Sunday, October 30, 2011

In Need of a Bye Bye Bye - Post Smackin' 4 Chief!

Well, this will be quick post. Not much has gone well or right for the Chief over the past three weeks, dating back to that lousy home loss to Ohio State. Let me be clear, we should be 9-0 heading into this bye week. Instead, we find ourselves at 6-3 after three straight weeks of under-performance.

What I've seen and read over the past month hasn't been good. Most of the issues right now are on offense (not getting the rushing attack going) and in special teams. We have the worst punt-return game in the league. And, after watching two botched field-goal attempts yesterday in Happy Valley, our kicking game has turned into a liability instead of an asset. Kicking game is killing us right now in every facet. We probably need to hire a special teams coach. Wait, we have one. Ugh! Not getting any points before halftime against Penn State cost us the game in Happy Valley.

Let me also be clear. These issue are totally correctable, and not signs of a complete breakdown. Our defense remains one of the best in the BIG-10 if not the nation. We have more talent on both sides of the ball than most teams we have faced this year. With playmakers and schemes, it comes down to execution instead of excuses. Basically, what I'm saying is that our issues come down to fundamentals and the little things we should be working on in practice each and every day: snaps, holds, blocks, reads, catches, tackles, and playing mistake-free football.

When I look at the tape and into the final stats, we should be 9-0 at this point in the season. Case in point, Penn State fame final numbers:

1) Chief had more first downs than Penn State (16-14)
2) Chief out-rushed Penn State (192 to 111)
3) Chief had more total yards than Penn State (286 to 209)
4) Chief had more time of possession (33 to 27).

For the season, Chief is 26th in the nation in total rushing and 15th in the nation in total rush defense, giving up just 2.7 YPC. In terms of scoring defense, it's hard to complain since we're also 15th in the nation at a tick over 17 ppg (only 18 TD's allowed in 9 games). On offense, we're #23 in the nation with total scoring at 26 PPG on 400 total yards, on average.

So, where does he go from here? Chief needs to get back to basics with more discipline and better execution if we expect to beat Michigan, Wisky, and Minnesota. Starting 6-0 with the soft schedule and home-cooking, we need to get to 8 wins in my opinion for this to be a successful season. Anything less would mean losing 5 or 6 of our last conference games, and trouble for Zooker. That means one of those two wins will have to come against Michigan and/or SCONI. Of course, with 2 of the last 3 at home, we also have the schedule to get to 9 wins and a better bowl game. Going 6-6 this year might be it for Ron. But, first things first. Let's do this. Get the hell out of our own way on offense and play like a champion once again.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bucked in Champaign

Ugh, not a good showing today in front of the blue and orange stripes as the Buckeyes win their tenth in a row at our house. Oye - time to regroup.

What drives me nuts about this loss is the way it happened. We knew Ohio State would come into Zupke Field and force the ball down our throats with their ground game. Heck, Braxton only completed pass for a TD, nonetheless. Ugh!

The ILLINI defense really played well. We shut them down most of the day. However, the offense really laid an egg with three costly drive-killing turnovers that gave the Buckeyes exactly what they needed, short field possessions. And that really was the difference in the 17-7 home loss.

Don't get me wrong. This Buckeye team is getting better each week with more and more players coming off suspension. It's not the same team that last week blew a 21-point lead in Lincoln. And, it's not the same team that lost on the road to Miami a month ago. This team is one of the best in the nation on defense and in the run game. We knew it. And we under-performed in the loss.

AT times, the offense looked dazed and confused. Nate couldn't get his feet under his throws all afternoon. Jenkins looked average, getting shutdown by Roby (DB). And when they blew the final whistle, it was another tough Zooker-style loss that leaves more questions than answers.

Done. We led the nation in forcing at least one turnover on defense for 21-straight games. Over. They wont he turnover battle 3-0. Done. We averaged 35 points / game this year. Today, we posted 7. Over. Nate had gone 14 games w/o multiple turnovers. Today, he had two costly picks. Over.

So, where do we go from here? We get Purdue next on the road in West Lafayette. Boilers played the Lions tight today at University Park. So, that's not a gimmie for sure. We really need the offense to step up and out of each other's way. We need our play-makers to make plays and not turnovers. And while we still control our own destiny in the LEADERS division, we have a tough slate of games remaining on the back-loaded schedule with three of our last five on the road including a tough one in Happy Valley (Penn State). If I put on the forecasting hat, I see us going 8-4 this year, best 10-2. We'll get whacked by Wisky. And, I no longer think the Penn State game will be easy at their place. Michigan always plays us tough, especially inside Memorial Stadium. We better beat Purdue and Minnesota. But, this is ILLINI football we're chatting about. Going 0-6 is also a distinct possibility and might cost the Zooker more than an winning season.

Basketball season is under-way. And let's hope Weber's wonders are ready for another deep run into March.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Zooker Comeback against the Fighting Pat Fitzgerald's

In year's past, this would have been another tale of paper champions and tee-shirt all-Americans. If you told me before kick-off that we would have three turnovers, 8 penalties, and only 82 yards rushing today against the CATS with less time of possesion, I would have guaranteed a Northwestern victory. And, it would have been a story of letdown, under-achievement, another disappointment, heartache, and coming up short yet again. Not this year. Not this time. For the first time in what seems like forever (1951 our last national championship), the Fighting Zookers are now 5-0 heading into week #2 of conference play. Yes, this was truly a historic victory, winning our BIG-10 opener for the first time since 2k7, our Rose Bowl Season. Heck, it was just our 2nd BIG-10 victory in a conference opener in our last 18 games. Wow!

What else can I say? Twas our 3rd-straight 4th-quarter comeback this year for the cardiac kids. And every one of these you pull out makes you better now and going forward. Trailing late in the in the 3rd quarter 28-10, it was a gutty comeback at home on homecoming to pull of the victory. Jenkins and Scheelhaase led the way, both having career afternoons. The battery carried is to four late touchdowns and the 38-35 victory. Nate threw for 391 on 21 of 32 with 3 TD's, all to A.J. Jenkins. The senior stud wide-out from Jacksonville, FL totaled 268 receiving yards on 12 receptions, proving he is one of the best in the conference if not the nation.

It was an up and down afternoon. There were moments in the 2nd and 3rd quarters where I was thinking, as we all were, here we go again. Maybe it is time to end the Zooker experiment and start fresh in 2012? Just when you want to give up on the guy. Just when you think he's down and out. His team rises up and finds a way to get it done.

There are some serious issues we need to address on both sides of the ball if we plan to make a deep run in the LEADERS division. We are a flawed team that makes too many penalties and too many untimely turnovers. If we expect to beat the better teams in the division and conference, we'll have to clean those up. Starting with defense, we have to eliminate the stupid (Zooker) penalties like freak personal fouls and getting late off the field of play. Ugh! The secondary needs to get better fast. Persa had way too many easy big plays for touchdowns because of blown coverages and confusion in the secondary. At times it was keytone cops.

On offense, we need to asses our schemes. Are we a spread-option attack or not? I would argue the latter. For most of the game we fooled nobody with one botched delayed hand-off after another. Jason Ford may be a senior, but he shows me more and more that he is not a go-to back in this offense. We need to start giving the rock more and more to Donovan Young, freshmen from Houston. At times, the offense still plays out of sync. Our play-calling was suspect, especially when you have an all-American at wide-out in #8, A.J. Jenkins. The college game shouldn't be that complicated: get your ball to your play-makers in space and let the recruiting take over from there. We have athletes and it's OK to showcase their talents.

Going forward, maybe a win like this will lead to something special. We travel to Bloomington next weekend to take on an up-and-coming Hoosier squad who gave Penn State all they wanted today and then some. Still, I expect us to be significant favorites in that match-up. I think we have more athletes than they do at just about every position. But, in conference play, especially on the road, you can taking nothing for granted. Would it be nice to get to 6-0 in early October? Sure, we haven't done that in a while. And yes, the schedule is favorable this year with both Ohio State and Wisconsin at home in the friendly confines of venerable Memorial Stadium.

Onward young ILLINI! On know the coaching staff reads this blog on a regular basis, so here are my latest insights on how to improve. One game at at time. That November 19th showdown in Champaign is starting to look more and more important. Both teams have a decent shot at being un-defeated when Wisconsin comes to town.

1) Hey Petrino, the spread option shit isn't working. 2.2 YPC, really? Find out who we are. What is our identify? Are we a running team? A passing team? A spread attack? An option team? Or a pro-style set on offense? I think the answer is starting to emerge. Let's move away from the cloudy / muddy spread attack for a while. The passing game is too good to ignore right now.

2) Speed up the tempo on offense. The slow and predictable snap counts and play selections aren't getting us out in front. And we can't expect to comeback from 18 points in 2nd half every game this year.

3) Get the ball in the hands of our play-makers more often. On offense, that is Nate, Donovan, and A.J. Mr. Harris is also starting to emerge as another wide-out threat.

4) Stiffen - up on defense, especially in the secondary. We got burned several times today on deep balls against our backs who were out of position time and time again. Against the better QB's in the league and around the nation, we will get torched for big plays unless some scheme changes and/or improvements are made.

And,my updated TOP-10:

Who'd you play? Where did you play them? And, who'd you beat?

1) Alabama / LSU - two programs that are clearly above the rest.
2) LSU / ALABAMA - left hand and right hand of same body.
3) Wisconsin - perhaps the only team out there who can beat #1 or #2.
4) OKLAHOMA - good program for Stoops. But not his best.
5) Boise State - just keep winning and will just keep falling here and in BCS.
6) Stanford - Cardinal is all about one man, and he's really good.
7) Clemson - Anybody have three better wins this year than the TIGERS?
8) Oregon - Off week, but still mighty explosive.
9) Texas - Welcome back Longhorns after beating a really good Iowa State team in Ames.
10) Michigan - Yes, the Wolverines break into the Top-10 aftter this weekend's insanity.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Off and Running - Respect the MAC

I've been saying all week that we need to respect Western Michigian. This MAC representative goes bowling just about every year. And, they beat us in Detroit a few years back on Ford Field, knocking us out of a bowl game. Huge.

Not this year. The Broncos high-speed passing offense was stopped when it mattered most. Down 13-10 at halftime, the Chief came out after the break and shoved the rock down their collective little throats. Broncos couldn't stop our stable of runningbacks: Young, Pollard, Ford, and company. You just can have too many good backs in an offense like this. With a line like we have.

It wasn't pretty. We still put the ball on the ground too often. And, too many drives have fizzled in the red-zone, having to settle for field goals. Running game sputters at times. I don't like to see my guys dancing through holes and running East / West. Man up Zookers! The passing game isn't quite in sync either. The defense allowed 306 yards passing, but most of that came in the first half. When it mattered most, when we needed stops, we showed up and turned them down. On offense, we were efficient if not flashy - winning the time of possession battle 35 to 25. Nate went 14-20 and 133 yards with a TD. O'Toole had a few key pass completions in the second stanza as well.

But, it was all about Young and Pollard who combined for 233 yards on the ground on 26 carries. Donovan Young is turning into a real machine at halfback. And when the final whistle blew, we moved to 4-0 for the first time since 1951. Wow! No other BCS / AQ team has had a longer drought to 4-0 in the history of the game. Yes! And the last time we swept the non-conference schedule was 2001. This was a seminole win for the program any way you slice it.

Up next is Northwestern at home inside the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium. That will be our fifth straight home game. With Persa back in the line-up for the CATS, that is going to be a strong test. Fitzgerald's clubs are always physical, disciplined, smart, and effective.

Over the course of the season, I'll post a few thoughts of my own regarding conference re-alignment, the circus which it has become in 2011. Honestly, my first real impression right now is to take a deep breathe and let reason prevail. We need to avoid scenarios like TCU in the BIG EAST, WV in the B12, and Notre Dame in the ACC. Really, is that good for CFB? It can't all just be about the Benjamins. If that is the primary driver, the effort, the games, the teams, the fans, and the conferneces are doomed. Going forward, we should be looking to build meaningful confernces on solid bedrock considering geography, academic expectations, other sports, culture, and revenue sharing relative to TV networks / contracts. For now, I'm grateful the PAC-12 stands at 12, and not 14 or 16. It looks like the BIG-12 dodged a bullet for now, and may just survive in the years to come.

My TOP-10

1) LSU - TIGERS have played and beaten three TOP-25 foes arleady this year.
2) Alabama- Tide / Tigers, two arms of the same body.
3) Oklahoma - good victory tonight over a Mizzou squad who beat them in Columbia last year.
4) Boise State - Clearly not on the same level as 1-3 above, but they consistently win and are fun to watch. Kellen Moore is fantastic.
5) Wisconsin - Badgers round out my top-5 and should only move up this year. Might be the only team who can beat either Alabama or LSU in a title game.
6) Stanford - Cardinals probably the cream of the PAC-12.
7) Oklahoma State - how they canme back on the road in College Station still amazes me. Aggies were up 20-3 at the break. Ugh!
8) Oregon - back in the TOP-10 after destroying Arizona tonight.
9) Nebraska - just now sure how good or bad this team really is. We shall learn next week when they travel to Madison.
10) South Carolina - ripped through an undefeated Vandy team tongiht.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chief - a Devil Killer!

Well, look who's back? It's been a while since I've penned my last blog, and for good reason. Sure, there was the TEXAS BOWL victory over Baylor (38-14). That was the announcement. But yesterday's win over #18 ASU on Zupke Field inside majestic Memorial Stadium was something bigger. It signified a change in culture for the Fighting Zookers. It changed how we view and play on the BIG STAGE and under the bright ligts in front of a national audience. We got a small taste of what it means to be on top, even for a week. And for the first time in a long time, the Chief is RANKED AGAIN #24.

Don't get me wrong, we're still a young team that makes a lot of mistakes. At times, the offense sputtered - especially on short yardages. Heck, we only had 246 total yards. We had almost 400 rushing yards last week alone against SDSU. Going forward, we will need to shore-up the short yardage conversions. 5 for 13 on 3rd down won't cut it. But, the Sun-Devils are not the Jack-Rabbits. Burfict is a beast. And that ASU defense can make plays at every positionl. In the end, we proved we can win a defensive battle. We showed that deep inside, there is a will to win.

The Illini defensive effort was amazing. I haven't seen an ILLINOIS squad play with as much determination and acumen in some 15 years. You have to go back tot he mid to early 90's when we had guys like Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice. "They brought a lot of pressure tonight," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap." For the night, we had six sacks of the ASU QB and 12 TFL's. Zook later remarked that we really did sell-out on the pash rush, forcing them to beat us with their running game which never happened. We may have the best 'D' in conference. Snap to whistle, not sure there is a better unit in the LEADERS division. We've only given up 32 points in our first three games. Holding an explosive ASU squad to just 14 points is showing up. The Devils will light-up opponents in the PAC-12 this year.

Yes, a momentum builder for sure. It was also our 4th win in a row and our first over a ranked PAC-10/12 opponent since 1995 (#16 Arizona). And with two more home games this month (Western Michigan is next), we have a chance to open at 5-0 before travelling to Bloomington to play Indiana. I'm not sure where this leaves us. The BIG-10 is looking somewhat soft to me at this point in 2011, save for Wisconsin who is looking more and more like a national-title contender under Russell Wilson. But, for now, we're 2nd best in the Leaders and maybe in the conference. And, that's not all bad.

My TOP-10:
1) Oklahoma - one of the best wins on the young season in Tallahassee last night.
2) Alabama - Tide continues to roll.
3) LSU - May be underrated at #3 after that defensive performance over the Bulldogs.
4) Boise State - for now, I respect the blue turf. It may not last.
5) Stanford - I have to put the Luckers at #5. Is this team deep enough?
6) Wisconsin - Badgers look scary good to the Chief under Wilson.
7) A&M - Balanced on both sides of the ball. Looking more like an SEC team each week.
8) Oklahoma State - Cowboys can score points. Can they play team defense?
9) South Carolina - Yes, I saw the Navy game. Letdown. Gamecocks are good. I think.
10) Virginia Tech - Hokies pull-down my last spot this week. Many teams worthy.

Putting out an APB:
a) What happened to BYU in the Holy War? Ouch!
b) Where was the vaulted Sparty rushing attack (29 yards on 23 attempts vs. ND).
c) And how bad is the QB situation in Columbus? Bauserman / Miller oh my!

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