. There's no shame in playing a good game and losing to a better team, and that's what happened to the Illini.

There was a lot to like in the play of the Illini.

Missed tackles hurt, as did penalties, though there were fewer flags tonight than two weeks ago. And despite the miscues, the Illini defense put QB Daryll Clark under the most pressure he had faced to date. The fumble recovery was a highlight, as well. Juice limited his interceptions to just one, and he passed well.

The Illini showed they can play with anyone. They made mistakes that could have been avoided to allow them to win, but they needed a nearly flawless game tonight. Penalties killed their 3rd drive of the game, and they were on the short side of the turnover margin. Penn State was able to move the ball almost at will. And the missed field goal hurt, as well. But they played with Penn State, who proved they are a pretty good team on a day when 4 ranked teams lost at home.

The officials deserve credit for calling a fair game and using replay appropriately. They made the right calls, though it was hard to give up that first potential fumble.

While the loss was disappointing, the game itself was fun to watch -- an offensive shootout with big plays on both sides. The visit to Happy Valley could have been happier, but given the Penn State performances to date, it could have been worse. The Illini have lots to build on...



White Out Preview

The Illini head to Happy Valley to face one of the most prolific college football offenses this season. JoePa's Nittany Lions are ranked #3 in scoring and #6 in total offense, and their margin of victory has been impressive. And they've schedule a fan "white out" for the nationally televised game.

The Illini are considered the toughest team Penn State has faced this season (although Oregon State looks much better now than they did in Week 2 when they visited JoePa). And Juice's offense ranks in the top 20 for overall offense.

However, Penn State boasts a top-ten defense nationally, and the best overall defense in the Big Ten so far. And this is an area where the Illini are working to make progress.

There are a few interesting points to watch in this game. The Illini are underdogs, but that's where Coach Zook likes to play from.

A few things the Illini need for orange to color the white-out:
No question this will be a tough game for the Illini who upset Penn State in Champaign last year. Remember Benn's TD return? You can be sure Penn State does, too. And while the Illini won on the road last year, the 2008 team doesn't have a few of the pieces in place that they had when they went into Columbus last year. Happy Valley won't be an easy place to play. However, anything is possible in college football, and the Illini have the tools to stage the upset.

On a related note, thanks to the 2007 Fighting Illini football team for raising the Illini to the level where, just 4 weeks into the season, the Illini are playing in their second nationally televised prime time game. Wow. Just a few years ago that would be hard to imagine.

So take advantage of it, boys. Give Penn State more than they can handle.
Go Illini!



Can We Get Some (Conference) Respect?

Big Ten football is considered "middle of the pack" on the national scene this year. And that (as much as I hate to admit it) is understandable. Take a quick look at non-conference play across the conference -- from a national perspective.

Illinois: At a glance, the Illini weren't as competitive with Missouri as expected (you had to watch the game to see how well Juice proved he can throw). And, the effort against Louisiana-Lafayette was disappointing.

Indiana: The Hoosiers beat Western Kentucky and Murray State, but a loss to Ball State? By more points than they scored? Not impressive.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes dominated lesser competition, although it took them a while to score in the intra-state rivalry game. And they lost a close one against Pitt last week.

Michigan: The Rich Rodriguez era got off to a slow start. But most coaching changes disrupt a program on some level. The Notre Dame loss was painful, though. And now, a traditional conference power is the underdog in their home opener...

Michigan State: The season-opening loss at Cal contributed to the knocks against the Big Ten on the national scene, but the Spartans looked a lot better against Notre Dame last weekend. Yes, Charlie's team isn't the Notre Dame we've come to expect, but it still sounds good.

Minnesota: While the Golden Gophers are undefeated, their last-minute win against Northern Illinois to open the season didn't give a great first impression.

Northwestern: Another undefeated Big Ten team thus far, including a 24-20 victory over...Duke. Yes, the Wildcats won this "academic bowl," and Duke is slowly building a football program. But it's still Duke. Not the kind of win to break national stereotypes.

Ohio State: No question that they are still a top Big Ten program. But the USC loss? From a national perspective, enough said.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are dominating competition. Absolutely destroying tough competition like Temple, Coastal Caroina and Syrcuse. On the bright side, the Oregon State win looks really good today.

Purdue: The Boilermakers had a priceless opportunity to build respect for the Big Ten when they welcomed the Ducks and dominated in the first half. The double-overtime loss was disappointing, but give them credit for a great performance against a ranked team. A win over Charlie and the Irish would be nice...

Wisconsin: On the national scene, Coach Bielema's Badgers may be the only undefeated Big Ten team being taken seriously. Ranked all season, they won on the road at Fresno State, a potential upset. And they have a legitimate chance to go undefeated...

With a few exceptions -- Penn State and Wisconsin -- the Big Ten non-conference schedule hasn't done much to earn national college football respect as conference play kicks off.
Does that matter? For Big Ten fans, it shouldn't. Conference play should be as intense and entertaining as ever.

Of course, Illinois and Penn State have a chance to put on a national show with the prime time game tonight. And as the Beavers proved, almost any team can change the national football scene with one game...



Monday, September 22, 2008

Off-Week Action

Coach Zook and the Illini football team had the weekend off, but thanks to NC State's upset of East Carolina and other upsets, the Illini remain ranked #22 in the AP, and moved up to #21 in the coaches' poll.

Penn State rolled over Temple, and head into the Big Ten opener ranked #12 in both polls. Next weekend will be a tough game, but the Illini should be the toughest competition JoePa and company have faced this season.

But even as the Illini had time off, several guys who now play on Sundays saw some action. In 2008, 17 former Illini are on active NFL rosters. Highlights include Dave Diehl of the Giants, who started his 83rd consecutive game on the O-line, Kelvin Hayden's interception for the Colts, Brandon Lloyd's TD reception for the Bears and 2 TDs by Pierre Thomas for the Saints. Sure, many of these guys were on the short end of the final score, but it's always good to see Illini contributing on Sundays.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The BTN is watching

I wouldn't be surprised if the anonymous commenter below works for the Big Ten Network. In any case, saying that The Journey isn't designed to be an insider look at the team but rather for entertainment is crazy. You can do both. Give us more insider look and fewer game clips that we've already seen.


More on Big Ten Network

Ok so as Barry points out in the comment section to my post below it doesn't look like I watched the most recent episode of The Journey. I guess I needed to keep the TV on longer to see the most recent coverage of Eastern.

I think both my points still stand, though. Why are they just now showing coverage of Eastern? I want to see if the coaches knocked heads in practice this week after the bad game we played this past Saturday.

And, Barry is right. I forgot about the coverage of Juice's home life last night. That was good human interest stuff. I realize the staff may be limiting what the Network is allowed to cover as far as practices and meetings go and with good reason (we don't want Penn State to watch the BTN for a scouting report). But I'd still like to see more behind the scenes stuff rather than game highlights.



Big Ten Network's The Journey disappoints

So I put the kiddo's to bed last night and turned on Illinois Football: The Journey on The Big Ten Network. Disappointment in the team's recent performance aside, I was generally disappointed in the Big Ten Network's coverage.

To be sure, I'm glad Coach Zook agreed to allow BTN access and considering how far we've come the past few years it's only going to help the program's profile.

However, I have two main gripes. One small. One big. The small one: The team just finished its third game of the season and the first ten minutes of the program was film of the Missouri game. That was the first game of the year. Hello? I realize it takes time to edit film and get a package together but I did not need to see a rehash of our first game of the year. Especially since it was a loss.

Which brings me to my second point. I was looking for more "behind the scenes" footage rather than footage of the game with Illini Sports Network sound. There was some sideline stuff with the coaches and players but nothing ESPN or anyone else wouldn't be able to show.

The second half of the show focused on the Renaissance and all the legends coming back for the Eastern game. There was some good stuff about the throwback uniforms, some footage of the suites and renovation and the ceremony honoring the greats, including Butkus but that was it.

BTN is in its infancy so hopefully as the season goes on, this show gets better. It's a great idea. BTN just needs to perfect it.

Incidentally, there is more footage on the BTN site here.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Random thoughts

I didn't see the game Saturday so going off of what I've read, here is my main thought: the team thought they could sleepwalk through this one. This is a team we should have blown out of Memorial Stadium. It reminds me a little of the game against Western IL last year. That was a night game and if I recall correctly pretty sloppy weather conditions as well. We seemed to lack intensity and be pretty out of sync. After that game the team really started to put it together and had a great season.

Let's hope they can do that again this year. I'm sure the coaches will use the bye week to wake these boys up and show them that Happy Valley ain't gonna be like playing against a community college. They are really going to have to bring it if they want to win.

On another note, I read somewhere that the Night of Legends was IL SID Kent Brown's idea. Brilliant! A strong basketball alumni network is a key to continue building a strong program. I can't imagine that it won't help with recruiting as well. Along those lines, check out photos from the event on Illinois Loyalty here.

Also, Daily Illini has some good stuff here, noting the fact that Lucas Johnson had to get stitches (why does that not surprise me).

Great job by Supinie for getting Dee Brown on the record saying he wants to coach at Illinois someday.

And great job by Klee for getting Nick Anderson on the record saying he doesn't want to be a stranger anymore.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Not A Ragin' Vicotry, But Still a "W"

The Ragin' Cajuns came uncomfortably close to tying or beating the Illini on Saturday. Ron Zook and his team may not be happy about Saturday's game, but it's still a win. The Illini are 2-1, with the loss against a team currently ranked #5. And the Illini even moved up in the polls.

I heard a few things to be excited about:

And I heard a few things that I hope we will see improvements on when the Illini head to Happy Valley in a couple weeks:

Hopefully Saturday's game served as a wake-up call, and the team will put in the hard work needed to consistently win in the Big Ten. But a win is still a win, putting a number in the column that will get the Illini closer to a bowl game. Let's build on it.



Saturday, September 13, 2008

On a Lighter Note...

How much fun is it to have a wide reciever we can call "Uh-Oh"?

Hoomanawaniu is a mouthful, but that is fun to say, as well. But while watching the national broadcasters work his name during the Mizzou game, one of his former assistant coaches said they just called him Mike H. Plus, he's a great example of the improving Illini receivers.



BTN - Again

I believed that I could make peace with Comcast and the Big Ten Network after they came to an agreement this summer. I was wrong.

Illinois is playing in Champaign against Louisiana-Lafayette, and, according to my on-screen guide from Comcast, I should be able to watch it on channels 75 and 255. Unfortunately, I live in the Chicagoland area, so when I switched (with great anticipation) from College Game Day to the BTN to watch my boys, I was very surprised to see the water-soaked field at Northwestern, instead of Memorial Stadium. They are playing Southern Illinois (and just fell behind at the moment). Not good.

So then, I flipped on the radio. But it is raining hard, and the Chicagoland station carrying the Illini Sports Network doesn't have the strongest signal. Only one of my radios can pick it up. I am really not happy -- except that the Illini defense just made a solid stand in the red zone to limit ULL to a field goal, and they've recovered 2 turnovers, one that Brit Miller turned into a TD, so although the competition isn't exactly Mizzou, the defense is gaining confidence.

Next option -- I called a nearby Illini family member who has dish to see if I could catch the game there. But she informed me that the BTN is showing Iowa-Iowa State. Yes, that's a great rivalry game, but I just want to be able to watch MY team on the network that claims to have a Fighting Illini channel (yes, I know better than to believe commercials). It shouldn't be this difficult.

Granted, this isn't a critical game, but my schedule kept me from being able to enjoy the pounding of Eastern last week, so I hoped to enjoy a pounding today, before I head to the wedding that will prevent me from catching tOSU @ USC tonight. And the BTN, in theory, was supposed to help me do that. At the moment, I am completely disgusted with the Big Ten Network.



Thursday, September 04, 2008

Looking Ahead

Here's a quick overview of the 2008 Illini football schedule. A lot will happen throughout the Big Ten and college football over the course of the season, and the Illini have plenty to look forward to, as the season gets underway.

9/6 - Eastern Illinois @ home: Although the Panthers are ranked in the top 20 of the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision -- formerly known as I-AA), the Illini have the talent and athleticism to outlast Tony Romo's alma mater, as long as they don't take anything for granted.

9/13 - Louisiana-Lafayette @ home: The SunBelt Conference's Ragin' Cajuns should be another opportunity for the Illini offense to gain experience and confidence, and for the Illini defense to step up, but again, they need to show up to play.

9/27 @ Penn State: Although the Illini beat JoePa & company last season, it will be much tougher to play in Happy Valley. And although the Illini won on the road at Ohio State last season, I don't think they will be overlooked by any Big Ten opponent this season.

10/4 @ Michigan: The Wolverines are adjusting to a new offense, but they will improve throughout the season. The team the Illini will face at the Big House will be tougher than the team that lost their second consecutive season opener last weekend, but the Illini have won in Ann Arbor before...

10/11 Minnesota @ home: Excitement will be running high in Memorial Stadium, and this is homecoming. The Golden Gophers just escaped the NIU Huskies this weekend, and it could be a tough year for them in the Big Ten. They will likely need a year or two for Coach Brewster to make noticeable progress.

10/18 Indiana @ home: Indiana was another Big Ten team with a surprisingly strong showing in 2007. They lost some key players to the pros, but they will likely continue to play well. However, Champaign's Memorial Stadium probably won't be an easy place to play this year. Have I mentioned that I look forward to seeing the progress on the renovations?

10/25 @ Wisconsin: 'Twas sweet to see the Badgers fall last year, but Camp Randall Stadium will be a tough place to play, and Hill has only improved with experience...

11/1 Iowa @ home: Last season was not what the Hawkeyes hoped, and I expect to see a stronger team this year. That said, the Illini won't forget the painful late-game loss in Iowa City last year, and they should be ready to play in Champaign.

11/8 Western Michigan @ Detroit: This could be a nice break -- or a trap game. A healthy, improving Illini team should do well, but again, they can't take anything for granted...

11/15 Ohio State @ home: I have no idea what the college football landscape will look like in a couple months, but I do know that the Buckeyes will remember their first loss of the 2007 season. They still played for the National Championship, but they won't overlook the Illini this year. It will help to be playing in Memorial Stadium.

11/22 @ Northwestern: They looked pretty good against Syracuse this week, although that isn't saying much. The Illini are more talented, but in recent years they have struggled in this in-state rivalry game when on the road. Time to change that trend.

This schedule isn't as favorable as the 2007 schedule, and there are a few key questions the Illini need to answer. I believe 8 wins are very possible, and that should be enough to ensure the season continues.

Go Illini!



Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Arch Rivalry" Thoughts

The 2008 college football season is underway, and despite the 0-1 start for the Illini, I'm optimistic. The team showed quite a bit of promise, along with their weak spots, in the season opener. My thoughts:

Overall, the game wasn't as close as hoped, but the Illini did make a legitimate comeback in the late 3rd and early 4th quarters, and the Tigers had reason to get nervous. Unfortunately, the tired D couldn't hold Daniels. But after tackling a really good team, the Illini should be able to gain confidence with Eastern Illinois and Lousiana-Lafayette the next two weeks.

Go Illini!



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