Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movin' On

There's not much to say about the Illini loss at Northwestern this weekend. For the most part, the Illini didn't seem to be at Ryan Field. Not sure where they were, but let's hope they show up next year, ready to play.

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?

A Jan. 1 bowl for NU. Bowl eligibility for the Illini. The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk forever. There's plenty to play for in today's in-state rivalry game for the Illini.

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.

Go Illini!



Thursday, November 20, 2008


Any guesses?

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!

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bruce's Boys

The men's basketball season is just underway, and the Illini are off to a 2-0 start. But with the "new attitude" that Bruce is trying to instill, we no longer see names on the backs of the Illini jerseys. We still have a lot to learn about this team.

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, 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.

Go Illini!



Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fundamental Challenges

Ohio State played a good game. The Illini had opporutnities to play a great game. But, as we've seen before, a few fundamentals got in the way:

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.

Memorial Stadium
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.

Additional Notes:

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Seniors' Saturday v. tOSU

Seventeen Illini seniors will be playing their last game at Memorial Stadium Saturday. And it won't be an easy game. The Ohio State University Buckeyes have had a very good season, despite their crushing loss to USC early in the season and the Penn State loss. The Buckeyes have had a couple impressive games, including a big win over Northwestern last week.

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?

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...

Go Illini!



Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Showdown in Champaign

I'm not talking about Ohio State coming to Memorial Stadium. I'm talking about Penn State coming to Huff Hall. Friday, the #1 Penn State volleyball team brings their tie for the NCAA record win streak to Champaign for a chance to create a new win streak record.

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!

Go Illini!

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Bowl Hopes Busted?

What is there to say? Western Michigan played a great game. The Illini -- not so much. It's hard to watch a team consistently (every-other week) not play to their potential, and with the loss to the Broncos, hope for a notable Bowl game is shriveling. Yes, wins over Ohio State and Northwestern would give the Illini 7 wins in a conference that has beat up on each other all fall, but one thing at a time.

Reasons to cheer (yes, there were a few):

Reasons to cringe:

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.



Friday, November 07, 2008

Meet the Broncos

The Western Michigan Broncos play in the MAC, a conference that includes #19 Ball State and Toledo, who beat Michigan. They are 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the conference, and they can play. Last year, the Broncos busted Iowa's bowl hopes, beating them late last year in Iowa City, so they know how to play the Big Ten.

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.

Go Illini!



A Fresh Start?

The Illini men's basketball season is underway, with the final exhibition game coming up on Sunday. The news swirling around Bruce's team in the off-season wasn't all that encouraging, but the Illini have a new season in front of them. The team is still forming their identity, but since practice has started it seems the 2008-09 team has some potential. No really big stars (yet), but that may promote teamwork.

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...



Monday, November 03, 2008

Illini Defense Comes to Play

Um, that was closer than it needed to be. And it wasn't pretty. But I'll take the W.

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.

Go Illini!

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...



Saturday, November 01, 2008

Our Turn Now?

The Illini have lost five straight to our neighbors to the west, so perhaps, today in Champaign, it will be our turn. Provided the Illini bring their on-week fire (in their every-other-week patter), it should be a good game. The Illini offense is currently #11 in the nation, while the Hawkeyes boast the #20 defense. But the Hawkeyes can score, too, as they proved in their game against Wisconsin.

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.

Go Illini!



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