Saturday, October 20, 2007

Week #8 Wrap - Goliath Sleys David!

Folks, it's been 24 long years since we last beat BIG BLUE (the evil empire - EE) in Champaign, 1983 to be exact. Reagan was your President and gas was around $1.00 / gallon. Oh, how some things change and others remain the same. Actually, we've only beaten the EE 1 time at home in the last 50 years. Yeah, they own us on Zupke Field - Brent Musburger and all. But, we're still goin' bowlin' this year!

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.

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