Hope Springs Eternal.

Hope Springs Eternal.
Illini freshman Mikey Dudek looks on during Saturday's Illinois scrimmage.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Forward!

     What a spring it is shaping up to be on the University of Illinois campus.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to an historic start to the season, compiling a 31-6-1 record, good for a #11 ranking in the country. Stellar pitching, timely hitting, and an exceptional relief pitcher have combined to give the Illini record crowds at Illinois Field this season  Starters Kevin Duchene and Drasen Johnson have anchored a pitching staff that is one of the best in the Big Ten conference, if not the nation, while Adam Walton, Casey Fletcher and brothers Reid and Ryne Roper have given the pitchers quite a bit of run support.  However, the crown jewel of the Illini would have to be closer Tyler Jay, who almost assuredly will be a first round draft choice in the next draft.  Jay has compiled a miniscule 0.71 ERA in 38 innings this season with 43 strikeouts.  Jay is that rare player that can finish a game with zest, but also be called upon to start or go in long relief if needed.  The Illini will host Eastern Illinois on Tuesday evening (6:00 pm CT) before embarking on a stretch of games that will take them away from Illinois Field for the next two weekends.  The Illini will continue Big Ten play this coming weekend when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions.

     After an auspicious start to the season, Terri Sullivan's Illinois women's softball team has turned around their season by winning nine out of their last 10 games, and currently have a 21-22 record on the season, with a 10-5 conference mark,  A lot of that success lately can be attributed to the pitching of Jade Vecvanags, who has compiled a 15-9 record.  Also helping the cause has been Alyssa Gunther and Allie Bauch, who both are hitting near the .400 mark.  The Illini defeated Wisconsin 12-8 and 5-3 on Saturday, and will play a mid-week conference doubleheader on Wednesday when they travel to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats ( 2:00 pm, BTN).

     Injuries have been the name of the game for Tim Beckman and the Fighting Illini football team during spring workouts, with two of their top players that were expected to contribute out for the forseeable future.  Freshman Mike Dudek, who had a record-setting first season for Illinois last season, sustained an ACL injury in a non-contact drill and will be sidelined at least through October.  To add further insult to injury, early enrollee Dre Brown, who figured to get quite a bit of work behind senior Josh Ferguson this fall, also was lost to an ACL tear, but on Saturday at the annual Spring game, Beckman stated that it might not be as serious as your typical ACL injury.  Still, an injury is an injury and it was not something that Beckman had bargained for.  Due to the amount of players out for the Spring game, special rules were put in place for the game.  First of all, the White team, which was comprised primarily of backup players, was given a 17-0 lead out of the gate, and when the Orange team, mostly starters, came back and led 27-17 at the half, the White team was given 17 additional points.

     Due to the shortage of players at several key positions, some of the defensive linemen donned blue jerseys and played on both sides of the ball.  Beckman can ill afford to lose any more players, because depth is an issue at several spots, and although there are a few players coming in the fall that will help alleviate the gap, it is still a concern,

     ?Obviously it was tough to lose Mikey and Dre, but with the guys we have coming in the fall, we should be fine.  Injuries are just a part of the game, and although we lost both players on non-contact drills, we never considered cancelling the game for any reason", Beckman said after the Spring game on Saturday.  The Illini will resume workouts later this summer with their annual trek to Camp Rantoul.  Illinois will kick off the regular season on Friday night, September 4th under the lights at Memorial Stadium against the Golden Flashes of  Kent State University.

     Finally, even though the Fighting Illini men's basketball season ended on a very discouraging note, all hope is certainly not lost.  Head coach John Groce had never experienced a collapse like the one his team embarked on at the end of the season, and one knew that changes were coming as a result.  Sure enough, Austin Colbert, who was beginning to come on at the end of the season, announced last week that he would be transferring out of the program.  However, this past weekend, Groce received a commitment from Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, who can come and play immediately.  Thorne brings a strong inside game to the Illini that should replace Nnanna Egwu adequately.  Groce still is in search of a point guard, and is still very much in the running for Marcus Lovett from Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, or possible another fifth year transfer in guard Dylan Ennis of Villanova.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

     Welcome to the postseason, or as Illinois head coach John Groce calls it, the "third season".  The Fighting Ilini completed the regular season ths past Saturday and although they could have used a win to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, the opposite result happened, as they dropped a 63-58 decision to the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.  The Illini finished the regular season with a 19-12 record overall, with a 9-9 Big Ten mark.  The game started out very well for the Illini, as they jumped out to a quick 15-2 lead before Purdue knew what hit them.  Illinois kept up that intensity for the majority of the first half, only to see the Boilermakers close the gap to 26-21 at the half.  In the second half, Purdue took over, as they dominated early and often in the second stanza to get a double digit lead of their own.  Illinois made one last gasp at the end of the game, but it was a little too late, and they couldn't catch the Boilermakers.  A win would have given the Illini 10 conference wins, but more importantly, the 7th seed in this week's Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.  Instead, the Illini find themselves in a familiar spot, the 8th seed, and will face an opponent that they know all too well, Michigan (11:00 am CT Thursday, BTN).  Illinois and Michigan split their two games this season, with the Wolverines winning in overtime 73-65 in Ann Arbor on December 30th, and the Illini returning the favor on February 12th in Chamnpaign 64-52, also in overtime.  This will be the rubber match between the two schools, with a quarterfinal date with top-seeded Wisconsin awaiting the winner on Friday morning.  It has been an interesting season for Groce's Illini team, with all of the injuries and other off the court issues plaguing the team this season.  Michigan has had a tough season of their own, currently sitting at 15-15 overall, and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  The Wolverines have been beset with injuries as well, losing two of their more prolific scorers, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. for the remainder of the season.  Illinois cannot stand to make an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament if they want to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.  Even a win over the Wolverines doesn't guarantee a berth, but if everything falls right, it could still be a possibility.  Illinois is 0-1 at their home away from home, the United Center, losing earlier in the year to Oregon 77-70.

     With March upon us, it will soon be time for spring football.  Illinois coach Tim Beckman begins his fourth season as the head man in Champaign, and this should be his deepest team in his tenure.  The Illini finished the 2014 season with a 6-7 record, losing to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  Quite a few players return on defense for the Illini, which was a little better last season than the year before.  Beckman has stressed that depth is still an issue at several key positions, and that has been addressed further by more junior college transfers.  With the coaching staff still not complete, Beckman has filled one of the positions by hiring Mike Phair, who formerly coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair brings with him some credibility with working with defensive players, and will give Tim Banks some flexibility as he becomes co-coordinator with Phair.  Spring workouts begim on Saturday, March 14th, and will culminate with the annual spring game on Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm.

     On the topic of football, the University of Illinois announced on Monday that the first home game of the 2015 season has been switched to Friday night, September 4th instead of the following day.  Game time has yet to be announced, but expect it to be in the 7-8 pm time frame.  Even though this will interfere with high school games that evening, Beckman still thinks that this is a good idea.  Only time will tell if they made the right decision.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to their best start in a long time, and have stormed out to a 12-3 record and ranked #19 in this week's poll.  A lot of the early season success can be attributed to the pitching staff of Drasen Johnson, Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay.  The Illini won a series this past weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and returned home on Tuesday afternoon for their home opener against Chicago State, a game that they also won by a score of 7-3.  The Illini will keep the homestand going this weekend when they begin a three game series against the Salukis of Southern Illinois.

     The Fighting Illini women's softball team has started off their season on a not-so-good note, currently with an 8-15 record.  The Illini finished off a 1-4 trip to Los Angeles, California this past weekend, losing to UC-Davis, Providence, and #13 UCLA in the process.  The Illini will begin Big Ten play next weekend at Eichelberger Field in Champaign against Minnesota, with games beginning at 5:30 pm on Friday, 1:00 pm on Saturday, and noon on Sunday.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Stretch Run

     Welcome to "Crunch Time", that point in the college basketball season when teams jockey for position to either better themselves for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, or give their all in just missing out on the big dance.

     The 2014-15 Fighting Illini basketball season will go down as one that has had a lot of twists and turns, as well as ups and downs.  First of all, before the season even started, head coach John Groce found himself without two of his key players that he hoped would contribute to the success of the team.  Tracy Abrams tore his ACL and was lost for the season, and Darius Paul found himself in some legal trouble for off the court incidents and was dismissed from the team.  Abrams is set to return for the 2015-16 season after taking a medical redshirt, while Paul also plans on returning to Illinois after transferring and playing at a junior college in Texas this season.  Injuries have been the name of the game this season, and when senior Rayvonte Rice went out just after the first of the year after fracturing his non-shooting hand in a practice drill.  Then, to make matters worse, Aaron Cosby, the transfer from Seton Hall, sustained an eye injury against Indiana and was lost for a few games as well.  Both Rice and Cosby were then suspended by Groce for a violation of team rules, and while Rice has since been reinstated, Cosby has not and has been advised by Groce to take some time away from basketball to work on some things. It was announced on Friday afternoon at Groce's press conference previewing Michigan State that Cosby and the Illini have parted ways.  Apparently it was a mutual decision while the Illini work on finishing the season and Cosby will transfer to another school once he finishes up his degree this semester.  Got all of that?

     So, Rice was out a total of 9 games, and in that span, the Illini went 6-3 without him, much better than anyone anticipated.  During that span, Illinois defeated Maryland at home and went on the road to defeat Michigan State.  The win over the Spartans was especially gratifying because it gave the Illini some extra momentum on an already three game winning streak, plus added a quality win to their NCAA resume.  Even though the Illini lost at Wisconsin last Sunday 68-49, they still are in good position to make the NCAA Tourney provided that they can hold serve at home, and maybe steal one on the road for good measure.

     Standing in the way will be the Spartans, who make the return trip to Champaign on Sunday evening to play the Illini (6:30 pm CT, BTN).  It seems that the Illini woke Michigan State up with their defeat in East Lansing because since that game, the Spartans have played much better and are once again resembling a Tom Izzo coached team.  The Illini are 17-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten, and still are in the mix of the logjam that is the middle of the pack in the conference race.  With the Big Ten Tournament just 3 weeks away, there still is a lot to play for, and in order to stay out of the bottom four of the league and have to play on Wednesday, the Illini need to finish strong.

     The Illini women's basketball team has struggled mightily as of late, and not because of a lack of talent, but for some unfortunate circumstances in which they have lost games by a close margin.  After upsetting Ohio State last week, the Illini ventured out to Piscataway, New Jersey to battle Rutgers for the first time ever, and came away with an 80-56 loss, their worst loss in the last 5 games.  The Illini are now 13-14 overall on the season, but just 4-11 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Purdue on Saturday for their final regular season road contest.  The Illini will end the season at home for the final two games before heading up to Hoffman Estates to the Sears Centre for the women's Big Ten Tournament the first weekend in March.

     Finally, closing this week's blog with some football news.  Quarterback Aaron Bailey, who was determined to play the position at Illinois and after several chances to move to another position where he would see action on the field, has decided to transfer to another school to finish out his eligibility.  Bailey was the backup to both Lunt and O'Toole this past season, and after O'Toole graduated, Lunt will undoubtedly be the starting quarterback once spring workouts begin next month.  Redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch may be named the backup and Bailey, who didn't wish to switch positions to see the field, is better suited going elsewhere.  Also, Tim Beckman hired a co-defensive coordinator in Mike Phair, who has a coaching resume primarily in the NFL, the last of which was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair will coach the defensive line, a spot vacated when Greg Colby was fired last month.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Signing Day Debacle

     Coach Tim Beckman could possibly become a singer in his next life, and if he does, he could use as his theme song the hit by Britney Spears entitled "Oops, I Did It Again".  What it is you ask that I am talking about?

     I am sure that you have heard this by now, but at his annual Signing Day press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Beckman took to his bully pulpit to challenge the media to be more positive about the program in general, instead of heaping it on the recruiting class, which was the best one that he has assembled in his four years as head coach.

     It is no secret that Illinois is lacking in some key positions, and this recruiting class went a long way in addressing some of those needs.  But to get up on the podium and lash out at the media to be more positive takes some guts.  But then again, with Beckman, we shouldn't be surprised.  Since he was hired at Illinois, Beckman has consistently given us, the media, some "comedic gold" with remarks or comments that he says.  As a matter of fact, just a couple months ago when the Illini received the Heart Of Dallas Bowl invitation, Beckman got up in front of the assembled media and mentioned that it was "a giggle" when referring to how he felt Illinois was being perceived.

     I know some of you are probably thinking as you read this (and I hope you are reading this!) that my comments thus far are part of the problem, but when you are given ammunition, you normally want to go out and use it, which I am doing.  I plan to get to the recruiting class in a bit, but I want to get this off my chest and out in print.

     I guarantee you that I am not the harshest critic of Beckman, and throughout his early tenure at Illinois, I have attempted to be very fair and report about the program on an objective  level, which is the main goal of the media.  Also, as a freelance writer for a local newspaper, I have, on occasion, met with Beckman one-on-one, as well as other coaches to complete stories with reputable quotes.  Sure, the program hasn't been the most successful over the past decade, but I do think that Beckman is making progress and trying to move the program forward.  The progression in wins over the past three years will reflect this point.  But to continually get up in front of reporters and do these missteps keeps the critics fueled and the fires burning.  And, no less, this was all done in front of athletic director Mike Thomas, who is responsible for bringing Beckman to Illinois in the first place.

     I guess if Beckman wants us to help him create a positive atmosphere around the program, I will do my best by offering a little advice. (He probably won't see this anyway, since he claims not to read any of it, but I regress).  Tim, if you want the media to write and report positively about you and the program, don't throw us under the bus in doing so.  You saw where that got Bruce Weber.  Okay, off my soapbox and onto the recruiting class as a review.

     Illinois welcomed 25 new signees, including 9 already on campus to take advantage of early enrollment and participation in spring practice, making this a strong class that addresses several critical needs.  The headline of the class is running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a four star player from Nashville, Tennessee.  Cameron Watkins, a two star defensive back, is also from the same high school (Pearl-Cohn HS) and was a major influence on Vaughn committing to the Illini.

     All told, four running backs and five offensive linemen highlight this class, in terms of need and filling those voids left by graduation and other attrition related departures.  Besides Vaughn, the running backs coming in are Dre Brown, (DeKalb), Reggie Corbin (Upper Marlboro, MD) and Henry Enyenihi (Lawrenceville, GA by way of Sacramento City College JC).  These four individuals will be able to hopefully step in right away and supplement Josh Ferguson and Kendrick Foster in the backfield.

     As far as the offensive linemen go, Gabe Megginson heads the class at that position, coming in from Jacksonville and having a chance to step in right away and make an impact on a position that was depleted by injuries last season.  Normally, you don't try and play true freshmen, but Megginson has that type of build that hints toward him trying to maybe spot fill one of those line positions.
I got a chance to catch with up with one of the new Illini linemen on Wednesday, Connor Brennan, and the juco transfer told me that he is excited to join the Illini family.

     "I really liked the family aspect that Coach Beckman conveyed on my visit, and the chance to step in and help the team out on the offensive line really appealed to me as well", Brennan said when asked why he chose Illinois.

     Beckman and his coaching staff have continued to hit the Chicagoland area, as well as the radius within "Illini Nation", which is a 6 hour radius any way from Champaign-Urbana.  The Illini have 6 from the state of Illinois with 2 of those downstate (Megginson and Champaign Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald).  13 of the 25 players are within the radius of what Beckman likes to call "Illini Nation".  Spring practice will begin on Saturday, March 14th, with the 2015 annual Spring 'Orange & Blue Game' set for Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm at Memorial Stadium.

     During this stretch of Illinois basketball without senior guard Rayvonte Rice, the Illini have gone 4-3, and then when Aaron Cosby went down against Indiana with a retinal tear, the Illini had to regroup even more in his absence.  It was announced last Saturday just before game time that both Rice and Cosby have been suspended indefinitely by head coach John Groce for unspecified team violations (meaning we don't know what they did, nor will Groce divulge that information).  What we do know is that both are doing well in their recoveries and have been practicing with the team even through their suspensions.  In that span of games, the Illini have climbed back to the .500 mark in conference play at 5-5 and carry a 15-8 overall record into a tough road environment on Saturday at Michigan State (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  The Illini defeated both Penn State and Rutgers at the State Farm Center to square their Big Ten record and at least for the time being, keep their head above water and entertain talk about a possible NCAA Tournament bid.  At some point, Rice and Cosby will both return to the lineup, and when they do, their teammates will hopefully know their roles and not have to be the ones to step up like they have done since the duo have been sidelined.  Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have done their fair share in keeping the Illini afloat, while sophomore Jaylon Tate and senior Ahmad Starks have also stepped up their games as well.  In the logjam at the middle of the Big Ten standings, a couple marquee wins would go a long way in determining the postseason future of Groce's squad, and like Groce frequently does, offers no excuses for any of their shortcomings.  What Beckman lacks in communication skills, Groce more than makes up for.

     Since jumping out to an 11-4 early season record, Matt Bollant's Fighting Illini women's basketball team has run aground of some hard luck losses that have sent them on a 7 game losing streak.  The Illini are now 11-11 overall, but just 2-8 in Big Ten play, and welcome Minnesota to the State Farm Center on Thursday evening (8:00 pm CT, BTN) for a chance to snap this skid.  As has been the case with Groce, Bollant's team has been dealing with some injuries, and they recently got Ivory Crawford back, who had been out several games with an injury.  Bollant continues to get some good play out of his McDonald's All-American freshman Chatrice White, but he knows that it takes much more than her to get the team back on the winning track.  After the Minnesota game, the Illini will play 4 out of their next 5 games away from Champaign.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bowling Anyone?

     So, the Illini are bowl eligible.  Something that was deemed unthinkable a month ago came to fruition this past Saturday, as the Fighting Illini defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 47-33 to not only get their elusive sixth win of the season, but also take back the Land Of Lincoln trophy that has been residing in Evanston for the past two seasons.  More importantly, however, it evidently bought head coach Tim Beckman at least another season in Champaign.  In a statement on Sunday afternoon, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced that Beckman would be back for a fourth season, ending speculation that he would be gone at the end of the 2014 season.  Whether or not this turns out to be a good idea in the long run, the mere fact that the Illini reached the six win mark and bowl eligibility seemed to be enough.

     True, at times it looked as if Beckman would not return in 2015, but Thomas wanted progress, and going from 4 to 6 wins showed him all he needed.  With starting quarterback Wes Lunt still not 100% from his fractured fibula injury sustained earlier in the season, the onus fell upon senior Reilly O'Toole to shoulder the load and lead the team to victory.  And lead is what he did, completing 17 of 28 pass attempts for 147 yards and throwing three touchdown passes.  Freshman sensation Mikey Dudek, who is nearing 1,000 yards receiving for his inaugural year, caught 7 passes for 63 yards and one of those scores.  Fellow freshman Malik Turner caught his first career touchdown, and senior Martize Barr caught O'Toole's other offering.  Tailback Josh Ferguson found the endzone twice, and Mason Monheim returned an interception 49 yards for a score.  Illinois improves to 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten with the win, and will now get some extra practice time, which Beckman thinks will benefit his team greatly.

     So, what does this all mean?  No destination has been announced as of yet, but two possible places that the Illini could land are either in Dallas or Detroit.  The Big Ten has bowl ties with 10 bowl games, so it seems that all the teams eligible should get one of the conference tie-ins.  So, it really depends on a couple factors, the main one being how a team will travel.  Judging by the way attendance was at the final home game this season, the Illini contingent will not be a large one since morale is at a level that hasn't been seen in a long time.  Hopefully a bowl win will change the mood.

     Things have started out very well for John Groce's Fighting Illini mens' basketball team, as they have been one of the highest scoring teams in the nation through the first two weeks of the season.  The Illini captured the championship of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational this past weekend with wins over Indiana State and Baylor.  The Illini played their first true road game on Tuesday evening at Miami (Florida) in the annual Big 10/ACC Challenge, and suffered their first setback of the young season 70-61 to the #15 ranked Hurricanes.  The Illini entered the national rankings themselves for the first time on Sunday, coming in at #24, but most lilkely will fall back out when the new polls are released at the end of the coming week.  Senior Rayvonte Rice scored 22 points and notched a double-double with 12 rebounds. Malcolm Hill continued his early season success by scoring 13 points, the only other Illini player to record double figures.  The Illini fell behind on several different occasions, but found a way to come back most every time.  The problem was that Miami had an answer for every Illinois comeback, and proved to be too much down the stretch when the game was in the balance.  The Illini fall to 6-1 on the season,. while the Hurricanes improve to 8-0 with the win.  The Illini return to action on Saturday afternoon when they welcome the Eagles of American University to the State Farm Center.  Game time with American on Saturday is set for 1:00 pm central time and will not be televised.

     Matt Bollant's Fighting Illini women's basketball team is also off to a good start early in the 2014-15 season, and already have one signature win to their potential NCAA Tournament resume.  The Illini defeated #9 Kentucky 77-71 in the opening round of the Paradise Jam Tournament in the Virgin Islands to continue momentum from the first few games of the season.  However, that mementum was short-lived, as the Illini dropped a pair of games in the remainder of the tourney, losing to South Florida 67-61 and then falling to Oklahoma 78-76 in overtime.  Bollant has welcomed early season huge numbers from his freshman McDonald's All-American, Chatrice White, who is playing really well.  In the loss to the Sooners, Ivory Crawford scored 27 points to lead the Illini, but it wasn't enough to secure the win.  The Illini return home on Wednesday night to take on the Virginia Cavaliers in the women's version of the Big 10/ACC Challenge at the State Farm Center.  The Illini enter play with Virginia at 5-2, while the Cavaliers come in at 5-1 overall.  The game, which is scheduled to begin at 7:00 pm central time, will not be televised, but will be available on the BTN Plus platform for a nominal fee.

     Kevin Hambly's Illinois volleyball team completed a very successful regular season with a 3-1 victory over Michigan this past Saturday evening at Huff Hall.  Illinois was paced by Katie Stadick, who hit .444 with 8 kills and 9 blocks and Jocelynn Birks led both squads with 16 kills.  With the victory, the Illini seal up third place in the Big Ten standings with an overall mark of 24-7 and 16-4 in conference play.  On Sunday evening, the Illini learned their fate in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, where they were named the #9 overall seed.  The Illini will host the first and second rounds this weekend at Huff Hall, the 16th time they have hosted and the fifth time under Hambly.  Illinois will face Murray State (26-5, 14-2 in the OVC) on Friday evening at 7:00 pm, with Iowa State and Western Kentucky facing off in the other game right before the Illini match.  The winners will face each other on Saturday evening for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Crunch Time

     The task ahead of the Fighting Illini football team couldn't be more clear.  Win out, or go home.  The Illini were defeated 30-14 last Saturday by the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team they hadn't seen on the field since 2008.  Quarterback Wes Lunt returned under center for Illinois, and was a little rusty on offense, completing 14 of 25 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown to freshman sensation Mikey Dudek.  Dudek, who is havng a fantastic freshman season, hauled in 8 balls for 60 yards and 2 touchdown catches, the other one coming from backup QB Reilly O'Toole late in the fourth quarter.  The Illini have put themselves in a precarious position, needing 2 wins in the final two games in order to become bowl eligible and save head coach Tim Beckman's job.  Beckman has been under scrutiny this season, having won just 2 conference games in his three seasons in Champaign.  However, Beckman maintains that the team is on the right path, and claims to be getting better each week, although the overall record does not reflect that.  The Illini are 4-6 overall, but just 1-5 in Big Ten play, and whereas the possibility still exists about getting a bowl bid, the reality speaks otherwise.

     The first step in that process will be this coming Saturday, when the Illini welcome Penn State to Memorial Stadum for Senior Day (11:00 am CT, ESPN2).  The Nittany Lions come into the game with Illinois at 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the tough East Division of the Big Ten.  The Nittany Lions stepped out of conference last Saturday and defeated Temple 30-13 in State College.  Penn State has one of the more talented quarterbacks in the league in Christian Hackenberg, although his numbers in the win over the Owls didn't show it.  Hackenberg completed 12 of 26 passes for 112 yards, and threw two interceptions on the day.  The story of the game for Penn State was the running of Akeel Lynch, who carried the ball 18 times for 130 yards and a touchdown.  The Illini have been known to be soft against the run, and the running of both Lynch and Bill Belton could prove fatal for the Illini defense.

     One of the best things about this time of year is the crossover of the sports seasons.  Since volleyball and soccer are beginning to wrap up, mens' and womens' basketball is just beginning in the currently renovated State Farm Center.  John Groce's mens' team opened up the season last Friday night in rather uneventful fashion, defeating Georgia Southern 81-70.  Knowing Groce wasn't too happy with the effort against the Eagles, the Illini came out on Sunday a completely different focused team, taking down another flock of Eagles, these from Coppin State 114-56, as six players scored in double figures for the Fighting Illini. Leading the way for the Illini were freshman Leron Black and Ahmad Starks, who each scored 18 points.  Aaron Cosby added 17, while senior Rayvonte Rice chipped in 14 for Illinois, who improves to 2-0 on the young season.  The Illini tied a State Farm Center record by draining 15 three-pointers, and came within one of the all-time high for a single game of 16, set during the impeccable game against Arizona back in 2005.  The Illini will be back in action this coming Friday night when they welcome the Governors of Austin Peay to Champaign.  If the name Austin Peay sounds familiar, it should.  Those Illini fans that have been around a while will remember the crushing loss that Illinois suffered to the Governors in the 1987 NCAA Tournament.  Hopefully, the news will be happier this time around for the Illini faithful.

     Matt Bollant's women's team has also started their season, and are off to a quick 2-0 start, despite missing all 21 of their three-point attempts in the season opening, come-from-behind win over IPFW.  The Illini fared much better in their second game, a 66-48 win over Robert Morris at the State Farm Center on Tuesday night.  In that win, freshman sensation Chatrice White, a McDonald's All-American in high school, led the Illini in scoring with 23 points and grabbbed 8 rebounds, while senior Brittany Carter recorded a double-double, scoring 11 points and caroming 10 boards.  The Illini will be right back in action on Thursday night against Memphis (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and then again on Sunday when they host Southern University (2:00 pm CT, No TV).

     The regular season is coming to a close for Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team, and they have a huge match coming up on Wednesday evening.  The #10 ranked Illini will travel to Madison, Wisconsin to battle the #2 Wisconsin Badgers in a pivotal top-ten matchup (7:00 pm CT, No TV).  The Badgers come into the match with the Illini at 24-2 overall and 15-1 in conference play, while the Illini check in at 21-6 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten.  The Illini will also wrap up the road games for the regular season on Saturday, when they travel to Bloomington, Indiana to battle the Indiana Hoosiers (6:00 pm CT, No TV).

   

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Momentum swing?

     Yes, the unthinkable happened last weekend at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and what I mean by that is the Illini finally won a home Big Ten game with Tim Beckman as head coach.  The Illini defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers 28-24  Whatever the fate of Beckman is at the end of this season, one thing remains clear: this team keeps trying, and win or lose, the effort is there.  Three things can be taken away from the game on Saturday that led to the win.  The first one is the play of Reilly O'Toole.  Although O'Toole didn't have stellar numbers (14-21-0 for 118 yards and one touchdown), he did employ the run a little more than he normally does.  This is normally reserved for O'Toole's main competitor, Aaron Bailey, who saw just one series of action during the game.  Beckman had said earlier in the week that both quarterbacks would see action, but when Bailey came into the game, the offense wasn't flowing the way he wanted it to, so he went back to O'Toole, who finished the game.  O'Toole gained 59 yards on 17 carries, and scored another touchdown via the run, getting his first win as starting quarterback.  Another thing that can be taken away from the game on Saturday is the play of the defense.  Under Tim Banks, the defense has performed miserably so far this season, but against the Golden Gophers, they bent but didn't break.  When the Illini had a lead, they maintained it for the most part, but once again had to hang on for the victory.  Which brings me to my third thing from last week, which is the stellar play of cornerback V'Angelo Bentley.  Bentley has been a one-man wrecking crew on special teams and defense, and his scoop of a recovered fumble that essentially won the game also put him in the record book at Illinois.  Since Bentley arrived in Champaign, he has now scored a touchdown four different ways, running a kickoff back, taking a punt back, getting an interception and returning it for a score, and now, picking up a fumble and scoring.  Not even Red Grange, whom the Illini honored by wearing grey uniforms last Saturday, can claim that.
   
     So, what can the Illini do for an encore this week?  First of all, their matchup is a very tough one, as they head east to Columbus, Ohio to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes in prime time (7:00 pm CT, ABC).  The Illini haven't won in Columbus since 2007, which coincidentally, was when Juice Williams was the quarterback.  Williams is now on the coaching staff, so he can get in the heads of the players and instill them on how to beat the Buckeyes.  Ohio State had an injury to their signal caller earlier this season, as Braxton Miller suffered a season ending injury.  Enter J. T. Barrett, who may even be better than what Miller is.  Illinois (4-4, 1-3) heads into the Ohio State game with some sustained momentum following the win over Minnesota, but the Buckeyes will be waiting.  Ohio State (6-1, 3-0) needed double overtime to defeat Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, so they will be looking to make a better showing when they face the Illini.  Barrett's numbers weren't that good against the Nittany Lions, only completing 12 of 19 passes for 74 yards.  However, Barrett scored twice on the ground in overtime to seal the win for the Buckeyes.  Barrett was also injured in the game, but fully expects to play against Illinois on Saturday night.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their winning ways last weekend, as they swept a pair of home matches against both Indiana and Purdue at Huff Hall.  On Friday evening, the Illini dispatched the Hoosiers 3-0 (25-18, 25-14, 25-19), and then came back on Saturday night to take down the #13 Boilermakers 3-1 (25-20, 26-24, 26-28, 26-24) in a thrilling match.  The Illini have now won five consecutive matches and have improved their overall record to 16-5 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten.  The Illini, who come in this week ranked #10 in the AVCA poll, hit the road for the first of three matches in a span of 6 days.  On Friday night, the Illini head to East Lansing, Michigan to battle the Michigan State Spartans (6:00 pm CT, BTN), and then will travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday night to face the Michigan Wolverines (6:30 pm CT, No TV).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team is wrapping up the regular season schedule, and the up and down season continued this past weekend, when they split two matches at the Illinois Soccer Stadium.  The Illini defeated Michigan State on Friday night 2-0, and then were defeated by Michigan on Sunday afternoon 2-1.  The Illini will send their seniors out on style Friday evening when they welcome #11 Wisconsin to Champaign for Senior Night.  Illinois will recognize two seniors, Megan Green and Noelle Leary, before the match on Friday night.  The Illini are currently 10-7-1 overall, but just 5-6-1 in conference play.  However, the Illini have earned a spot in next week's Big Ten Tournament, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, November 5th in West Lafayette, Indiana.

     As Fighting Illini men's and women's basketball season approaches, some news off the court (sort of) happened this week.  On Tuesday, a storm drain was blocked, resulting in rain water flooding the State Farm Center floor and covering the basketball court.  The floor may need to be replaced, but it should not affect the schedule of games this season.  Something that will affect the schedule for the beginning of the 2015-16 season is the continued renovation efforts at the State Farm Center.  As a result, the first five games scheduled for November 2015 have officially been moved to the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield.  The capacity of the PCCC is about half the size of the SFC, but the move is necessary to facilitate efforts to get that phase of the construction schedule completed.  More information on this as time goes on.