End Of The Line?

End Of The Line?
Illinois hosts Senior Day at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

End Of The Line?

      As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a few items on the Illinois horizon appear to be eerily familiar, while others have taken either a turn for the better or worse, depending on how you see things.  Don't catch my drift?  Allow me to elaborate.

     First of all, the Fighting Illini football team is once again in a familiar situation, and that is needing a win in their final "home" game against Northwestern to become bowl eligible.  The game, which will be played at Chicago's Soldier Field, was the brainchild of both Tim Beckman and Mike Thomas, both of whom are no longer employed at the university.  The latter hired the former, which was clearly a grave mistake, leading Thomas to be shown the door about 3 months after Beckman himself was fired.  The reason that was given for moving the game up to Chicago for a "home" game was to appease the donors in the city and suburbs because every other year, the IHSA football playoffs alternate between Champaign-Urbana and DeKalb, and this was a year when the championships were in DeKalb.  Sooooooo, now there is nothing going on in C-U this weekend, which is bad for businesses like restaurants and hotels.  Plus, Illinois is hosting Senior Day festivities up in Chicago, which makes absolutely no sense to me as well.  The players apparently voted for this, since quite a few of them live within striking distance of the city and welcomed the chance to have their honors bestowed upon them in an NFL environment.

     It's no secret that the Illinois-Northwestern game last year at Ryan Field was a poor draw, as was the last game in Champaign two years ago, so a change in venue was a viable option.  With many of the students that attend the university hailing from the suburbs anyway, it would be an easier trip for them to make.  Truth is, many of them don't even attend when they are blocks away in C-U, so why would they make the trip some 40 minutes or so to the lakefront to watch the team play?  The university needs to figure some things out, as they are still in turmoil because there is no permanent athletic director in place, and interim coach Bill Cubit is politicking for the job for next season.

     Which brings us to the actual game on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ESPNU).  Illinois needed a win in their last two games in order to become bowl eligible for the second straight season, and they couldn't get the job done last weekend against Minnesota in Minneapolis, losing 32-23 to the Golden Gophers.  Even though the Illini have remained somewhat competitive in their losses, a loss is still that, and they can ill afford to have another one.  One bright spot is that there may not be enough 6-6 teams to fill bowl slots, so the possibility exists that a 5-7 team could go bowling.  This tells me two things:
1) there are too many bowls now, and 2) you get rewarded with 15 extra practices for a bowl for a losing record.  Cubit has done a great job holding this team together despite all they have been through, and the injuries have taken a toll throughout the season.  At his weekly press conferences this season, Cubit has remained steadfast that he would like to continue at the controls, but maintains that it is not his decision to make.  Cubit is an all-around good guy, and personally, I would like to see him stay another season to bridge the gap between he and the next coach.  After all, he is 62 years old, and I don't see him wanting to do this for very much longer.  Plus, with no full-time Chancellor or athletic director, time is closing in, especially with all of the other jobs that are open, or could become open once the regular season is finished this weekend.  We shall wait and see what happens on this subject, as some movement could come as early as next week.

     Another Mike Thomas gem of a decision was to move the first five games of the 2015-16 Fighting Illini men's basketball season to the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, since the State Farm Center is finishing the current renovation phase, and now that the "experiment" in Springfield is complete, the results are in, and they are less than adequate.  I was able to make it over to one of the games, and came away less than impressed about the experience.  The PCCC is much smaller, and didn't feel like a home court atmosphere.  The Illini finished their residency in the state capitol 2-2, although they trailed for a good majority of the time, even in the games that they won.  Add a close loss to Providence on the road, and Illinois sits at just 2-3 overall, leading many to speculate just how warm the seat the John Groce sits on will get if the present situation continues.

     The losses, to North Florida and Chattanooga, were bad, and the way that the Illini played in those games did not help the unease of the fan base, many of which are in the mode of not caring.  Even in the wins over North Dakota State and Chicago State, the Illini trailed late, before making comebacks on both occasions to win the game.  As a matter of fact, it took a three-pointer by freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands at the buzzer to defeat Chicago State 82-79 on Monday night.  A loss to the Cougars would have set the Illini at 1-4, their worst start since 1906, and would have set outrage by Illini Nation.  The loss at Providence was actually their best performance of the season, and if Michael Finke gets his follow-up slam of Malcom Hill's missed layup to fall, all of a sudden maybe the season gets looked at a bit differently.

     Groce does have some leverage for an excuse, with injuries to three of his top players that were expected to compete for a bulk of the playing time.  Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate are all out, with Nunn and Tate expected back within the next couple months.  Sophomore Leron Black is also coming back from an injury as well, and while he has played sparingly, is not totally back, and it shows on the court.  Once Groce gets his arsenal of players back, roles and rotations will change a bit, and hopefully, so will the results on the court.

     Illinois now continues the Florida portion of the Emerald Coast Classic, where they will play UAB on Friday night (8:30 pm CT, CBS Sports Network), and then depending on the outcome of that game, will play either Iowa State or Virginia Tech on Saturday (TBA, CBS Sports Network).

     Matt Bollant's women's basketball team is also feeling the effects of not playing in the State Farm Center, but they played their home games much closer to campus at Parkland College, and so far, the results have paid off.  Bollant's crew is off to a 4-0 start, including a 98-43 romp over Tennessee State on Tuesday evening at Parkland.  The Illini have hit the 90 point plateau three times this season, including the exhibition game, and will play their first true road game next Wednesday evening when they travel to Coral Gables, Florida to face the University of Miami (6:00 pm CT).  After the trip to Florida, the Illini will play 6 of their next 8 games at the newly renovated State Farm Center.

     Finally, Kevin Hambly's Illinois volleyball team begins to wrap up the regular season portion of the schedule on the road, first taking on Nebraska in Lincoln on Wednesday evening (7:00 pm CT), before completing regular season play on Friday in Ann Arbor to face Michigan (5:00 pm CT).  The Illini are 19-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten, so a pair of wins to finish strong will do a lot for Illinois and their quest for an NCAA Tournament invite.

     Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 'I' Stands For Interim

     We knew this day was coming, it was just a little surprising when the news broke.

     Much like the day that Tim Beckman was fired last August, one week before the 2015 football season began, it came as a relatively small shock when news broke early on Monday morning that University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas was let go, and in his place, interim (remember that word, because it will be used as nauseum in this blog entry) AD Paul Kowalczyk was named by interim (there's that word again) Chancellor Barbara Wilson.

     In addition to having an interim football coach in Bill Cubit, who really doesn't know what will happen to his fate until the end of the season, there is also an interin Provost at the University of Illinois, leaving many to speculate as to what direction the athletic department will go in the naming of some of these positions to take the venerable 'interim' tag off.  In order to hire a new football coach, there has to be a Chancellor in place to hire an AD, which in turn will hire the new football coach.

     Confused?  You're not alone.  Since August, there seems to have been news weekly in the athletic circles at the U of I, and it's rather amazing that all of this was concocted by a series of tweets by a former football player that we thought was just venting from his dislike of Beckman and the way that he was treated.

     Thomas. at the press conference announcing the change at the top of the athletic department, was lauded by Wilson, and appeared to do nothing wrong except one thing, the hiring of Beckman as head football coach.  It is evident without a doubt that the hire was a colossal mistake, and the fallout of everything since that fateful day can be linked to it.

     Cubit, who is an all-around good guy and a pleasure to talk to, because he tells it like it is, could possibly get hired as the permanent football coach, but that will probably be dependent on how the rest of the season goes.  As far as recruiting goes, there is quite a bit of indecision right now, and a recruit will not want to come to Illinois if there is not a stable situation, which is what is happening right now.

     Oh yeah, there was a game last Saturday, amidst all of the happenings off the field.  Illinois snapped a three game losing streak in a big way, throttling the Purdue Boilermakers 48-14 last Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Just one week after getting it handed to them at Penn State 39-0, the Illini welcomed back Josh Ferguson to the offense, and he immediately made an impact, rushing 12 times for 133 yards, while catching 6 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.  Ferguson's return made freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn that much better, as Vaughn scampered for 180 yards on 16 carries and two scores.  The spike in offensive performance is a welcome sight, but they will need to continue it in a much larger way if they plan to knock off their next opponent, the Ohio State Buckeyes this coming Saturday (11:00 am CT. ABC).

     The Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) are coming in as the #2 team in the nation, and are currently on a 22 game winning streak, dating back to last season, when they won the 2014 National Championship.  However, the Buckeyes have won a couple games by a slim margin, and are coming off a 28-14 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers last Saturday in Columbus.  The Buckeyes have been in the news recently for some off-the-field incidents involving their star quarterback J. T. Barrett.  Out of the three signal callers that head coach Urban Meyer has at his disposal, Barrett gives them the best chance on a weekly basis, although Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller are not bad options either.

     The Illini (5-4, 2-3) have nothing to lose against the Buckeyes, and if the unthinkable happens, which is an Illinois win over the Buckeyes, then the head coaching job should be given to Cubit immediately after the game.  Hands down.

     Now begins the time of the crossover in sports on the University of Illinois campus, and men's and women's basketball begins with the regular season openers this coming weekend.  Due to construction being wrapped up at the State Farm Center, both teams are forced to begin their regular seasons on the road, so to speak, with the men playing in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center, and the women beginning in Champaign, only at Parkland College.  John Groce's squad will play North Florida on Friday evening (7:00 pm, ESPN3) and North Dakota State on Sunday afternoon (2:00 pm, ESPN3).

     Wednesday was signing day, and Groce inked one player in Te'Jon Lucas, a point guard from Wisconsin.  Lucas fills a void at the position and ends a long recruiting battle trying to find someone to bring in after several near misses.  Groce also announced at the press conference that Kipper Nichols has also signed, but will not be able to play until late in the fall of 2016.  Nichols originally committed to Tulane and had enrolled there, but only stayed two weeks before leaving, and that action has caused him to have to sit out the duration until he is eligible to compete.

     Matt Bollant's women's squad will begin play at Parkland against Chicago State on Friday night (7:00 pm), and then turn around to host Ohio University on Sunday afternoon (2:00 pm).  The first game in the newly renovated State Farm Center is scheduled to be the Big 10/ACC Challenge game on December 3rd against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Should be a pretty tough ticket to obtain.

     Bollant signed four players, including Ali Andrews, Brandi Beasley, Courtney Joens and Sarah Overcash.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini volleyball team continues toward the culmination of their season, and after stringing four victories together, they dropped a match against the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus on Wednesday night.  Illinois will return to Huff Hall on Saturday night when they welcome Rutgers to Huff Hall.  Illinois will also host Wisconsin next Wednesday night.  Currently, the Illini are 17-9 overall and 8-7 overall.

     Not much going on for a week, eh?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Now What?

     The injuries continue to pile up for Bill Cubit's Fighting Illini football squad, and the latest to fall victim is Henry Enyenehi, who is supposedly out for this weekend's game at Purdue (11:00 am CT, BTN).

     In what was a dismal showing last Saturday at Penn State, the Fighting Illini did next to nothing, and the end result was a 39-0 shellacking at the hands of the Nittany Lions in State College, Pennsylvania.  Up until this game, the season was showing signs of promise, and Cubit was beginning to endear the hearts of Illini Nation as a possible successor full time to Tim Beckman, who was let go one week before the season began this year.

     Now, all of that seems moot, as the Illini slog their way into West Lafayette to battle a Boilermaker squad that had their best offensive showing of the season last Saturday in defeating Nebraska 55-45, just the second Big Ten win in the Darrell Hazell era at Purdue. The other conference win for Hazell was last year in Champaign, so the Illini will have revenge on their minds when they battle on Saturday in an attempt to win back the Cannon trophy, the artifact that the two schools play for each time they take the field.

     With Enyenehi's injury, that essentially leaves freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn as the only healthy player in the backfield, although it remains to be seen if senior Josh Ferguson will return to action this weekend.  Ferguson took part in practice on Wednesday, but a final decision won't be made until sometime on Thursday before the week's injury report is released to the media.

     It is a wonder that quarterback Wes Lunt is still healthy and actually a good thing, because if he wasn't, there's no telling how this Illinois team could put a formidable team on the field.  Lunt has a diminished group of receivers as well to throw to, with both Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee out of action, and if not for Geronimo Allison, Lunt would be forced to run the ball himself, which he does not do well at all.

     I guess it all boils down to this:  with many players out of action for whatever reason, Cubit has to put a team on the field and hope that they can grab some magic as the season begins its homestretch run.  Illinois (4-4, 1-3) still has aspirations to go to a bowl game, but they still need two wins in order to even become eligible, and probably really need three of the last four games in order to feel good about postseason hopes.  With Purdue, Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern still left on the schedule, Throwing out the Ohio State game (for obvious reasons), the Illini still have a chance to win the other three games.  Only the Buckeyes game is in Champaign, so they will need to be road warriors in every sense of the phrase if they plan to be playing past Thanksgiving weekend.

     After a rough stretch of matches, Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly feels optimistic that his team can rebound and do what they need to in order to reach the NCAA Tournament.  The Illini got off to a good start this past weekend, by defeating Michigan State (3-1) and Michigan (3-0) at Huff Hall in Champaign.  Then, on Wednesday night, the Illini ventured up to Evanston for a mid-week matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats.  The Illini won the first set, and dropped the next two to go down 2-1.  The Illini won the fourth set and the deciding fifth set by a 16-14 score to take the match 3-2.  With the win over the Wildcats, the Illini improve to 16-8 overall and 7-6 in Big Ten play.  The Illini will return the favor this weekend when they host the Wildcats on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Janet Rayfield's Illinois women's soccer team wrapped up regular season play last week, and just sneaked into the Big Ten Tournament as the #8 seed, which gave them a first round matchup at Penn State last Sunday.  The Illini were defeated by the Nittany Lions 3-1. to finish their record heading into the NCAA Tournament selection at 10-6-3 overall and 4-4-3 in conference play.  Illinois will await their fate and hope that their resume is good enough to get one of the bids for the tournament.

     With November on the horizon, it is nearing time for both the mens and womens basketball teams to begin action, and since the State Farm Center is not quite ready for its tenants yet, the two teams will be playing on the road for the first few games.  The men will call the Prairie Capitol Convention Center home through the end of November, and have their first and only exhibition game on Sunday when they play Illinois-Springfield/  The women will be playing at Parkland College and they will also be starting play soon.  The State Farm Center is scheduled to be ready in time for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on December 2nd when Illinois hosts Notre Dame.

     That's all she wrote for this week, folks.  Hope there are no more injuries to the football team between now and the next blog post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Survival Of The Fittest

     Another close game.   Yet another injury, which lately seems to be the norm rather than the exception.   This can be daunting on a head coach, interim or not.

     Illinois (4-3, 1-2), which seems to continue giving teams good games, but ending up on the short end of the stick, finds themselves in familiar territory as they head east to Happy Valley to visit Penn State.

     The Illini, who fell victim to Wisconsin last Saturday 24-13 in their annual Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, had their chances against the Badgers, but with an ailing team on both sides of the ball, bodies are getting thin in number.

     The latest to be sidelined is tight end Tyler White, who appears to be out for the remainder of the season.  White joins a growing list of players that have seen their last action of the season, including Mikey Dudek, Jamal Milan, Teko Powell, Dre Brown and Patrick Nelson.  Add to that the injuries of Josh Ferguson, Marchie Murdock, and Justin Hardee, the medical staff is keeping very busy this fall.

     In the loss to Wisconsin, freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn continued to impress, as he was the only running back to carry the ball, rushing 13 times for 55 yards and a touchdown.  Vaughn, who has been pressed into extensive action with injuries to Ferguson and Brown, has utilized his opportunity nicely and is making the best of it.  Wes Lunt, who remains healthy despite being prone to injuries over the past couple of seasons, completed 22 of 43 passes for 278 yards, but did not throw a touchdown in the loss.  Lunt's main target continues to be Geronimo Allison, who caught 8 passes for 99 yards against the Badgers.  Interim head coach Bill Cubit figures that Ferguson may miss the game at Penn State this Saturday (11:00 am CT, ESPN2), but hopefully will return to action next weekend when the Illini travel to Purdue.

     Speaking of the Nittany Lions, they narrowly defeated Maryland last Saturday in Baltimore 31-30, behind quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who completed 13 of 29 passes for 315 yards and three scores.  Penn State running back Saquon Barkley rushed 20 times for 65 yards and a touchdown, sending the Nittany Lions to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten's Eastern Division.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini womens' volleyball team has been in a rut as of late, and this past weekend, it was more of the same.  On Friday night the Illini ventured to Bloomington to battle Indiana and came away with a 3-0 win, which was big for the team, since they hadn't had much success lately.  Then, on Sunday, the Illini went up the road to West Lafayette to take on Purdue and things were looking good as the Illini took an early 2-0 lead over the Boilermakers.  What happened next was befitting of the season thus far.  The Boilermakers came back and won the next two games, setting up a pivotal game five, which the Illini also dropped.  The heartbreaking loss drops Illinois to 13-8 overall, and just 4-6 in Big Ten play.  The Illini will have another chance to right the ship this weekend, when they welcome Michigan State on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), then will take on Michigan on Saturday night at home as well (7:00 pm CT).

     The Fighting Illini womens' soccer team wrapped up the regular season on Wednesday night when they traveled to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The Illini came away victorious, defeating the Golden Gophers 3-1 behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  With the win, Illinois improves to 10-5-3 overall and 4-4-3 in the Big Ten.  The Illini will now await their seeding in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins on Sunday.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beginning The Stretch Run

     After a rather pedestrian first half of the 2015 football season, the Fighting Illini enjoyed their bye week, which enabled a few players to get healthy, while others mulled their immediate futures by dealing with various injuries of their own.

     Illinois finished the first half of the season with a 4-2 record, and 1-1 in Big Ten play, and begin the second half of the season welcoming the Wisconsin Badgers to Memorial Stadium for Homecoming on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, BTN).

     Illinois has been bitten by the injury bug numerous this times this season, and the list of players sidelined could very well compete on the first team.  From Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee being out thus far the entire season, the prospects of Dudek playing this season are dwindling fast, while Hardee could return as soon as Saturday, although interim head coach Bill Cubit wasn't overly optimistic about that happening.  Senior running back Josh Ferguson injured his shoulder in the win over Nebraska three weeks ago, and is likely to miss his second straight game against the Badgers as he deals with an AC sprain of the shoulder.  Wide receiver Marchie Murdock also was injured in last week's 29-20 loss at Iowa, and remains questionable as well for Saturday.

     As far as some good things that happened during the bye week was some of the players that have been injured have had the chance to get healthy and also rest their bodies, which have taken on a good amount of wear and tear over the first six games.  H-Back Tim Clary, who was feared lost for the season, has been cleared to play and will hopefully return to the field Saturday to be the lead blocker for freshmen Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Henry Enyenehi.

     The Badgers (5-2, 2-1) are coming off a gritty 24-7 defeat of Purdue last Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, and for a change, are not relying on their ground game for the majority of the offense.  In the past, Wisconsin runners have punished Illinois, whether it was Ron Dayne, or most recently, Melvin Gordon.  The Badgers were led on offense by running backs Alec Ingold and Dare Ogunbowale, who each scored for Wisconsin.  Ingold rushed for 19 yards on 9 carries, but scored twice, while Ogunbowale fared a little better, carrying the ball 18 times for 56 yards and finding the endzone once.  Quarterback Joel Stave, who had a good day from the air, completed 30 of 39 passes for 322 yards, but did not throw any touchdowns.  Stave did, however, throw an interception in the win.

     For the Illini to come out on top against the Badgers, they will need to neutralize the running game, which they have had difficulty in doing thus far this season.

     Since returning home from what seemed like forever on the road, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team has seen their season hit the skids, for lack of a better term.  During that two week span, the Illini have dropped 3 of 4 matches, including ranked teams Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska.  The Illini currently find themselves at 12-7 overall, but just 3-5 in Big Ten play, and will once again venture out on the road this weekend, when they travel to Indiana and Purdue.  The match with the Hoosiers will be Friday night (6:00 pm CT, No TV), while the game with the Boilermakers will be on Sunday (12:00 noon, ESPN2).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team is coming off a big win over Nebraska last Sunday in Champaign, and are beginning to wrap up the regular season and hoping to do so with a strong finish.  The Illini currently sit at 9-4-3 overall and 3-3-3 in the conference, and will entertain Northwestern on Saturday night for Senior night (6:00 pm CT, No TV), before concluding the regular season in Minneapolis against Minnesota next Wednesday (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Speaking of injuries, the Fighting Illini basketball team continues to see their fair share of them, and for fourth year head coach John Groce, the casualties are continuing to mount.  Already having lost Tracy Abrams for a second straight season, this time with an achilles tear, Groce found out two weeks ago that sophomore Leron Black tore his meniscus in his knee and will be out for a few weeks.  As if the news couldn't get any worse, it did with the news last week that guard Kendrick Nunn injured his thumb in a routine practice drill and after having surgery on Wednesday, will be out 8 weeks.  Groce's philosophy of the "next man up" takes on an entirely new meaning, because sooner or later, he will run out of bodies.  Groce plans to get freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands back soon, and with the first game just a mere three weeks away, the bodies need to heal.

Better break out the bubble wrap.  Speaking of wraps, that's a wrap on this week's tour around the Illini sports teams.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Positive Sign?

     I am assuming that the Mike Riley fan club in Lincoln, Nebraska is not increasing anytime soon.

     A bizarre ending to the Illinois Big Ten opener against Nebraska resulted in an Illini win, as they staged an improbable comeback against the Cornhuskers, coming back from a 13-0 fourth quarter deficit to win 14-13 on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

     The Illini defense, which was perceived to be a work in progress entering the 2015 season, had performed admirably all year long up to this point, and held Nebraska scoreless into the second quarter of play.  The Cornhuskers put up 10 second quarter points to take a 10-0 lead into the halftime locker room and it was looking like much of the same old story with the Illini, who hadn't beaten Nebraska since 1924 when Red Grange graced the Memorial Stadium sidelines.

     Perhaps there was some of the Galloping Ghost's magic on Saturday, because the Illini began to scratch and claw their way back, while at the same time, holding Nebraska to just a field goal in the second half.

     Something that I am still having a hard time understanding was Riley and his play calling down the stretch in a game that Nebraska seemingly had in control.  With just over two minutes left to play, the Cornhuskers drove into Illinois territory and forced the Illini to burn their timeouts.  At the time, Nebraska still led 13-7 and had a third down from the Illinois 27 yard line, but instead of running the ball to kill the clock, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. went to the air on successive plays, including a 4th down and 7 yards to go from the same spot.  A simple field goal would have clinched the win for the Cornhuskers, but when they went for it and didn't convert, that gave the Illini one final chance to march 73 yards with no timeouts remaining.

     Wes Lunt's first pass downfield was complete to a wide open Marchie Murdock, who brought it down inside the red zone and then Lunt went to work trying to find Geronimo Allison in the endzone. After a couple of incomplete passes, which were followed by a pair of defensive pass interference calls against Nebraska, the Illini found themselves 1st and goal from the 1 yard line, and that is when Lunt finally found Allison for the game winning score with just 10 ticks remaining on the clock.

     However, the win came at a price, as senior Josh Ferguson, who has held the Illini running game together for the most part this season, left the game in the second quarter after injuring his shoulder after a long run.  In Ferguson's place was true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had 24 carries for 98 yards.  Vaughn continues to impress and will be a breath of fresh air, especially if Ferguson misses any significant time.

     This Saturday, the Illini take to the road for the second time this season, and are hoping for a better showing this time around than when they lost at North Carolina last month.  The destination this time is Iowa City, where Illinois will battle the Iowa Hawkeyes (11:00 am CT, ESPNU).  The Illini have not played at Kinnick Stadium since 2007, coincidentally the last time that Illinois went to the Rose Bowl.  Iowa is 5-0 for the first time in a while and won a defensive battle last Saturday, knocking off #19 Wisconsin 10-6 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.  Iowa is led by their quarterback C. J. Beathard, who had a lackluster game against the Badgers, only completing 9 of 21 pass attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown, as well as an interception.  Running back Jordan Canzeri had a good game for the Hawkeyes, rushing a career-high 26 times for 125 yards, Iowa has been bringing it on defense this season, Cornerback Desmond King had two interceptions for the Hawkeyes, who are in a vitual tie atop the Big Ten's Western Division with Illinois (4-1) and Northwestern, who also is 5-0 on the season.

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team ended a mammoth road swing with a pair of tough losses this past weekend, dropping matches to Wisconsin (4 games) and Minnesota (5 games).  The Illini last played at Huff Hall back on August 29th, and since that time, have gone 8-4.  The Illini are currently 11-4 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play, and will host top-ranked Penn State on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN) and Ohio State on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV).  The match against the Nittany Lions will be the annual Illi-noise event, where the fans will attempt to break the decibel level that was set a year ago.  It will also be a welcome sight for coach Kevin Hambly and his team, who has endured a lot on this road venture.

     The Illinois womens' soccer team played one match this past weekend, and took Ohio State to overtime, where the match ended in a 1-1 tie.  According to head coach Janet Rayfield, "it was nice to get the point for the tie instead of taking the loss, but a win would have been nicer".  The Illini are currently 8-2-2 overall and 2-1-2 in Big Ten play, and will be on the road this weekend, when they travel to East Lansing, Michigan to face the Michigan State Spartans on Thursday afternoon (3:00 pm CT, No TV), before staying in Michigan to face the Wolverines on Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor (1:00 PM CT, No TV).

     That's the state of things this week in Illini Nation.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Something To Build On

     Whew, that was a close one.

     The Fighting Illini football survived a major scare, and escaped with a 27-25 win over the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee last Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and were it not for a field goal sailing wide left in the waning seconds of the game, the Illini would be 2-2 heading into conference play instead of 3-1.

     Call it luck if you wish, but there were some good things in the game, as well as some things that still need a great deal of work on.  The offense is starting to come around more and more each week, however, the receivers are still dropping a fair amount of passes, and once Justin Hardee and Mikey Dudek get back (if in fact it is this season), that problem may reverse itself.

     It's not that the receiving corps that the Illini have are not formidable, but quite the opposite.  Malik Turner is starting to make waves, and with top target Geronimo Allison firmly entrenched as quarterback Wes Lunt's go-to receiver.  Allison caught 10 passes for 128 yards in the win, while freshman Desmond Cain had his best game as an Illini, snatching up 7 balls for 48 yards.  The running game continues to get better, as both Josh Ferguson and true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn both eclipsed the 80 yard mark in rushing.  Ferguson ran the ball 20 times for 88 yards, while Vaughn had 13 carries for 80 yards, finding the endzone once.  It is a pleasant sight to see Vaughn doing so well so soon in his Illinois career, as both Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown are both lost for the season due to injuries.

     As far as the final minutes of the game went, one of Illinois' areas of concern this season has been the kicking game, but in this game you wouldn't have really known it.  Sure, Taylor Zalewski missed a 28 yard field goal in the second quarter, but it was the ones that he connected on that drew the most attention.  Zalewski kicked a 23 yarder to end the first half, then went much deeper with a 51 yard field goal with just over two minutes to go in the game to put the Illini back up 27-25.  That gave Middle Tennessee one final chance to drive down the field and win the game, but after getting into field goal range, Cody Clark missed a 43 yard attempt as time expired, giving the Illini a win that they probably shouldn't have had.

     Now that the non-conference season is over, this weekend begins the Big Ten portion of the season as the Illini welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers to Memorial Stadium on Saturday (3:00 pm CT, BTN) for the first time in nearly 30 years.  Nebraska is 2-2 thus far this season, and have been the victim of two bizarre game-ending plays.  Nebraska relies a lot on their quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who is one of the better dual threat signal callers in the league.  The Cornhuskers also have a very reputable receiver in Jordan Westerkamp.  Westerkamp is from the state of Illinois, and is one of Armstrong's main targets.  Nebraska does have a new coach this season in former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, and apparently the focus of the offense has changed from a run heavy offense to one more pass friendly.  This has drawn the ire of many Husker fans, who are used to a heavy dosage of running plays.  Regardless of what happens on Saturday, the Illini need to come out and continue the momentum and gain an edge in the conference standings, because we all know that it gets tougher from this point on.

     Throughout the Illinois women's soccer season, the Illini have fared very well, and they had a major challenge this past weekend, which they survived with flying colors.  The Illini welcomed Rutgers last Thursday night, a team that had not been scored upon to that point in the season.  Allison Stucky and Kara Marbury scored the two goals for the Illini, which broke the scoreless streak set by Rutgers and resulted in a 2-1 Illini victory.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, Maryland paid a visit to the Illinois Soccer Complex and played a thriller with the Illini, with the homestanding Illini pulling out a 2-1 victory in double overtime.  Freshman Katie Murray got the Illini on the scoreboard early against the Terrapins, scoring in the first eight minutes of the contest, but it was a long time before the Illini scored again, which proved to be the eventual game winner.  That goal was scored by senior Nicole Breece, which occurred in the second extra period.  Illini coach Janet Rayfield was happy with the win, saying "it was a lot better getting the win and 3 points rather settling for a tie and the single point".  Illinois improves to 8-2-1 overall and ups their conference mark to 2-1-1 with the victories on the weekend.  Illinois will be back in action on Friday evening when they welcome Ohio State (6:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Life on the road has been a challenge for Kevin Hambly and the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team, and it seems like forever since they have played in the cozy confines of Huff Hall.  All three of the Illinois losses have come away from Champaign, including a loss in 4 games on Wednesday evening against Wisconsin in Madison.  According to Hambly, "we didn't play very well at all than we have in the past", which led to the setback.  Still, the Illini carry an 11-3 record into action this weekend when they finally end the long drought away from home when they travel to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV). After this trip to Minnesota, the Illini will return home to play in front of the home crowd for the next couple of weekends, something I am sure that Hambly and his team is looking forward to.

     Enjoy the weekend folks, and I'll be back next week with recaps of all the action this week as well as a preview of next week's schedule.