Hurting Illini?

Hurting Illini?
The ever growing Illini bench of injuries, from left (Rayvonte Rice, Aaron Cosby, Alex Austin (transfer rule sit-out), Tracy Abrams .

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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Decisions, Decisions......

     Sometimes the easiest decisions are the most difficult to make.

     Faced with the fact that their starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, is sidelined with a fractured fibula, the Fighting Illini have turned to a tandem quarterbacking system for this week's Homecoming game against Minnesota (11:00 am CT, ESPNU).

     However, all of the coaches do not necessarily agree with the decision. As the Illini come off of their first bye week of the season, head coach Tim Beckman is willing to try just about anything to get his team a win and in the process, possibly saving his job by season's end. In this, his third season at the helm in Champaign, Beckman has managed to win only one Big Ten game in 19 tries.

     Beckman used the bye week to give his players a much needed break, and also to heal up some of the bumps and bruises that have been plaguing his team so far this season.  The best reason for the bye was that Illinois couldn't lose this past week, since they didn't play.  Harsh, I know, but the facts are nonetheless facts, and this is not a good team right now and without Lunt, it remains to be seen just how good they really are.  Reilly O'Toole is the senior and the veteran, but does he have what it takes to lead Illinois to a victory?  Aaron Bailey is the more mobile of the two quarterbacks, and his performance against Wisconsin two weeks ago gave Illini fans hope that maybe, if pressed into the same situation this week from a starting perspective, that he could possibly be the one.  Lunt will probably miss the next two games, and then there is another bye week in there, so the earliest that he could return to action would be November 15th, when Illinois faces Iowa.  Who knows what the situation will be come that time, but if the Illini are still searching for a win when the Hawkeyes come to town, then the question begs do you even bother bringing Lunt back at that point?

     Illinois volleyball is on a roll as of late, having reeled off three straight match wins, two of those being against nationally ranked opponents.  Having defeated #5 Penn State in State College, the Illini had a mid-week contest at Iowa, and came away with a 3-2 win.  Then, the Illini went into Lincoln on Saturday night and took down the #13 Cornhuskers 3-1.  Having defeated both Penn State and Nebraska, two perennial powers in women's college volleyball, on the road in the same season, is something that just doesn't happen very often at all.  The Illini, ranked #10 in the latest AVCA poll, will return home to Huff Hall this weekend to battle Indiana on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and then #13 Purdue on Saturday evening (5:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini are currently 14-5 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend's matches.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has hit the wall lately, where in their last five games, they have managed to lose four of them and get one tie.  This past weekend, the Illini traveled east to battle the two newest conference foes, Rutgers and Maryland.  On Friday, the Illini lost 2-1 to the #14 Scarlet Knights, but came back on Sunday to tie Maryland 1-1 in double overtime.  Coach Janet Rayfield knows that tying a match isn't a big deal to many, but to her squad, it could be just what they need to get into postseason play.  "We might need that extra point that we received for the tie, and if it comes down to us getting in the Big Ten Tournament by a point, we will look back at this as a positive", Rayfield said of the tie with Maryland.  The Illini are currently 9-6-1 overall and 4-5-1 in conference play, and welcome Michigan State to Champaign Friday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and Michigan on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Finally, it would be remiss if I failed to mention the fact that Wayne McClain's passing last week took me by surprise, much as it did everyone else, including his family.  Having covered Illinois basketball through the Bill Self and Bruce Weber regimes, I got to know Wayne fairly well.  The kind words that have been conveyed over the past few days I can totally relate to, and you will not meet a more genuine man than Wayne was.  Godspeed Wayne!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Time To Regroup

     We kind of saw this one coming.

     The Fighting Illini football team began Big Ten Conference play this past weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the result was pretty much what everyone expected.  However, there were some late developments that made the outcome even more of a given.

     On Saturday afternoon, word began circulating that quarterback Wes Lunt might not play, due to an injury that he sustained in the game against Texas State.  Lunt did not appear on the team's injury report that was issued on Thursday of game week, which is not a big deal, since the coaching staff doesn't have to list everyone on the report.  Lunt was dealing with this injury all week, and didn't practice on Wednesday, which the media wouldn't have known about anyway, since we are not allowed to watch practice.  So, enter Reilly O'Toole into the role of starting quarterback in a hostile environment at Nebraska.  If Lunt would have played, he might have been injured worse because those defenders really gave O'Toole a rough time.  For the game, Reilly was 17 for 38 passing for 261 yards, but threw three interceptions and one touchdown.  Josh Ferguson got the Illini going early with a nice 41 yard touchdown run that was actually a backward lateral.  What was more impressive about this score was the fact that it answered the Cornhuskers' opening score, a 12 yard scamper by Ameer Abdullah.  Abdullah carried the ball 22 times for 208 yards and three touchdowns, and probably could have had close to 400 yards if he would have played the whole game.  Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini decided to rest Abdullah for the remainder of the game, and gave some of his carries to Amani Cross, who also carried the ball 22 times for 109 yards and a score.  The Illini have a major issue with containing teams that run the football, and this game was very evident of that.  The Illini couldn't stop anything, and even Nebraska's quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for 166 yards on 10 for 21 passing.  Armstrong didn't complete a pass in the first quarter, and as a matter of fact, his first pass was a 63 yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell.  A game like this exposes all of the flaws that a struggling team has, and several of them were brought to the forefront on Saturday for the Illini.

     The best remedy for a loss like the one the Illini sustained at Nebraska is to just forget about it and move on to the next game.  Luckily for Illinois, that next game is back at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and is against the Purdue Boilermakers (11:00 am CT, ESPN2), who just happen to be the only team that Tim  Beckman has beaten in his three year tenure at Illinois.  Purdue, who comes into the game with the Illini at 2-3 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, lost their conference opener last Saturday at home against Iowa 24-10, has a similar story as the Illini do.  Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell is in his second season at the helm in West Lafayette, and struggled in his first season in the league last season, much like Beckman did in his first season in 2012.  The Boilermakers struggle to score much like the Illini do, and do not have an air tight defense, so this game could go either way.  Purdue has a couple of decent running backs in Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt, and with the Illini defense not doing well against the run with teams that have durable backs, if that tandem gets into a groove, they could put up some good sized numbers in terms of rushing yardage.  This is also one of the "trophy games" for the Illini, as Illinois and Purdue play for "The Cannon".  Illinois won the trophy last season, and have not won it back to back since the 2002 season.  The Illini are 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten.

     This Saturday will also be the 125th anniversary of Illinois football, as well as an "orange-out" at Memorial Stadium, where fans are asked to wear orange to the game to support the team.  The first 20,000 fans to enter the stadium will be given orange pom poms to wave during the course of the game,

     It seemed like forever since the Fighting Illini volleyball team last played at Huff Hall, but last weekend they finally returned home to welcome the two newest members of the Big Ten, Rutgers and Maryland.  The Illini swept the Terrapins on Friday night, and did the same with the Scarlet Knights on Saturday evening.  The Illini continued their home success on Wednesday evening when they welcomed the #18 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers to Huff Hall for a televised match on the Big Ten Network.  The Illini prevailed in 3 straight games once again to down the Gophers.  The Illini have now won 13 straight games since losing the third game to Creighton last month.  With the win on Wednesday evening, the Illini are 11-3 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten and will continue their streak of home games on Saturday evening when they take on #5 Wisconsin (7:00 pm CT, no TV).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team took to the road this past weekend, and came away with a split, winning on Friday night 4-1 at Ohio State, but falling 2-1 to #8 Penn State on Sunday.  Senior Jannelle Flaws continued her stellar season by scoring twice in the win over the Buckeyes and also scoring the lone goal against the Nittany Lions on Sunday.  The Illini are currently 9-3-0 overall and 4-2-0 in conference play, and will play just once this weekend when they travel north to battle in-state rival Northwestern on Sunday in Evanston (5:00 pm CT, no TV).

     We are nearing the time when the fall sports will overlap with the winter sports, as basketball practice for both the mens and womens teams begin within the next week.  Renovations are coming along as scheduled at the State Farm Center, and will be ready for the first exhibition game, which will be in early November

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Weathering The Storm

     Last Saturday was a long day at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  A long day.  Faced with the possibility of severe storms around halftime, the Fighting Illini and the Bobcats of Texas State squared off in the Illini's final non-conference game of the season.  Being as I also double as an event staff supervisor inside the stadium on game days, we finally had to put our evacuation plan into place when the storms hit Champaign-Urbana, albeit an hour earlier than previously predicted.  The game itself was another subpar performance by the Illini, although they once again found a way to win the game, coming back from yet another fourth quarter deficit to win their third game of the season. The game started out with a bang, as Josh Ferguson took a backwards lateral from quarterback West Lunt and took it 75 yards for the opening score of the game.  After a missed extra point by Taylor Zalewski (more on that later), the Illini led 6-0.  The game was suspended with 13:35 left in the first half and the Illini trailing 14-6, and the delay lasted for nearly two hours before resuming.  The Bobcats went ahead even further at 21-6, sending a collective groan throughout the stadium of the fans that had managed to hang around and watch the game.  The Illini finally woke up in the second half, where they have played much better this season, as Lunt found freshman Mikey Dudek for a touchdown, as well as Ferguson for another score.  On the day, Ferguson carried the ball 14 times for 190 yards and 3 total touchdowns, two on the ground and one receiving.  A change in the kicking game was also made, with Zalewski being replaced by David Reisner and his glow-in-the-dark shoes.  Reisner connected on all three of his extra point attempts, and also kicked a 19 yard field goal in the process.  However, the Illini showed that they have resilience, as they once again mounted a comeback in the late stages of the game, capped off by a 45 yard interception return for a touchdown by V'Angelo Bentley.  Bentley is now an answer to a trivia question that reads as follows:  Name the only two players in Illinois history to have a kick return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, and an interception returned for a score.  The other player is none other than Red Grange, so Bentley is in very good company regarding that statistic.  Overall, the Illini haven't been impressive in their 3 wins this season, but nevertheless, they are halfway to becoming bowl eligible.  Head coach Tim Beckman has continued to say that the Illini are getting better as a team, but the margin of victory against the teams that you should have beaten by more points, the jury is still out as to how much progress they have made since last season.

     So, bring on the Big Ten season!  The Illini have a tall order in their conference opener this Saturday evening, when they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the #24 Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (8:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Cornhuskers come into the game with the Illini at 4-0 overall, having defeated the Miami Hurricanes 41-31 last Saturday in Lincoln, and boast one of the league's top running backs in Ameer Abdullah,  Abdullah had a great day on the ground for Nebraska in the win over Miami, rushing 35 times for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns on the day, including a TD| reception.  Since the Illini have had some trouble stopping the run against all four of their opponents thus far, it appears that Abdullah will be poised to have another big day on the ground for the 'Huskers.  Nebraska comes into the game as a 20 point favorite, and if the Illini want to entertain any chance of springing an upset on the road, they will have to play a perfect game in order to achieve that.  However, the prospects of that feat look dim at best,  This is the second straight season that the Illini open the conference season at Nebraska, with the Cornhuskers visiting Champaign to open conference play in 2015.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their early season success this past weekend, winning three straight matches at the Creighton Classic in Omaha, Nebraska.  The Illini defeated the host Bluejays on Friday night in 4 games, then came back on Saturday morning to take down Colorado in 4 games as well.  The Illini completed their sweep by defeating South Dakota in 3 straight games.  The Illini wrap up the non-conference season with an 8-3 record, and will begin a string of home games at Huff Hall, a place they haven't played in for what seems like forever.  The Illini will welcome the two newcomers to the Big Ten, hosting Maryland on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV) and Rutgers on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     As with the volleyball team, the women's soccer team continues to play well, as they won a couple of matches at home this past week.  Last Thursday, the Illini took down Indiana 2-0 in a mid-day matinee, followed by a 3-0 victory over Purdue, in which Illinois' Janelle Flaws scored all three goals in the game in a span of about 10 minutes.  Through the season thus far, the Illini have recorded six shutouts so far, which ties a record of clean sheets through this point in the season in school history.  The Illini are 8-2 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play, and will go on the road this weekend to continue conference play.  The Illini will travel to Columbus, Ohio to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes on Friday night (6:00 pm CT, No TV), then will go further east on Sunday to take on the #8 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions on Sunday afternoon (12:00 pm CT, No TV).

     John Groce must be the hardest working coach that there is in college basketball, and it may be finally starting to pay off.  Groce had two recruits on campus this past weekend, guard Jalen Coleman-Lands from Indiana (La Lumiere Prep) and center Elijah Thomas from Texas (Lancaster), and despite all of the weather related concerns during the football game, both visits supposedly went very well.  Coleman-Lands' visit apparently went so well that on Monday, he committed to the Illini, making him the first recruit from the Hoosier state in 30 years to choose the Illini.  For trivial matters, the last person from Indiana to play basketball at Illinois was Scott Haffner, back in the 1983-84 season.  Coleman-Lands will join D. J. Williams and Aaron Jordan as 2015 recruits, and hopefully Groce can add a couple more players to that list before the signing period in November.  For those of you that are concerned about possible getting too many recruits in a given year, remember one thing: John Groce can count.  As far as the State Farm renovation goes, things are progressing nicely, and the new blue seats are installed in the 200 level (formerly C section).  That is the main change that fans will notice this season, with more changes to be made before the 2015-16 season.  With the addition of the new seating, they have taken out the portal areas in that section of the arena, which means that a basketball attendance record will be set at some point in the 2014-15 season.  The new capacity of the arena for this year will be somewhere just over 17,000.  Stay tuned for more changes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back To Reality

     A lot of things can be taken from last weekend's Illini loss at Washington, but the most obvious observation would be that the Illini received a cold dose of reality in their 44-19 loss to the Huskies on Saturday in Seattle.  A lot of questions were answered, most namely the fact that the defense still isn't quite ready to advance to that next level, and the reality in that statement is we might not know for a couple more weeks just how far they have left to go.  The Illini fell behind early against Washington, and the Huskies' speed was evident, especially on the plays that they ran back for touchdowns coming off of Illini turnovers.  The first two games for the Illini spawned several warning signs, specifically since they didn't blow out either opponent and had to come back in each game in order to win, so the first real test against a power conference foe seemed to tell the story.  For the game, Illini quarterback Wes Lunt was efficient, completing 16 of 26 passes for 230 yards and two touchdown passes, both going to junior college transfer Geronimo Allison.  Allison caught 6 passes for 160 yards, and showed why the Illini coaching staff targeted him as someone who could help immediately on the receiving end, a position that was severely depleted with graduation a year ago.  Freshman sensation Mikey Dudek caught 5 passes for 43 yards, and remains one of Lunt's favorite go-to guys.  With the Illini falling behind 21-3 at the end of the first quarter, the run was once again abandoned, with Josh Ferguson getting the lion's share of the carries, rushing 11 times for 52 yards.  If there is anything positive to take away from this loss, according to Tim Beckman, it would be the play in the second half.  "If you look at the score in the second half, we won that portion of the game 7-6", Beckman said on Monday to his weekly address of the media.  Yes, that's true, but by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the outcome of the game wasn't in question and the Huskies began to grind the game from the rushing standpoint.

     So, what happens next you ask?  The Illini return home this Saturday to take on the Bobcats of Texas State at Memorial Stadium (3:00 pm CT, ESPN News).  The Bobcats come into the game with the Illini at 1-, having derailed FCS school Arkansas-Pine Bluff in their opener 65-0, and losing to Navy last weekend 35-21.  The Illini need an impressive performance on all sides of the ball in their final pre-conference tuneup because the road gets a whole lot tougher after this game.  Even though this is considered a lesser opponent, nothing should be overlooked at this point, as the Illini still try to find their identity.  The Bobcats will be coming into Champaign with upset on their minds, and if the Illini aren't careful and play to the level that they are capable of playing, that scenario just may in fact play out.  We shall see.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team began Big Ten play last week, and through two games in the conference slate, managed a split.  The Illini opened conference play with a 2-0 loss at Iowa last Thursday, then came back on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Nebraska.  The Illini carry a 6-2-0 overall record and a 1-1-0 Big Ten mark into this weekend, when they host their neighbors from the state of Indiana.  The Illini will open up on Friday with a rare Friday afternoon contest, when they entertain the Indiana Hoosiers (2:30 pm CT, BTN).  The annual Soccer Fest game will take place on Sunday afternoon when Purdue comes to town (1:00 pm CT, no TV).  Coach Janet Rayfield has been pleased so far with the start this season, and thinks that the national television exposure on the Big Ten Network will be good for the younger players.  "I know a lot of the younger players have not had an experience of playing on television, so this will hopefully ease their nerves a little bit for the excitement that this presents", Rayfield said on Monday about some of her younger players and getting the nervous jitters out of the way.

     Kevin Hambly's women's volleyball team continues their pre-conference slate away from Huff Hall, and last weekend, came away with winning 2 out of 3 matches in the Blue Raider Bash at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  The Illini defeated the host Blue Raiders in 3 straight games, before being upset by Virginia Tech in 5 games earlier on Saturday.  The Illini bounced back in their third match, taking Washington State in 3 straight games to close out the weekend.  The Illini are currently 5-3 on the season, and will close out the non-conference portion of the season this weekend, when they travel to Omaha, Nebraska to compete in the Creighton Classic.  The Illini will take on the host Blue Jays on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, no TV), before playing a pair of matches on Saturday.  The Illini will face off against Colorado on Saturday morning (10:00 am CT, no TV), before closing out the weekend with South Dakota (5:30 pm CT, no TV).

     Finally, to close out this week's Illini Guy Report, with college football in full swing, the thought of college basketball is not that far off on the horizon as well.  The Illini received some disheartening news late last week, when their starting point guard for the past two seasons, Tracy Abrams, sustained an ACL injury and will miss the entire 2014-15 season.  Abrams, a senior, was counted on to be one of the floor leaders for the Illini, and now in his absence, senior transfer Ahmad Starks and sophomore Jaylon Tate will have to step up and fill the void.  The waiver denial of Starks from last season was actually beneficial, as now the Illini will have him for this season while Abrams takes a medical redshirt.  Abrams will be back for his senior season in 2015-16.  This will also be a busy weekend for recruits on the Illinois campus for head coach John Groce.  Groce will welcome 5-star big man Elijah Thomas to campus, and it was announced earlier in the week that guard Jalen Coleman, a 4 star prospect from Indiana, has moved his visit up and will also visit Illinois this weekend.  Coleman has narrowed his choices down to the Illini and UNLV.  Sooner or later, Groce will land one of these players, but it remains to be seen who will be the first in a series of dominoes to fall.