Seeing Red

Seeing Red
Nebraska, with their mascots Herbie The Husker and Lil' Red, invade Champaign this weekend for the first time since 1986.

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.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

     After two games in the 2015 Illinois football season, people were asking about just how much improvement they had made since last season.

     This past Saturday afternoon, they pretty much got their answer.

     The Fighting Illini were roughed up in a big way, losing 48-14 to the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  But, don't let the final score fool you; Illinois had chances in this game, they just didn't execute when they needed to.

     Illinois had a chance to score early in the game, but chose to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a short field goal to take a quick lead.  According to head coach Bill Cubit, the opportunities were there, but they just didn't take advantage of them.

     "We dropped nine balls and had some penalties in situations that we couldn't have them", Cubit said at his weekly press conference on Monday about some of the reasons for the lopsided loss.

     The running game, which was suspect through the first two games of the season, showed some signs of life against the Tar Heels, as senior running back Josh Ferguson gained 133 yards on 22 carries, including a 1 yard touchdown run.  With his performance on Saturday, Ferguson eclipsed the 2000 yard mark for his Illini career, and becomes the 17th player in school history to reach that milestone.

     Aside from the dropped passes, Cubit also mentioned that there were some mental lapses that happened at inopportune times during the game, and the absence of several key players was very evident on Saturday.

      The losses of Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee really showed, as top receiver Marchie Murdock was held to just 49 yards on 7 catches by quarterback Wes Lunt, who completed 15 of 32 passes for 140 yards.  Lunt did not throw a touchdown pass on the day, but did throw an interception,

     "I'm not sure if it a mental thing with the guys who dropped passes, and there were some crucial penalties that we had when we didn't need them", Cubit added.

     The loss to the Tar Heels extends the non-conference road losing streak to eight seasons, dating back to 2007, when the Illini defeated Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

      So, what lies ahead for Illinois as the pre-conference schedule wraps up this weekend?  It really doesn't get any easier, as a high-powered Middle Tennessee State team comes into Memorial Stadium this coming Saturday (3:00 pm CT, ESPN News) to try and take down the Illini, who may have their tail between their legs after the blowout loss at North Carolina.  The Blue Raiders come into the game with the Illini at 2-1 overall, and are coming off an impressive offensive performance against Charlotte, in which they won handily 73-14.  Middle Tennessee State quarterback Brent Stockstill, who is the son of Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill, had a great day passing the ball, completing 23 of 27 passes for 369 yards and threw 5 touchdown passes.  The Blue Raiders are one of the more prolific offenses in all of the FBS division, and will give the Illini their most stern test of a team not in one of the power five conferences.

   The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their extended stay away from the cozy confines of Huff Hall this past weekend, when they played out west in the Sun Devil Invitational, hosted by Arizona State.  The Illini defeated Texas Southern in 3 straight games, and needed an additional game to dispatch UNLV 3-1.  Kevin Hambly's squad then took on the host Sun Devils, and played a tough match before falling in five games, 3-2.  The Illini will continue their road swing this coming weekend when they travel to the opposite coast to battle the Big Ten's newest teams, Maryland and Rutgers for the start of conference play.  The Illini wrapped up the non-conference portion of the season with a 9-2 record, and enter Big Ten play as the #9 ranked team in the latest AVCA rankings.  The match against Maryland on Friday night will be televised on the Big Ten Network and will begin at 6:00 pm CT.  The match against the Scarlet Knights on Saturday evening will also begin at 6:00 pm central time, but will not be televised.

     Janet Rayfield's Illinois women's soccer team opened up Big Ten play this past weekend, and it didn't start off very well for them.  On Friday evening, the Illini ttaveled to Bloomington, Indiana to battle the Hoosiers, and ended up getting a 0-0 tie.  On Sunday, the Illini made the trip up to West Lafayette to battle Purdue, and lost 3-1.  The lone Illini goal was scored by Katie Murray, which occurred in the 88th minute of action.  This week, the Illini continue their trek through the Big Ten when they return home to face Rutgers on Thursday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN).  Then, after a couple of days off, the Illini will welcome the other newcomer to the Big Ten, the Maryland Terrapins on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV).  The Illini enter play this week with a 6-2-1 overall record, but just 0-1-1 in Big Ten play.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Moving In The Right Direction

     When one looks at the scores of the first two Illinois football games thus far in the 2015 season, you would think that there is a sense of domination going on.  Well, in some way, shape or form, there is a little of that going on.  You certainly cannot argue that the Illini defense has done much better so far, winning 52-3 over Kent State and 44-0 over Western Illinois.  But then again, they defeated Kent State and Western Illinois, not your powerhouses by any means.  Still, scoring 96 points in your first two games speaks for itself, I don't care who you are playing.

     Since taking over for the fired Tim Beckman, Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit has given his team a spark of energy that can be attributed to this early power surge.  Quarterback Wes Lunt was sharp once again in the win over the Leathernecks, completing 33 of 45 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown pass to Tyler White.  The Illinois running game remains a little in question, with senior Josh Ferguson struggling a little bit.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn led the Illini with 53 yards on 15 carries, while Ferguson ran the ball 13 times for just 39 yards, but scored a touchdown.  On the receiving side of the offense, Geronimo Allison continued to impress early, catching 8 passes for 124 yards, but was held out of the endzone.  Marchie Murdock scored twice, once on a 12 yard blocked punt return for a touchdown, and the other score was a 5 yard pass from backup signal caller Chayce Crouch.  But it all points back to defense and the fact that the Illini are keeping opponents out of the endzone in impressive fashion.

     So, what will happen this weekend when the Illini take to the road for the first time this season, a test against the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill? North Carolina on Saturday (11:00 am CT, ESPN2).  The Tar Heels are 1-1 overall on the season, and after losing their opener to South Carolina, the Tar Heels rebounded nicely by defeating North Carolina A & T 53-14 last Saturday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.  Illinois hasn't fared well in non-conference road games, last winning at Syracuse in the 2007 season.  The Tar Heels are coached by Larry Fedora, who is well-known in the college coaching circles.  The Tar Heels are not known for their defense, so this has the makings of a high scoring shootout.  The defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik, is trying to re-vamp the defensive unit and get it back on track.

     North Carolina has a dual threat quarterback in Marquise Williams, who has already completed 34 of 51 passes for 443 yards and 3 touchdowns, but has also thrown 3 interceptions.  Williams has been responsible for 63 career touchdowns during his time in Chapel Hill, and is coming up on the all-time Tar Heel record of 79, set by Darian Durant back in the early 2000s.  If the Illini can somehow squeak out a victory against the Tar Heels on Saturday, they will be in good shape as they return home to conclude the non-conference portion of the season next weekend.

     The #6 ranked Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to play well early in the season, and are coming off a three match sweep this past weekend in Wichita, Kansas.  The Illini did not lose a game in three matches, taking down Kentucky, South Dakota State and Wichita State in successive fashion.  The Illini (7-1) will continue their extended road trip away from the cozy confines of Huff Hall this weekend when they travel to Tempe, Arizona to round out the non-conference portion of their season by facing Texas Southern, UNLV and the host Sun Devils of Arizona State.

     The Illini women's soccer team begins Big Ten play this weekend, when they travel east to battle Indiana and Purdue.  The Illini played one match this past weekend, as they defeated Northern Kentucky 1-0 on a free kick by Hope D'Addario.  The Illini will play the Hoosiers on Friday evening in Bloomington (6:00 pm CT), before heading north on Sunday to battle the Boilermakers in West Lafayette (12:00 pm CT).

     After three years of constant misses, it appears that Fighting Illini men's basketball coach John Groce has finally landed his coveted point guard for the 2016 recruiting class.  Te'Jon Lucas, who is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, verbally committed to the Illini on Wednesday afternoon, ending the drought of recruiting near misses.  Groce has had some misfortune with injuries as of late, losing Tracy Abrams for a second straight year, as well as incoming freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands also being sidelined with an injury.  As of right now, the only true point guard on the Illinois roster is Jaylon Tate, so a commitment by Lucas was just what the doctor ordered.  Now, to get him inked.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Sense Of Normalcy

     Somewhere, Tim Beckman must be laughing.

     In what was perhaps one of the strangest and event-filled weeks in the history of the Illinois football program, the Bill Cubit era finally was allowed to be ushered in, although even that was not easy.

     In what was supposed to be the first Friday night game in school history, Mother Nature wreaked havoc with the scheduled debut, as strong storms blew through Champaign-Urbana about 30 minutes before the scheduled 8:12 pm kickoff.

     Some speculated that it could have been a sign from Beckman, the former coach who was fired last Friday for findings in a yet to be released report, while others speculated that it was just the football gods stating their case that college football should not be played on Friday night, a day that competed with area high school football.

     Whatever you choose to believe, the result was the same, having the game postponed until Saturday afternoon at 1:00 pm.  Since the postponement took place, there was no television for the contest, but it really didn't matter, as the Illini came out of the gate to dominate the Golden Flashes of Kent State, winning handily 52-3 before a very sparsely attended game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

     Illinois wasted no time getting on the scoreboard, as Wes Lunt connected with tight end Tyler White on a 2 yard pass after forcing the Golden Flashes to punt the football.  Lunt certainly wasn't done on the day, hitting Marchie Murdock for 34 yards the very next time the Illini got the ball back.  Lunt then hit Josh Ferguson for 21 yards, then Ferguson ran the ball into the endzone from 11 yards out to give Illinois a 28-0 advantage after 1 quarter of play.

     The second quarter began just as the first one ended, as Lunt went deep once again, this time working with Geronimo Allison for 34 yards, and following a 43 yard field goal from Taylor Zalewski, the Illini held a 38-0 lead at the half, and coasted from that point on.  Lunt went back out for the first series of the third quarter, and gave the reins to redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch, who took control from there.  Crouch added a touchdown pass of his own to freshman Sam Mays, and another true freshman, Ke'Shawn Vaughn scored from 1 yard out as well.  The lone points for Kent State came via a 43 yard field goal from Shane Hynes.  All told, the Illini had 73 players see action on the field on the day, giving some of the younger players a chance to see some game action.  Illinois, who trailed in practically every game last season, did not have that luxury last season.

     So, what can be taken from this lopsided victory?  We know that Wes Lunt is a good quarterback and he showed that against Kent State, completing 11 of 16 passes for 162 yards and the four touchdowns.  We also know that the offensive and defensive lines are as strong as they have been in the past three seasons.  We also are aware that Kent State is not a very good football team, and the Illini may not get a stern test this coming week either, when they welcome the Western Illinois Leathernecks to Memorial Stadium (11:00 am CT, BTN).  Western Illinois defeated Eastern Illinois 33-5 last Thursday night, and according to Illini interim head coach Bill Cubit, the Leathernecks have one of the best front lines of anyone in the FCS division.  Given the week that the Illini had leading up to the first game of the season, a normal week is all that Cubit and his players can ask for at this point.

     The #6 ranked Illinois womens' volleyball team ventured out west for the Big 10/Pac 12 Challenge this past weekend, and came away with a split, losing to #2 Stanford  3-1, then turning around and defeating #21 Colorado 3-0.  The Illini are currently 4-1 on the young season, and will continue their lengthy road trip this weekend when they travel to Wichita, Kansas, where they will battle Kentucky, South Dakota State, and the host Shockers of Wichita State.  Match times for the weekend are Friday at 1:00 pm CT (Kentucky), and a pair of matches on Saturday at 11:00 am CT (South Dakota State) and 8:00 pm CT (Wichita State).

     Illini womens' soccer is also off to a strong start, led by their marquee player, Janelle Flaws, who continues to score goals each weekend it seems.  This past Friday night, the Illini suffered their first defeat of the season losing 2-1 to the host Washington Huskies in the Huskie Nike Invitational in Seattle, Washington.  Kara Marbury scored the lone goal for the Illini, while Flaws assisted on the carom.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Illini defeated the Portland Pilots 1-0, as Flaws scored the only goal of the match in the 81st minute on a penalty kick.  The goal was Flaws' 8th of the season.  This coming weekend, the Illini will wrap up the non-conference portion of their schedule when they welcome Northern Kentucky to the Illinois Soccer Stadium on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT).  Illinois is currently 5-1 on the season.

I'm ready for a normal week of Illinois coverage.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

     Normally in my weekly blog entry I go around the campus with the different Illini sports that happen to be going on at that particular time.

     This is not one of those times.

     This entry is a special edition, based solely on the events surrounding Friday afternoon when everything in the football program took an unexpected turn with the sudden dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman.

     I had gone out for a walk at lunchtime like I normally do, and when I came back in, I checked my email like always, but on this day, something grabbed my attention in my inbox.  At first I thought it was a joke that someone was playing, but as soon as I saw who it was from and started reading the body of the email, I quickly realized that it was no joke and that this was really happening.

     In the email press release, it stated that Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas had dismissed Beckman for what he called findings within the program that essentially led to Thomas making this decision.  It was no secret that the athletic department had been under scrutiny for the past few months when it was alleged that coaches in the football, women's basketball and women's soccer programs had mistreated players either mentally, or  not disclosed injuries or didn't treat players in a manner that was beneficial to their rehabilitation.

     The first such claim came from former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who claimed that Beckman forced him back from an injury earlier than expected, and that surgery that he received was not consistent with what he needed.  At first, when these claims surfaced, people in the media thought it was just a case of a former player waging a battle against Beckman, and using social media as his platform.  But, these recent findings gives the situation a bit more credence, and who knows where this will lead.

     Beckman amassed a 12-25 record at Illinois in his three seasons at Illinois, but went just 4-20 in the Big Ten with one bowl appearance, the 2014 Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  However, Thomas insisted on Friday that the removal of the coach had nothing to do with on-the-field activity, but instead based on the findings of the preliminary report.  Thomas would not go into any further detail about it, either.

     Thomas named offensive coordinator Bill Cubit interim head coach for the 2015 season, with a base salary of $515,000 and an increase of $100,000 each month until the end of the football season.  Cubit has been a head coach before at Western Michigan, where he compiled a 51-47 record.  Ironically, it was Cubit who Beckman defeated in his first game coached at Illinois, a 24-7 win on September 1, 2012.

     Cubit is much more media friendly, and seems to know what he is doing, judging from the way the offense has looked over the past couple of seasons.  But a rash of injuries to key players such as Mikey Dudek, Dre Brown, Justin Hardee and Reggie Corbin over the past few months has severely depleted the depth that Illinois expected to have as this season began.

     The timing of Thomas' move was especially bad, given that the Illini begin play this coming Friday night against Kent State (8:00 pm, BTN), but Thomas stated that it was better to make the move now before the full report with the findings were publicly released.

     With all of the scrutiny that the University has been experiencing lately, with the chancellor first resigning, then being basically dismissed, followed by the provost stepping down from his position as well, things do not appear to be on solid ground.

     Many have suggested that Thomas be the next to be shown the door, but he has claimed that it will be his duty to hire the next football coach after the current season comes to a close.  When Thomas as hired, he came in right away and fired Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law within a span of four months, and this hire would be his second, which many in Illini Nation do not want to see happen.

     So, how did we get in this mess in the first place?  Beckman has never been what you call "media savvy", and his constant missteps in front of the microphone have led to ridicule nationwide.  His callout of media back in February about being more positive towards the program rubbed some the wrong way, but our job in the media is to report the facts as they are, not be a cheerleader for the coach or a staff.

     So, enough about Beckman, he is no longer the coach, and it is time for Coach Cubit to lead this program, at least for the forseeable future.  This year can go one of two ways:  either the Illini rally around their new coach and return to a bowl game, or they will continue down the current path, which will ultimately lead to a new staff and a fresh start once again.

     Whatever outcome plays out, one thing is clear, it will be an interesting journey.

Monday, August 24, 2015

     Finally, some good news to report concerning Illinois sports,

     In a summer that has seen much turmoil and disappointment in Illinois athletics, it was a breath of fresh air to finally see something positive play out.

     On Monday afternoon, something that was long overdue finally came to fruition, the basketball court at State Farm Center being named in honor of Lou Henson.  Henson, who coached the Illini from 1975 until 1996, remains a legend in Champaign, and now he has the honor of the court to go along with it.

     Henson, who has been battling health problems the past few months, was in attendance at the event, which was held inside the 77 Club at Memorial Stadium.  With State Farm Center renovations still ongoing and not ready yet, the most logical venue was across the street in a facility named for another Illini great, Red Grange.  Henson wore a mask and rubber gloves upon entering the room, but once he was announced, he took them off and addressed the crowd in attendance,

     This was not a normal press conference, but instead a celebration to honor Henson and his wife Mary, who split time between Champaign and Las Cruces, Nevada, where coincidentally, Henson also has a court named in his honor.  Due to his health concerns, he cut the celebration short and was due to go to a treatment shortly after his visit with family and friends.  There will be an official ceremony the night that State Farm Center reopens for 2015-16, when Notre Dame will pay a visit to Champaign in the Big 10/ACC Challenge,  The court, which will also be used in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center for the first five games while State Farm Center finishes its makeover, will be moved and unveiled on December 2nd, the evening of the Notre Dame game.

     A fitting honor for a great man, and it is wonderful to finally see it happening, and even better that he gets to see it happen in person.

     Camp Rantoul wrapped up for the Fighting Illini football team, and the injury bug keeps on biting Tim Beckman's team.  If the recent injuries of the past few weeks were not enough to give Beckman grey hairs, the loss of freshman running back Reggie Corbin will certainly cause the silver to fly.  Corbin was probably a good choice to redshirt anyway this season, but another running back down means that the depth at the position is even thinner than before.  So much that Beckman has been employing cornerback V'Angelo Bentley in the backfield on certain formations.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn is back to full contact, and has looked fairly confident in early workouts.  The offensive line was a major question mark the past couple of seasons, but some stability and added depth has given the position a much needed boost.

    With senior Ted Karras returning from an injury to anchor the line, the Illini will look to players such as Joe Spencer, Christian DiLauro and Chris Boles to step up their game and provide protection for quarterback Wes Lunt.  A true freshman, Gabe Megginson, could see action this season, but the coaching staff would prefer to redshirt him and get him even stronger for next season.

     The receiving corps have looked good as well thus far, particularly two true freshmen, Sam Mays and Desmond Cain.  Mays, who could pass for an identical twin of Geronimo Allison from the outside, can move very well, and Cain, who is a bit smaller, could provide the extra punch that the Illini need to do some damage to opposing defenses.

     Speaking of Lunt, he will need to stay upright this season if the Illini have any chance of repeating their bowl appearance of a year ago.  Lunt, who has had a history of injuries dating back to his days at Rochester High School, has the arm strength to play at the next level, and with several weapons at his disposal, could have a breakout season if he can remain in action all season long.  Plus, if Lunt does happen to go down with an injury, the backup situation is not the best, with Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. waiting in the wings.  Both Crouch and George have never taken a snap in a college game, so the experience factor is not strong.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has begun their season, and are off to a good start on the young campaign.  The Illini defeated Oakland 4-1 this past Friday night, behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  Flaws also assisted on another score, and is showing why she is a force to be reckoned with this season.  On Sunday afternoon, the Illini traveled to Normal to face Illinois State and came away with a 1-0 victory on a goal by Reagan Robishaw.  Flaws also assisted on that goal, giving Janet Rayfield's team an early 2-0 start to the season.  The Illini will be back in action this coming weekend, when they welcome TCU to the Illini soccer complex on Friday evening and then will take on St. Louis Sunday evening.  Both games are slated for a 7:00 pm CT start.

     Next week, I will look at the defense and special teams as the season opener draws closer.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

     So, how was your summer?

     I can venture a guess that it was somewhat better than what the University of Illinois experienced over the past few months, most notably the athletic program.

     It has been a tumultuous summer for Illinois and several of its programs, and the hits just, as they say, keep on comin'.

     Let's rewind back to early June where the Fighting Illini baseball team was making history by advancing to the Super Regional of the NCAA Tournament and a series win over defending champion Vanderbilt would have given the Illini their first ever trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

     But instead of taking pride in that accomplishment, which they did, the word began to break about mistreatment of injuries within the Illinois football program, stemming from former Illini lineman Simon Cvijanovic.  In Cvijanovic's claims, he stated that the medical staff misdiagnosed an injury, and actually went in and did something that they were not instructed to do, or so he claims.  When news of this broke, suddenly several former teammates of Cvijanovic's came forward to issue similar claims.

     This is not the news that Illinois football coach Tim Beckman needed for his program, which begins its fourth season with Beckman in command.  Illinois is already dealing with several injuries to key players as it is, especially sophomore sensation Mikey Dudek, who sustained an ACL injury during spring workouts.  Dudek, who garnered all-Big Ten freshmen honors last season, set the freshman record at Illinois for receiving yards, and was expected to be a key component for Beckman and the Illini as they looked to capitalizing on last year's bowl appearance in Dallas.

     Beckman has seen the Illini win total increase from 2 to 4 to 6 in his 3 years in Champaign, but to make that jump on the scale to the next level, which is 8, will take some major undertaking, and also a whole lot of luck.  With the likes of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Champaign this season, the Illini need to get out to a quick start in the non-conference portion of the schedule before the Big Ten season starts in earnest with the Cornhuskers visit.

     As if the football allegations were not enough, about a week or so later, news broke regarding alleged racial bias and verbal abuse within the Fighting Illini women's basketball program.  These claims led to assistant coach Mike Divilbiss being terminated, apparently a mutual agreement between he and the university, and raised even more questions into the program and their head coach Matt Bollant.

      Bollant, who had a very successful run at Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to Illinois 3 years ago, has not seen the success that he envisioned in coming to Champaign, and apparently, it was Divilbiss that may have been the wedge into this problem.  The claims led to several current and former players getting together and filing a lawsuit, which this past week was found to not be credible by the attorney handling the case.  The players still remaining on the team leave for an overseas trip this week and will look for some time away to regroup as a team and get back to basics.

     The news continued to get worse for the Illinois sports landscape a couple weeks ago when it was announced that senior-to-be Tracy Abrams sustained an achilles injury in a non-contact drill in practice preparing for their overseas trip and will miss yet another season for the Illini.  Head coach John Groce seems beside himself over several injuries to key players, and Groce, who will enter his fourth season as coach of Illinois, begins a pivotal season that could either make or break his future at Illinois.

     It has been no secret that Groce has had some difficulty landing a point guard for the 2015-16 season, and the loss of Abrams magnifies that void tenfold.  Also dealing with injuries are freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who was one of Groce's marquee recruiting gets since he has been at Illinois, and Darius Paul, who has had issues of his own since he has been an Illini.  However, a bit of good news on that front happened Saturday, when Groce received word that fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis announced that he will play at Illinois this upcoming season.  Lewis, who last played at LaSalle, is not a flashy player, but he is a another body, and a point guard that Groce sorely needs right now.  

     As if all of this wasn't enough for a summer, earlier this week came perhaps the most shocking announcement of them all.  University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she is resigning from her position, effective Wednesday, August 12th.  This came as a complete shock to many at the university, and with the recent scandals within the athletic department and also around campus with various hiring practices, Wise seems to have had enough.  More information is still coming out regarding this latest debacle, and this may not bode well for athletic director Mike Thomas, who reports to the Chancellor.

     New university president Timothy Killeen, who accepted Wise's resignation, may have had some factor into the decision, and who knows where this will lead in the next couple of months.  Killeen has said that he could have an interim chancellor named within the week, and if that person doesn't have strong athletic ties or a keen interest in sports, things could get very interesting around campus in the next few months, especially with the major revenue sports.  Stay tuned.

     Back to football for a minute if I may.  The Fighting Illini have begun fall training camp with the first three days closed to the public in Champaign.  The Illini will move to Rantoul for the next two weeks of training camp on the former Chanute Air Force Base, where all of the practices will be open to the public.  So, if you are wanting to check out Tim Beckman and the Illini, Camp Rantoul will be the place to be starting Sunday, August 9th.  A full schedule of practices can be found at and clicking on the football link.  Over the next couple of weeks, I will be previewing the Illinois season by groups, culminating with an expanded look at the season leading up to the home opener, which is set for 8:00 pm CT on Friday, September 4th against Kent State.

     Yes folks, Fighting Illini football is back, and if anyone needs some good news right now, it is coach Beckman and the Illini.