Saturday, October 27, 2007
With today's bounceback win against a good BALL STATE club at home in Champaign, the young Fighting Zookers move to 6-3 on the season three to play. There is a good chance at an 8-4 season after going just 2-11 last year. This was a game we had to have. I must say that I was a bit concerned heading into the showdown given BALL STATE's history and a possible letdown after the Michigan hype. Keep in mind that BALL STATE should have beaten Nebraska earlier this year and just about shocked the world in Ann Arbor last season with a strong showing. And it was a comeback victory - 28 to 17 good guys. This was all about RMIII (Rashard Mendenhall) who lit up the Cardinals for 189 yards and 2 rushing TDs on just 28 carries (6.8 average). If he comes back next season for his senior year he should be a leading Heisman candidate. Wow.
It wasn't pretty, but was effective. Juice had another good game rushing, 99 yards on 17 carries and 2 TDs. The passing game continues to be a work in progress, 7/15 for 145 but 2 INTS. I'll take it. This easily could have been a disappointing home loss given our history of letdowns showings. Up next, we get Minnesota inside the dome in a game that we should be favored to win.
DUCK WRAP - End of an era? I have to say that I had my doubts heading into this one. Could Oregon finally step up with all of that talent and win a big game? Two big TROJAN turnovers and three personal fouls in the 2nd half didn't hurt their cause either. But, in the end the DUCKS stepped it up on DEFENSE including the game-ending pick to put the dagger in the Trojan's back. What a great game! The offense was efficient today, but not spectacular. Stewart is really emerging as the go-to player for this squad, and Dixon didn't make any big mistakes. What a stud! But give this win to the DEFENSE - which was always my question. No more, the DUCKS are for real this year. They finally made a stop on 'D' with the game on the line. Can they handle the pressure from here on out? Only time will tell. Keep reading to see where in I put them in my new TOP-10 ranking. With 1 tough yard and the 6th toughtest schedule in the nation separating them from perfection, the DUCKS are moving up at this point in the season. But, it's only October baby. Last time I checked no championships are won before halloween.
But, yes - it appears as if today's loss marks the end of an era of Trojan domination dating back to 2001/2002. For the first time in a long while we won't be talking about the BCS and USC in the same sentence - and it's only October. Those great USC teams didn't necessarily have more talent, but they did have better execution and a total team committment to winning every down. I don't really see that anymore in this year's edition of Trojan football. Don't get me wrong, they're as talented a team as any other in the nation on both sides of the ball. But like every other good thing; everything must come to an end.
ELSEWHERE AROUND THE NATION - The insanity continues; it's been an amazing month of CFB. Don't get too used to this or you'll be disappointed next year. Down goes Kentucky. Down goes Florida. Down goes USF. Highly - ranked teams continue to go down to unranked clubs seemingly every week. I won't know what to do with myself with this streak ends. Wow - I've never seen anything like it. And kudos to the Cornhuskers who played TEXAS tough for 3+ quarters until the Jamal Charles (290 yds) show kicked-in late. For a moment there, the HUSKERS were working on yet another big-time upset by an unranked team.
Leave it to SPARTY to blow a 17-point lead on the road in Iowa. Nope, wait - it is October. Nevermind. A&M - what the hell was that Jim? The most convincing performance of the week was turned in by Ohio State as they totally dismantled #25 Penn State at home in a 'white out'. This just in, crowds don't win football games. Can you say BEATDOWN? No doubt in my mind that this is the #1 club in the nation - for now. Show me a more dominant defense - big, fast, strong, and with shutdown potential each and every drive. The offense is scary efficient and sports the most bruising rushing attack in the country. And throw in the cunning genius of Tressel, I'm not sure they're beatable this season. And watchout for those BC EAGLES. Both squads came up with HUGE wins this weekend on the road to keep their title hopes alive. Seems as if the more things change the more they stay the same. On to WEEK #10.
MY NEW TOP-10:
1) Ohio State, 2) LSU, 3) Oregon, 4) BC, 5) Oklahoma, 6) WV, 7) ASU, 8) Kansas, 9) Mizzou, 10) Georgia.
No doubt, Ohio State should be the undisputed #1 for now. LSU didn't play this weekend but their only loss is on the road in 3OT to Kentucky. I got Oregon at #3 after they dumped USC today at Autzen. Good win for the Ducks as they control their own PAC-10 destiny at this point. Win out, and? Oklahoma was off this week but I like them at #5 for now. WV, Kansas, and Georgia all looked very very good today. Kansas, yes Kansas. And watchout for BIG BLUE (Michigan); they've just won 7 in a row, the little brown jug, and are tied for first in the conference. September seems so long ago right now. Appy who? Here's your list of bowl eligible teams.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
What can I say, at least we played a competitive game and got out to the early start. We're not a great team, yet. This one just had a feeling of time for me until the EE got things rollin' - which they did with a lot of help from the Illinois special teams and men in stripes. We were flagged 10 times for 107 yards, and I don't recall the laundry flying once against BIG BLUE. Come on! Say what you want, those calls did have an impact on the outcome of the game and they didn't help the good guys tonight. I saw 2 or 3 blown (missed) holding penalties on that huge offensive line in maze and blue. Right! Whatever! The officiating was pro-Michigan surprisingly, but our special teams had three serious breakdowns which sealed our fate in defeat. I guess that's one of the main differences between teams on the rise and teams that have already risen. That's the difference between teams who expect to win & do it reguarly and teams who haven't been there in a long time. We made too many mistakes tonight to earn the W.
Muffed punts and unforced errors in the kicking game were the major difference tonight. I saw some good things along with the bad. Juice looks like he's improving in the pocket. Rashard (RMIII) continues to be a bright spot in both the rushing and passing games. The defense didn't play horrendously poor tonight, but time after time gave up some big plays in the passing game against a much bigger and older EE team. Our passing game, if not a liability, is clearing our weak spot and work in progress. We need to boost our output through the air in order to take the next big step up as a top team in conference. Right now, as it is most years, the BIG-10 is all about BIG BLUE and Ohio State.
And dont' get me wrong, we lost to the better opponent tonight. Michigan is a very good club right now - not the same team that started the year 0-2 at home with losses to APPY STATE and OREGON. They are a very senior club with tons of talent on both sides of the ball. I'm not saying Oregon wouldn't beat BIG BLUE again on a neutral field, but Michigan is playing much better in all facets of the game than they were to start the year. And don't forget that Ohio State must travel to Ann Arbor to face the EE in probably the biggest rivalry game of them all come later in November. Wouldn't it be somewhat surprising if they run the table in conference and win the BIG - 10 outright? Love him or hate him or care less about hit, but Lloyd Carr can coach / lead a football team. I'll give him that.
Still yet, we hung in there against th EE for a little more than three quarters. Our young program (mostly freshmen and sophomores) is moving in the right direction. The future is bright with Zooker locked - in through 2013. Nobody beats his effort on the recruiting trail. It was a competitive game until Arrington hit Manningham for the go-ahead TD late in the 4th quarter on a very nice mis-direction play. Again, that's what senior teams do in conference games on the road - they find ways to WIN and don't play conservatively. We should use this as a learning opportunity as we move forward with games we should win starting next weekend at home against a very good Ball State squad. We're making progress even in defeat; next week is another opportunity to move forward. Now is not the time for a letdown at home. And kudos to Zook and Locksley who actually did have a good scheme for tonight's big game. We didn't play it close to the hip like we did last week against Iowa. I think we played hard tonight, leaving most of it out on the field against a superior opponent in Michigan.
We turned the corner earlier this year with BIG WINS against Penn State and Wisconsin. We're not the same team that won four games over the past three years. But, I'm not content with just turning the corner. Tonight, you could clearly see the differnce between talent and experience. We have some of the fomer and the EE has both. Our time is now. We shouldn't be playing for next year or a future that might never come down the road. At 5-3, I expect us to finish 8-4 or 7-5, worst case. Anything less than seven (7) wins this year will be a disappointment given our start. We should be favored in three of our next four games, with the obvious exception being at Columbus against a very good Ohio State club who doesn't disrespect its opposition, but does expect to win every contest as the better complete team. And they're usually right.
Message to Coaches - Much better job tonight. Unlike the loss in Iowa, we left it on the field and lost to the better team. The focus on the last four games of the year needs to be on becoming bowl eligible with at least seven if not eight wins. We should be favored in three of the last four. After that, we should set the goal of winning our bowl game (wherever and whomever we play). We need to continue to build this culture of winning, starting with a bowl win this season. It doesn't just happen overnight. Great teams have tons of experience at it. They known they'll find a way to win even the toughest games. The carryover of that into 2008 will give us the confidence we need to contend in the BIG-10 starting next season. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither will ILLINI football.
The challenge for you is to keep this team grounded right now. It's one thing to be confident, it's another to be cocky. We have to improve in special teams right away. Mental mistakes there and with penalties contributed to this loss tonight. Both of those breakdowns are signs of a young and undisciplined team. While we have some of the raw talent to contend and perhaps beat the big boys every now and then, we also have the potential for letdowns and setbacks as long as we're handicapped in those two facets of the game. Throw in a few inopportune turnovers and you have the makings of defeat. Again, keeping a young team focused on realistic goals isn't going to be easy. But that's why we're extending your contracts and paying the head coach $1.3M / season. I for one won't be satisfied with anything less than 8 or 9 wins this year, including the bowl victory. So do it with class. Do it like you've been there before. Continue to build a culture of winning. It's starts this year with eight and a bowl victory.
Elsewhere around the country, the insanity continues in CFB. TOP-10 teams continue to go down with regularity. It's almost an expectation now that 2 or 3 of them will lose each Saturday. This one was no exception as AP #2 (USF), #6 (SC), #8 (KY), and #10 (CAL) all went down today in a blaze of glory. Of the big losses, the South Carolina loss at home was a bit of a shock; then again, USC Columbia really is a marginal team on offense this year. CAL losing in the Rose Bowl should NOT be a shocker; they haven't won there in a long time. I'm not sure what I was thinking when I put 5 on the BEARS against the BRUINS today. Ugh! And for the first time since 1933, USC shuts - out Notre Dame, and at home. My God, the Trojans (with injuries) are still loaded with talent all over the place. And what the hell was up with those Oregon uniforms tonight? All white - like center court at Wimbledon or little ghosts running all over the field. I'm sure Washington will have nightmares about this one. Checkout GAMEDAY FINAL for all you need to know about Oregon and those white unis.
My new top-10: 1) Ohio State, 2) LSU, 3) BC, 4) Oklahoma, 5) Oregon, 6) WV, 7) Florida, 8) USC, 9) ASU, 10) USF.
Honestly, of these teams - LSU, Oregon, Florida, and USC are the cream of the crop. I have to rank them based on performance with W's and L's. But, mark these words that your national champ will come from this group of four teams. LSU already beat Florida once this year in a classic for the ages. And USC has to travel up I-5 to Eugene later in the season. Lots of football to be played. It's been a great season so far. I look forward to next week. Oregon needs to step it up against you know who at home, showing the country they are for real this year. Right now, they're a good football team, especially on offense. The reason I rank them 5th behind the other four is defense. Those other teams all play great defense. Defense wins championships. Just ask Ohio State. And that home loss to CAL a few weeks ago isn't helping much these days either. Bellotti's boys have a chance next weekend in Autzen to send a big statement to the CFB world. I'm calling 'em out - so what will it be?
Over the past ten years or so there have been just a few elite teams like LSU, Ohio State, and USC. Sure, you can include TEXAS in 2005 and Florida in 2006 if that makes you feel better. Interestingly enough, while those teams did it 'their' way they also had numerous traits in common. Ohio State's championship wasn't sexy but was efficient. USC did it will tremendous offensive scheming and execution. LSU earned theirs with speed and defense. But what they all had in common was execution. No matter their approach or system - they got results more consistently than their competition. Their was an aura of invicibility surrounding their persistence in winning psyches.
STATS/NOTES of the Week:
1) Ohio State has only given up 4TDs all year. The BUCKS held SPARTY to just nine first downs yesterday and 59 rushing yards. Wow!
2) Oregon rushed for 465 yards on just 62 carries against the DAWGS. To put that in perspective, that's 192 more yards than Notre Dame all season.
3) For the first time since 1933, USC shut-out Notre Dame. And for just the 2nd time in school history, the Irish start the year 1-7.
4) Michigan had the ball for almost 35 minutes Saturday night in a ball-controlled attack. They also kept our 'high-powered' rushing attack in check all night.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Sure, we're still alive in the BIG-10 race, but the Revenge Tour was de-railed today by a very game HAWKEYE club who was scrappy on both sides of the ball. It was a cold, wet, and dreary day at Kinnick. The game itself was quick - played in just two hours and 50 minutes. Our play selection for most of the game was clear - nothing flashy and too conservative. It didn't look like we had a sense of urgency until 2:14 to play in the 4th quarter. Our passing game is clearly a work in progress. I've said it before, we're too one dimensional as a club on offense. Sure, we have a great rushing attack with the triple-option threat. But, in order to improve and make that next step-up in conference on the national scene we have to find a way to consistently move the ball through the air for at least 150 yards on 50% passing and no turnovers.
The penalty that took six points off the board late in the game really hurt. I guess #16 was in an illegal formation. Still, a tough pill to swollow. It just looked to me like my offense was stuck in 1st gear all day until late in the game. But give credit to Iowa. They played a great game at home today in keeping our big-play guys mostly in check all afternoon. They converted 10 of 17 3rd-downs today which may have been the hidden difference. We gave up too many big 3rd downs last weekend against Wisconsin as well. That gap needs to be closed and closed soon if we want to contend with the big boys in conference. Of course the biggest 3rd -down conversion was the 15-yard TD pass over the middle in the 2nd half of a close game.
How about Eddie McGee? Is there a QB controversy in Champagin? Should there be? I contend that Eddie is simply more confident right now in and out of the pocket. That 29-yard rope he threw to Rejus on the sideline was a strike that Juice can't make right now. Eddie just looks better in the passing game, until the game-ending interception. He has a tendancy to turn the ball over at key moments of the game just trying too hard to make a play. Can't fault him for that. I'm proud the way we laid it all on the line late in the game. Maybe we'll make some offensive changes for next week to get more veritical in the passing game as we open things up a little on the attack.
Again, tough loss in a game that most agree we should have won today. I'm not surprised by the loss. We haven't won at Kinnick in 7 or 8 years. It's not an easy place to play much less win. I don't think we were looking ahead to Michigan at home next weekend. Right now, we're a team looking for an identify on offense. We're not a true triple-option threat nor are we a pure run and shoot club. At times we look unstoppable; other times we can't get out of our own way. McGee adds more of a 2nd threat in the passing game than does Williams, but he has a tendency to turn the ball over at key moments in the game. It's scary to think how good we could be if we get the passing game figured out. At least we're exciting to watch these days. Every game is competitive. I don't expect anything different next weekend at home in Champagin against Lloyd's squad.
Still yet, who knows. You just have to play hard and finish each week. I expect my team to earn 8 wins this season given our 5-2 start. Anything less than 7-5 will be considered a disappointing season at this point. Nobody would have predicted a 5-2 stretch out of the gates. We can't be content at this point. No game is a given these days in CFB. Too many good teams, players, and coaches all across the land. We'll see where we go from here. I'm not liking my team's chances next weekend against BIG BLUE who seems to be coming into its own right about now. Michigan is playing about as well as anybody in the country right now. We're a good team have a great season. Clearly the transformation is underway. But this year, the BIG-10 is all about Michigan and Ohio State - what a surprise. We should be able to continue the turnaround this year and watch-out for 2k8. We're still a year away from really contending with the BIG BOYS. Basketball season is right around the corner.
Message to the Coaches - What was that? I haven't seen such conservative play calling since the 2004 GOP convention. Buck-up and bring it next week or else. I put this loss mostly on Zook and Locksley (sp?) - we should have outscored a mediocre HAWKEYE club by 20 points or more. We were way to 1-dimensional in that performance. The spread-option attack is predicated on making some plays in the passing game. If we don't have the right personnel on the field to do that then make the necessary change (s). To me and most it appears that right now McGee is the more complete QB. He deserves a full quarter or two of play to prove what he's worth. We shouldn't be satisfied with 5-7 or 6-6 this year. At this point, anything less than 7 wins this year will be a disappointment. My way of thinking, the future is now and not next season. Don't be complacent with the national media (ESPN) and what they think of you. I'm not satisified with a #18 ranking either. Are you the coaches who beat Wisconsin by going for it on 4th and 1 or are you the staff who brought the wrong offensive scheme to Kinnick yesterday against a lesser opponent? Which one is it? Sure, we've come a long way and you're to be commended for the 'turnaround'. But right now, we're at an inflection point. Sound coaching and scheming is imperative for continued success in a young-team's development. Lead by example and put some trust in your young players - including Williams. We're much better than what we showed yesterday in Iowa City. Or at least I think so. Leave it on the field guys, not on the bus. Every play matters.
For the day, we were held to just 287 total yards from schrimmage and 15 first downs. Yuck! Coupled with two turnovers on offense, just not enough in the tank to win. Iowa did a good job in holding us to just 137 predictable yards on the ground. We had to earn every one. Nothing came easy at Kinnick. They did a good job in holding us to 24 points below our season average, and we did the rest to chip in. Ugh!
Elsewhere around the country, can you believe how crazy this season is right now? I can't remember another one like it in recent memory. Sucks to be a ranked team these days. Just ask LSU and CAL. Big congrats to Rich Brooks at Kentucky. He turned Oregon around in the 90's and now Kentucky in 2007. The man can coach! How 'bout those Beavers? Wow, I didn't see that one coming but should have. Beavers have won three in a row at Berkley. Bernard was huge. Huge win for the Beaver nation as they shake up the PAC-10 and national landscape once again. Unbelievable. Beavs were 5/5 tonight inside the redzone. Enough said. The last time both #1 and #2 lost on the same day was back in 1996, Nebraska and Tennessee - respectively. The last time #1 lost in the regular season was 2003. Yep, we haven't seen a year like this in quite some time. Are you kidding me? Nothing is for granted this year. Call it parity. Call it coaching. Call it scholarship restrictions or whatever you like. You just never know anymore. There are no dominant teams this year. Here's your TOP-25 ROUNDUP.
My TOP - 10 (cursed if you're ranked in here):
1) OSU, 2) OK, 3) BC, 4) LSU, 5) OR, 6) USF, 7) WV, 8) VT, 9) SC, 10) USC
And the BCS came out today. If you care this early you can find the latest computer rankings here - likely to change by next weekend. BCS. The list is topped by Ohio State, USF, and BC.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
Wow - we left nothing in the tank or on the sidelines today on Zupke Field in Memorial Stadium (under construction). And we left no doubt, Illinois is for real in 2k7. Sure, the Badgers were probably not a top-5 team, but a win is a win in the BIG-10 conference. It was our first win over a top-5 teams since 1989 (over USC; 14-13 good guys). Is there a better rushing team in the land? And how about Rahsard Mendenhall? He has to be considered in the Heisman discussion right about now. I first told you about him last year and then again earlier this year. He had 160 more yards today on just 19 carries and 3 TDs. Wow, that's impressive against a pretty stout Badger D. And when asked about Rashard, here's what their stud cornerback had to say,
"That guy's got muscles," Wisconsin cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "He's just a hard runner."
RMIII is just a rushing freak averaging 6.8 yds/carry on 119 attempts (772 for the season) which is good enough for 7th in the nation behind Hart and McFadden. It's not like he's doing his damage against cream-puff clubs either. Penn State and Wisconsin are known to play the run well. He is indeed in rare air near the top of that list. As a team my young ILLINI are 5th in the nation right now behind Navy, Arkansas, WV, and Oregon - averagin 262 yards / game on the ground. That's also some pretty lofty company. Passing game is another story altogether.
But, back to the game, I know what you're thinking - it wasn't pretty. We didn't dominate. But we laid a ZOOKER on 'em. Give credit where credit is due already. Ron Zook has taken more heat over the years (FIRERONZOOK.COM) than just about any other coach. Today he delivered. We believe Ronnie; we believe. The aforementioned rushing game is premier, the defense is good, and our kicking game is fairly solid. Zooker has sought out and delivered SEC speed to Champaign in the BIG-10. It's been a while since I've seen that many monster hits on the field. It was a fierce game for the competitiors on both sides of the ball. Once the passing game comes around we'll be scary good. Juice did OK today throwing the rock before he went out with a ding (12/19 for 121 and 1 TD). Not bad, but not great. He missed several open receivers down field today. That has to be corrected and fixed soon. We won't challenge for the BIG-10 title or a BCS game until we find more balance on offense. It's not good enough NOT to be liability; throwing the ball has to be an asset going forward. But, when it mattered most (2nd half, game on the line), the defense really stepped it up today making more big plays than it gave up. Sure we had some lapses on 3rd and long & 4th down. And yes, personal fouls aren't going to help you in big games. But led by Leman and Davis, the 'D' stood its ground today when it mattered most in the 4th quarter - protecting the house.
Elsewhere around the nation, what is going on in CFB this year? Down goes USC and here come the IRISH! Wow - that Trojan loss caught me totally off guard. I guess Les Miles (LSU Coach) was right afterall. And how about Jim Harbaugh after his pre-season comments about USC (possibly being the greatest team ever)? I wouldn't want to play poker with him. His Cardinals are playing hard for him right now. That was a great ending to the game (4th down catch in the endzone). Unbelievable! No more PAC-10 love from me. The conference is overrated top down to the bottom. It's not a bad conference, but there's the SEC and everybody else right now. We'll see what happens going forward. Still a lot of ball to play (it's not even November yet).
OK, so with all of the action and upsets over the past few weeks what does it all me? Let me tell you. Watchout LSU. You may be next. I haven't seen a year like this in quite some time. Pretty much take the TOP-25 and put it in the spin cycle a few times. Rankings don't seem to matter much at home or on the road. It's good for the game. Parity has arrived and will likely next for a while. I don't see this trend changing anytime soon. Limits on scholarships has helped some. But more and more coaches are finding great talent from all over the country. And, even more than that - they're learning how to get the most out of their players each and every play. More and more teams are moving away from the conventional 'I-formations' in favor of just about anything else. Games are more exciting as big plays seem to be the norm instead of the exception. Adaptability is the key. Having a ton of speed doesn't hurt either.
OK, so here's my top 10 this week (not likely to remain this way for long):
1) LSU, 2) Ohio State, 3) BC, 4) Oklahoma, 5) CAL, 6) West Virginia, 7) Florida, 8) Va Tech, 9) South Carolina, 10) Arizona State. Look for Illinois to crack into the TOP-25 this week.
Other interesting tid-bits and notes:
- Losing to Standford at home ended the Trojan's 35 - game winning streak in the Coleseum (last home loss, yep - to Stanford).
- 14 games done. Illinois ended the Badger's 14-game streak in Champaign yesterday. That's special.
- Texas, with two straight conference losses the Horns are reeling. Now 0-2 in the BIG-12 for the first time since 1956.
Finally, some lasting quotes from today's Illinois victory in Champaign:
On being a team win: "This is not just one group of guys or one group of coaches. It's everybody. It takes everybody. I'm so proud of how they've come together and tried to make this a special year and they have done it." - Ron Zook.
On how effective the Illini was against the Wisconsin defense: "The guys in blue were pretty good. I think they're strong runners, the quarterback has good size in addition to being quick and they can make you miss tackles. As coaches, we can't accept those things. We just have to get more hats to the ball and we have to do something when we get there. " - Bret Bielma (Wisconsin Head Coach).