Thursday, November 29, 2007

More Awards for ILLINOIS & More!

It's that 'silly' time of year. Regular season is behind us. Coaches are being hired and fired left and right. Bowls are jockeying for position. BCS computers are over-heating. And the Chief is sizing up his bowl options. Isn't it great?

It's also that time of year for awards, rewards, and other accalades. RIVALS and SCOUT.COM announced their Freshmen All-Americans yesterday. No shockers here, both Benn and Wilson (honorable mention) made the list. Regis Benn has been racking 'em up all season (ESPN helmet sticker, BIG-10 special teams player of the week, freshmen of the week, and player of the week, etc...). In amassing 989 all-purpose yards this year, he broke freshmen records for receptions (49) and yards (596) while averaging 12.2 yards / catch. Martez Wilson made his presence on defense this year including 26 tackles and 12 solo tackles, three for a loss, and two sacks on a strong defense (meaning limited playing time). This guy can fly at outside linebacker and hit like a ton of bricks.

And today, Leman earned first-team All-American honors by the coaches, just one of three linebackers across the land (first time at Illinois since 1994, Simeon Rice). Jay posted 124 tackles this year in 12 games. He's first-team all-Big Ten this year and last. He's a semifinalist for the Butkus (Illinois grad), Lombardi, Ronnie Lott, and Bednarik Awards this year. Leman also hits like a ton of bricks. Jay's a leader. This year ILLINOIS ranks 21st in the land in rushing defense. Leman's 2007 award list reads like a never-ending wrap sheet.

And as we sleep tonight, ILLINOIS is preparing for its first bowl game since the 2002 Sugar. Actually, most of the coaching staff has been hitting the recruiting trail of late to help the strong get stronger. Like I said, it's that 'silly' season. These guys split duties between recruiting prospects and coaching the current talent. It's a tough job. The players are back in school after Thanksgiving. And we'll have eight to ten practices over the next few weeks before we get serious about our January bowl game, no matter which one.

Until then, enjoy the silly season and more awesome video like this - no, not my reception - thank God! But good stuff. The groom has a pair. Ah yes, 'silly' season in full swing, or whatever the kids call it.

video

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Meltdown in Maryland - Down Goes the Chief!

I know it's technically still November. Heck, I should be happy the football team still has another game to play - when was the last time that happened to Illinois Football? Certainly, the Chief has much to be grateful for in this season of thanks and peace on earth (relatively speaking). Still yet, when you let one get away (as opposed to getting outplayed in a loss) - it still hurts. The tribe went down to Maryland tonight at the Comcast Center: 69-61, on just 33% from the field, 31% from behind the arc, and 44% from the charity stripe. Ouch!

This will be a short one and cut to the chase. We are not a good shooting team. We are not a good offensive club. At times, we look out of sync - heaving desperation shots that have no business of going in. And I'm not sure why. Check that, I know exactly why. As Weber attempts to fold-in new talent with old, we don't have a scorer, a goto option, a THREAT on each and every position. The team is clearly not firing on every offensive cylinder.

So far this season Randle and Pruitt have been huge disappointments. Yes, I'm calling them out. Each is barely averaging ~ 10 points / game. For big guys in the post with that much 'skill' and 'athleticism' they each should be averaging ~ 15 / game. Instead, I see short-armed shots, a lack of committment to attack the rim, clumsy footwork, and tight play. Let it go my brothers. Let it go and FINISH! Do it like you've done it before and forget the 'style' points. You're not that good to worry about posters. On the outside, Meacham, Alexander, and Frazier have been mediocre at best. The lone bright spot on offense this year has been Calvin Brock - and only at times. Again, we lack consistency in scoring. These four guys need to average ~ 10 points / game. The team seems to be searching for some offensive leadership, a pivot point about which a scoring threat can be built. We have some good pieces, but right now the puzzle is far from completion.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the guys. Our only losses have come at the hands of the ACC (Duke and Maryland). Maybe we're still suffering jet-lag from the 'road odyssey' to start the season (5 road games in just 19 days and 10,170 total miles from Champaign to Maui to College Park). We're still 4-2 heading into December with a couple of home games against Weber State, Arizona, Miami, and Western Carolina before the border clash with Missouri. We should be 8-2 or 7-3 heading into that confrontation. I'd like to see us hit ten wins before BIG-10 play starts in January. Once conference play commences, the beatings will begin. I don't see us winning more than 10 games in conference this year, with as few as potentially 8 heading into the BIG-10 Tourney. Making the NCAA Tourney is no sure bet for a squad that went to the title game just three years ago against Carolina. It's been all downhill in Champaign after that. Unlike the elite programs who can get talent each and every year, we don't re-load. We re-build. And that takes time.

Message to Coaches - This year's team does not appear to have an identity. I don't see any spirit or moxy on or off the court. The energy is there at times, but usually misdirected. The team struggles to play a disciplined game for 40 minutes. I can appreciate the intensity and effort at times, but somehow and someway we need to channel our energies so we're all pulling in the same direction. Leadership would be great from Pruitt, Randall, or Frazier. But I wouldn't count on it. These guys are good but not great players. Their reputations for being outstanding in the post exceed actual performance. That being said, we shouldn't be afraid to experiment with the starting line-up. Right now, I'd go with Pruitt, Randle, Alexander, Brock, and Frazier. Meacham, McCamey, Davis, and Tisdale seem to be more comfortable coming off the bench, where we need the depth on both ends of the court. Take it or leave it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

BCS Looniness - ILLINOIS Rose Bowl?

Don't laugh, in the year of the upset, this could happen too. It's been a crazy season - no shocker there. #2 has gone down 6 times this season, counting Saturday's Kansas demise at the hands of Missouri. #1 hasn't been immume either (USC, Ohio State, and LSU - twice). Seems like nobody wants to or is capable of holding onto the top BCS positions. So why not ILLINOIS in the BCS? And why not the Rose Bowl? Is there a hotter team in the country right now - or two weeks ago? Don't talk to me about the 'big-boys' being down this year or how great their talent pools are when compared to the 'lesser' schools like KU, MIZZOU, WV, and ILLINOIS. Recruiting classes don't win championships, programs do. And the Zooker & Company are building a great one at ILLINOIS. Worthy? Come on - we've been there four times in the past and have three victories (latest being 1984), 10th all-time. Let the debate rage, the arguments be made public, and the computers sort it out once and for all come next weekend, with a little bowl-game politicing in the backrooms of the BCS.

To start making the case for an ILLNI appearance in Pasadena come January 2008, one has to look back to last year. While it's true that the team was competitive in several losses; it's also true that we only amassed two victories against ten defeats. It's been said that you can't frame a house while the foundation is still wet (last season). If that's the case, the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, and painters have all been busy in Champaign this year. The ILLINI turnaround in 2007 is one of the greatest in recent CFB history, by a long shot. Name another 2-10 / 9-3 team in recent memory? Great job by Coach Zook and his staff in getting the players to 'buy-in' this campaign in Champaign. They're on the MARK this year as a major surprise. With nine (9) wins and a top-18 ranking in the BCS (currently #15) we qualify as the rules exist today. Don't blame ILLINOIS - we didn't create the monster. But it is our current POR (process of record).

Then there are the wins and losses. Name another team with two top-5 BCS victories (#5 Wisconsin and #1 Ohio State - in Columbus). En route to nine victories, the CHIEF also dismantled Penn State, Northwestern, and a strong Ball-State club - who gave Nebraska all it could handle and then some. The three defeats weren't that bad either (to Michigan, at Iowa, and at #1 Missouri back in late August). Name a team other than Oklahoma who played the TIGERS better for 60 minutes, and almost won? You may have an argument in Kansas. No matter how you slice it, the SOS is there to lend credibility to the nine wins. In fact, this week Sagarin has our schedule strength at #36 in the land, ahead of other BCS prospects like Ohio State (#56), Kansas (#90), Oklahoma (#67), VT (#45), BC (#41), and Hawaii (#142).

Looking back a few weeks, I had no idea what the Oregon and Oklahoma losses meant at the time. Now it looks like both have opened the door somewhat for a BCS appearance by the Chief. Many scenarios remain and things have to go just right down the stretch. As been said, still a lot more football to be played next weekend with Championship games and classic rivalry showdowns, including the CIVIL WAR. Anything can and will likely happen in one or more of these upcoming match-ups. Until the final whistles blow, the CHIEF will be cheering loudly for teams like Oklahoma, Arizona, LSU, UW, and Virginia Tech to all win their big games this weekend. It's a great game.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

WEEK #13 -Wrap; The END IS HERE!

What a season of CFB and PICK EM. Al l that remains are the championship games and the CIVIL WAR in WEEK #14. It's been an amazing run of grid-iron action for the ages. Kudos to JUICE WILL PREVAIL, Orange and Black is Back, OSU_Beaver_Parent, and Mr. Planning on jobs well done this year in the fantasy league. Lunches, drinks, and dinners will be forthcoming. Don't forget about BOWL MANIA later in December. Should be a wild bowl season.

As I look back at the season as a whole, this could be the year we define as a new era of CFB. Let's be honest, we haven't seen anything like this ever - in my opinion. Every week has been full of upset action. How many times have #1 and #2 gone down this year? Look for more parity like this season in the years to come. 85 scholarships is part of it. Great coaching and better programs across the land are other factors. CFB is the greatest thing going for most regions of of the country. Nobody wants to be left out of the action. These programs are marketing machines for colleges and universities across the land. In many cases, they fund all other sports.

As for the action this week, USC put a stamp on the PAC-10 with the their total demolition of ASU on Thanksgiving. They will win the PAC-10 again and hang 50+ points on UCLA next weekend to earn another bid to the ROSE BOWL where they will dismantle Ohio State in the grand-daddy of them all. You heard it here first. The Trojans are not only back, but they are better than ever - at least for this year. That defense is devastating. And the offense isn't too shabby either.

How about those Ducks? They're not even close to the same team w/o Dixon at QB. By virtue of their performance over the past six quarters w/o him in the lineup, he should earn a seat at the Downtown Atheletic Club next month for the Heisman Ceremony. While I know he won't win it, show me a player that means more to his team? There isn't one. Oregon had a great run this year. It's a brutal game. It's not fair. It's football.

As for the Chief, he's on the outside of the BCS looking in. With wins by USC, VA TECH, and BC this weekend, it's rather unlikely that the BIG-10 will send two clubs to the BCS this year. I look for the following conferences to send two: SEC, ACC, BIG-12, and the PAC-10 (USC and ASU). This means that unless UW can beat Hawaii next weekend, West Virginia and the Warriors will make up the two remaining sptos - with WV possibly in the title game after the Kansas loss. I stil expect ILLINIOS (#15 AP) to be offered a CAPITOL ONE BOWL invite to play Florida, TN, or Georgia. I'm hoping for a Zooker / Meyer showdown. But if this year has taught us anything, you just never know. Bowl games are about money, matchups, and marketing. They want teams that will draw fans and viewers. Doesn't hurt if you're one of the hottest teams in the land, and fun to watch. And very few schools 'travel' better than ILLINOIS. Last time we went to the CITRUS BOWL (1990 under Jeff George), we set the all-time attendance record which still stands today. And we blew a wad of cash down in Florida as well.

Next year could be our year (2008). We may be picked to win the conference with the returning talent we have, even w/o Mendenhall if he decides to go PRO. We could have three Heisman candidates in Williams, Benn, and RMIII if he decides to stay in Champaign for his final season. I expect ILLNOIS to be ranked in the pre-season top-15 next August. Look for the Zooker to spend at least one more season on the sidelines of Zupke. But, if we have a big year next year (conference champs and more?) look for him to be highly coveted by other big-time programs (depending on who they are). I'll be disappointed if we don't have a spirited drive for the BIG-10 crown. You can't count on anything in this game, but we should be competitive in each home / away contest. Look for all of this young talent to come into its own on both sides of the ball. It will be interesting to see how we handle all of the success, especially a bowl game this year.

Like I said before, it's about the journey and not the outcome. We're all better for having travelled the road behind us. College football is one of the greatest things going - and this rivalry weekend we all give thanks. I'm not sure I know of a sport which evokes so much passion, energy, loyalty, and determination for greatness. Friendships have been made and lost, families divided, and co-workers silenced by what happens on the field each and every Saturday afternoon in the fall. It's a great thing. We all can relate, no matter where we may have matriculated. The ups and downs are what make it a thing of beauty which the NFL and other sports simply don't possess (but crave). And for all of its faults with scheduling, money, scandals, and the politics of rankings - CFB insiders know that the weekly controversy leads to endless debate that can linger for years, decades, and generations to come.

My New TOP-10 (based on 13 weeks and recent performance):
1) MIZZOU, 2) WV, 3) LSU, 4) USC, 5) Georgia, 6) KU, 7) Ohio State 8) FL / VT, 10) OK/BC.

Drop me a line and tell me what you think, especially if you disagree. On a personal note, I'll be hoping and praying that MIZZOU beats OU in the BIG-12 title game next weekend. A loss by the TIGERS could open the door to disaster (Ohio State). Nothing against the BUCKEYES and their weak schedule this year (both in and out of conference), but the nation would not be well served by a BUCKEYE return visit to the BCS Championship (Ugh! at the thought). I can think of five or ten more worthy clubs, with two and even three losses. WV / MIZZOU would be good. How about USC / WV or USC / MIZZOU? I think Georgia would make a worthy opponent (won't happen now) with their undefeated non-conference record under Richt. Heck, put KU, Florida, BC, or Hawaii in there first. Anything, anything, but a BUCKEYE BCS. You have to give them credit as being a great team. As long as they continue to schedule just 8 conference games and 4 cream-puffs each year, no way should any one-loss BIG-10 team play for the title (except ILLINOIS, who probably battled MIZZOU in its toughest victory of the year)!

Interesting stats and storylines from around the rivalry nation:

  • With their win over arch - enemy UTAH on Saturday, BYU extends its MW winning record to 15 regular-season games.
  • With their win over Kentucky, the Vols now own the longest active winning streak in an uninterrupted series (23 years).
  • Hawaii picked up just its first WAC title on Friday be beating Boise State.
  • BC ended a losing streak against Miami on Saturday (15) by earning its first win over the CANES since Flutie did it in 1984.
  • Urban Meyer starts 3-0 against FSU - first time any Florida coach has done that.
  • For the first time in 22 years, Oregon was shut-out (Nebraska 1985) and has no shot now of reaching Pasadena again this season.
  • Georgia under Richt is a perfect 25-0 in non-conference games, 7-0 versus Tech. You just don't beat him.
  • In losing to USC, ASU had 27 rushing attempts through three quarters for zero total yards.
  • Arkansas shredded LSU for 515 yards, 388 on the ground en route to their 3OT victory.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Illini Gridders Start to Reap the Awards....

Look for this trend to continue for a long time coming as long as Zook is in town. It's been a long time since we had the Coach of The Year in the BIG-10, Offensive Player of The Year (Mendenhall), and Freshmen of The Year (Benn) - and all in the same season. I doubt that's ever happened before in Champaign. Combined, they're just another reminder just how special a year in was in 2007. Actually, Rashard is the first-ever offensive player of the year for Illinois. Benn follows in the footsteps of Simeon Rice (1992).

And look for Zook on the sidelines in the Hula Bowl College All-Star Game come January. He'll join Les Miles on the turf at Aloha Stadium. Just don't join him in the discussion for the Michigan opening. Les, it's all yours. Go get it!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Maui Madness


Love those pre-season tourneys during 'Feast Week'. I know it's a bit early to fall in love with basketball before Thanksgiving, but these gatherings gives coaches and teams a chance to evaluate themelves out of conference - and that's priceless heading into league play come first of the year. If lucky, a little bit of March tourney madness may even sneak into the game.

This just in, it's never a bad loss when you lose to Duke, especially in Hawaii where they've never lost under Coach 'K'. Might as well send the EA SPORTS Invitational trophy to Durham right after they get invited. Henderson and Nelson will carry the Dukies deep into the ACC and NCAA tournaments come March. With Singler and a few other good looking freshmen, Duke will be a tough out for anyone and should contend for another championship. They may not be big, but they are very atheletic, skilled, and discipled - as are most teams under Coach 'K'.

As for my club, we're a work in progress right now - blending young talent and seasoned vets in different offensive and defensive schemes. We also have some atheletes and can go deep into the bench, but need to figure out how to score consistently for 40 minutes. Our depth and speed will keep us in many games we probably have no business of winning, but unless a few guys can step up and provide the scoring leadership needed to stay in and finish contests, it's going to be another disappointing season of hardwood action in Champaign. Clearly, we're not quite ready to shine - yet.

The way I see it, we need Randle and Pruitt to average 15 points / game and 10 boards each. Alexander should provide a nice spark and might be our 3rd option - a very prolfic scorer at times. Frazier needs to run the offense, with Meachem occasionally stepping in to fill the void. Neither one will light it up night after night, but each can stroke it for 15-20 points on occasion - especially bombing it away from behind the arc. Brock brings more athelticism and scrappiness to the attack, but needs to learn to play within himself, avoiding the highs and lows of a game. I also like some of the young talent we're folding into the lineup with Tisdale, Cole, and Holdren.

But with a New Year's Bowl appearance on tap for my club, basketball will have to take a back seat to the girdders for the next five or six weeks. The Chief hasn't had the opportunity to look forward to that in quite some time. Whether it's the Capital-One Bowl or a BCS game, we have more mountains to climb and one more game to win.

Monday, November 19, 2007

BCS Game This Year? It's Possible - Here's How ...

And don't get me wrong, I was cheering just as loud as most for an Oregon win in Tucson last week. Hated to see Dennis go down like that. At the time, I had no idea what the DUCK loss would mean to the national picture, and the ILLINI. But this has been a crazy season of CFB. You've read about the upsets for the ages (Appy State and Stanford). The Heisman Race has been all over the map, with contenders and pretenders entering and exiting each week seemingly. It's been a season to remember for many reasons. And if you're an Illinois fan, you won't soon forget the BIG WIN over Ohio State - not to mention wins over Penn State and Wisconsin. What a turnaround in Champaign. It's good to be part of the ILLINI NATION right now - especially from the Beaver State. Oskee Wa Wa! Sing it with me, "Ole Princeton yells her tiger, Wisconsin her varsity. And they give the same old rah! rah! rah! at each university. But the yell that always thrills me, and fills my heart with joy, is the good ole Oskee Wa Wa they cheer at ILLINOIS." Hail to the chief! Tribe travels well.

I must say I first heard those three little letters (BCS) on Saturday during the battle for the SWEET SIOUX TOMAHAWK (Northwestern). And, like you, my first reaction was 'are you kidding me'? No way we have a pathway to the BCS - much less do we deserve one. After all, we did lose three games this year, including two conference losses to Iowa and Michigan, respectively. Technically, we finished 3rd in the conference behind Michigan who owns the tiebreaker after their win at Zupke, which seems like so long ago at this point in the season. But then I started to think about it more deeply. Could it be true? Is there a way? Have the BCS gurus created such a perfectly flawed system whereby a 9-3 lowly BIG-10 school could snake its way through the desert grass en route to the Fiesta Bowl? Nah, no way! And then this came across my desk: Oregon's Tumble Could Mean an ILLINI RUMBLE with potentially a Hawaii or Boise State in the BCS (most likely the Fiesta Bowl - but who cares?) Wow! Talk about excitement in a bowl game for once. I knew there had to be a reason to love the BCS; and I found it. You can always count on Stewart to un-earth the good stuff.

Here's my understanding of what would need to happen (all of them):

1) Oregon would need to lose one of its next two games against either UCLA or Oregon State, not totally unlikely with DIXON out of the picture and Brady Leaf large and in charge of the low-powered / injury-plagued quack attack. I'm still not convinced they'll win another game this season. And to think that just 5 days ago this was the #2 team in the nation with a clear path to Bourbon Street. Wow, how fast things change in the world of CFB. Go Bruins! Go BEAVS! Go Bruins! Go BEAVS! Bring just one home for the chief.

2) Arizona State would need to knock-off USC on Thanksgiving, again - quite possible. Actually, I'm not convinced the PAC-10 would send two teams to the BCS even if the Sun Devils lose one of their remaining two games. USC still would have to beat UCLA in my opinion to get to 10-2 on the season. Three losses in the conference for either club would not equal an at-large BCS bid in my book. Bowl games like teams who are hot heading into prime-time TV slot. It's just good for business. Who's hotter than the chief, I ask?

3) VA TECH would need to lose one of its remaining two games, either Virginia or the ACC title game. Again - quite possible. As Mandel mentions, I guess it would be possible for a 10-3 Hokie squad to finish ahead of the CHIEF in the final BCS rankings. But, do BCS bowls want a team fresh off a loss? I think NOT.....It would be better for them to lose to Virginia and beat BC in the ACC Championship, I think. But who wants that?

And now for some background. In order to be eligible for a BCS at-large invite, you need nine wins (done) and have to finish in the top-14 in the ranking system (currently #17). Remember, no conference can send more than two teams to the BCS in a given year. I love rules! Since we don't play another game this year, we can't lose one and will surely only move up as teams above us continue to knock each other off. As Stew mentions, it's rather unlikely that the ACC or the BIG EAST will have two teams qualify for the BCS. The SEC and BIG-12 will each get two (take your pick at this point). So, of the eight total spots in the four BIG GAMES (Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta - no particular order implied), only 7 slots are currently filled with only one coming from the BIG-10 (Ohio State).

How ironic would that be? Talk about your twist of fait for the ages. Could be one of the best examples of I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine. Not yet two weeks after un-ranked ILLINOIS beats #1 Ohio State at home in Columbus, thereby opening the door for an Oregon run to New Orleans (you're welcome BTW), do the DUCKS return the favor by losing in the desert to Arizona - possibly eliminating one of two assumed BCS berths for the PAC-10 (thank you very much). Suddenly, that doesn't seem like a sure bet anymore. What a crazy year. What a crazy system.

Keep in mind that we're talking about a young ILLINI team that went 2-10 last year, 8-38 over the past four years. Ugh! Yes indeed, the turnaround is in full swing in Champaign under Coach Ron Zook, who has had his doubters even just a few weeks ago after the Michigan loss at home. Oh, and chew on this; the last time we went to a bowl game (2002) we got whacked by a team you might have heard of (LSU) in the SUGAR BOWL - BCS baby! That's our style! Lot of football to be played. But, as we head into one of if not the best holiday of them all, the Chief will be cheering for teams like ASU, UCLA, Boise State, and Virginia. The future is now. And the tribe travels well.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Illini Train Keeps Rollin' - Week #12 Wrap

No hangover in Champaign this afternoon as ILLINI reclaims the SWEET SIOUX TOMAHAWK from the WILDCATS in a blowout victory at home to close the BIG-10 season. When things go right; they go RIGHT! The REVENGE TOUR is amp'd up and rockin'. There was some talk of letdown after one of the biggest victories in school history. Not to be. There is no denying the ILLINI in 2007. This is as statement game, taking our record to 9-3 on the season with perhaps one more W to be earned early next year.

CAP One BOWL? Hmmm..... never hurts when you set an all-time attendance record the last time you were there (1990). And, who wouldn't want to see a Zook / Meyer showdown in Orlando? the ILLINI nation is large and in charge these days, willing to travel and spend all kinds of money after a 6-year drought in bowl activity. Plus, we're one of the best travelling schools in the country right behind Nebraska and a few others. At 9-3, we're certainly qualified to represent the BIG-10 after the Michigan loss to Ohio State today. No way a BIG-TIME bowl will want a bleeding Wolverine club coming off two straight losses (poor showings, at that).

OK, back to the present and things we can control. Yes, it was a coming - out party for Jeff Cumberland (#17). He's our other tall, strong, speedy, and skilled converted TE (now wideout). And the offense put together two 90+ scoring drives to drain the will and life out of the WILDCAT defense. For the day, we had another 300-yard rushing effort amassing more than 30 first-downs yet again. Mendenhall also looked strong rushing the ball for 2TDs. But the undeniable leader of this team, his team, is Juice Williams. With over 300 total yeards (200+ passing and 100+ rushing), this has become Isiah's squad over the last month. There was some doubt, especially after the Michigan loss last month. But, after the last four performances including the BIG BUCKEYE win last week, there is no doubt. And, he's just a sophomore. Lookout BIG-10. We'll be locked and loaded for a title run next season.

It's amazing what a little talent and a year will do. No doubt, the Zooker has orchestrated one of the biggest turnarounds in BIG - 10 / CFB history. Keep in mind that we had just two wins last year, going 8-38 over the past five seasons. Yep, nine wins surpasses the total from the past four years combined. We couldn't find a bowl if you opened up all the cupboards in the kitchen. Those days are gone - a distant memory. Give the real credit to two sources: the players who execute and the coaches who lead (both on and off the field). Yes, big-time kudos to Zook (coach of the year?) and Locksley - the two masterminds of the great turnaround. I hope both stay in Champaign for a long time to come. There is un-finished business to close still in the BIG-10 and on the national scene.

Goals for next season - I know it's still November 2007, but after a strong season this year I can't help but start thinking about next season. With a culture of winning being established each week, next year is shaping up to be a big one. Let's continue to turn the talent into treasure. We have great coaching staff, great facilities, an awesome campus 'homestyle' atmosphere, the ORANGE KRUSH, and a desire to win. It's all about family in Champaign. So, here are some realistic goals for this young club:

1) Win the day - don't take any snap, practice, or game for granted. If this year has taught the astute football scholar anything, it's a different game every week. Leave it all on the field. And most importantly, do it like you've done it before.

2) Win the non-conference schedule - taking one at a time, and defend ZUPKE FIELD. This is our NEW house.

3) Win the conference. You aren't going to the BCS in any shape or form without finishing ahead of our arch rivals: Ohio State, Michigan, Wisonsin, and Penn State. It's going to be a competitive / wide-open race next season.

4) Be a player on the national scene each week. Obviously, if you take care of 1-3 above this will happen. Don't get the priorities mixed up - #1 is the most important. But, don't waste any opportunity to move this program back to greatness. With 118 years of history behind us, we still haven't won a national title in football. Remember, beating Ohio State once in a while is nice, but doing it consistently when it matters most is something altogether different. Do it like you've done it before!

Looking Back - Oblige me a bit. What a season! I had us pegged for six wins last January and bowl eligibility. Who'd have thought we'd beat Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State all in the same year? And, if you look our our losses this year (at Iowa, at Missouri, and at home against Michigan), there isn't a bad one in the bunch. We were competitive in all three defeats with real chances to win each game. Oh, what could have been (12-0?)! I know, a bit dreamy - but the two that stick in my crotch the most are the conference losses to Iowa (heartbreaker) and Michigan (where we really beat ourselves with penalties and specials teams breakdowns). Still yet, I think we're the only team with two top-5 wins on the year. No shame in losing to two other strong top-20 squads.

I think Adam Rittenberg's features sums it all up pretty well- the $116M stadium facelift is a work in progress as two large cranes tower over the west balcony, but the rebuilding process on the field is almost complete. "These guys are going to have to learn that New Year's Eve, they don't get to go out," third-year coach Ron Zook said. "But that's a good thing."

My New TOP-10 - The picture gets clearer with each passing loss. Enjoy this season, there hasn't been one like it in recent memory:

1) LSU, 2) Kansas, 3) Mizzou, 4) WV, 5) Georgia, 6) Ohio State, 7) ASU, 8) USC, 9) Va Tech, 10) Texas.

The regular season wraps up with rivalry weekend starting on Thanksgiving night with USC @ ASU and ending Saturday night with Bama @ Auburn. In between those three days turkey, shopping, and the mad-dash in and out of parking lots will be some of the best grid-iron season of the year. It's probably my favorite slate of games year in and out. You can see the entire list here. I'm sure of only one thing. The 'upsets' aren't over just yet.

"Recruiting is like shaving: You've got to do it every day or you don't look too good." - Ron Zook.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Devastation in the Desert ... Down Goes #2 Again!

It's a totally different game very week. And how fast can things change - bam, just like a pick six. I've been saying it all year. Gone are the days where teams can expect to dominate simply by showing up. You just never know anymore. That's why they play the games. Chief usually doesn't opine about things non-ILLINI (why waste the electrons?), but he felt obliged to post a few thoughts and comments about the Duck demise in the desert tonight at the hands of the notorious WILDCATS. Another win in November to remember for Arizona.

For starters, football is a brutal game. There isn't a more physical game in the land. What it demands of an athelete's body is at times super-human. Let's face it, the corpus humanus wasn't designed to take such a brutal beating week in and week out. It's not a fair game. You hate to see any player go down like that, much less a legitimate Heisman candidate. But, injury is part of the deal. All teams have been there. In the end, it's really black and white - do or die (figuratively). And for what seems like a weekly phenomenon (fifth time in reality), down goes #2 BCS. What a season. And the upsets, surprises, letdowns, and otherwise unforgettable moments are not behind us yet. Mark those words.

Had Derrick Jones made the catch early in the 1st, Oregon goes up 15-0 and the rout is on. Instead, after some pong action and some great hands by Cason, Arizona puts together 31 unanswered points - doing it every which way possible. After Dixon's departure, the game took on a whole new tone. I was somewhat surprised to see how the entire team collapsed like Dennis' knee (exposing the team's character to some degree). That is not a sign of a champion. You have to be deeper than one player to win in big-time football. Nothing came easy for Oregon on offense or defense (key turnovers, etc..). And there there is Brady Leaf; he's no Doug Flutie much less a Dennis Dixon. OK, to be honest, having Leaf in the game instead of Dixon is like having an ass run in the Derby. It's just not quite the same performance. Watching leaf in the pocket attempting a completion was almost as painful as the Dixon injury.

So where do the Ducks go from here? I don't know of another team as decimated by injury at key positions as Oregon. Ride the back and legs of J. Stewart is my advice. He's a total stud - one of the best in the country. And the defense is something to be proud of after a rough start in the first half. They gave up nothing in the last 30 minutes. Surely, they'll take a beating in the AP/BCS polls next week. I don't see how they remain in the TOP-10 anymore. Their national-title hopes are gone like Willamette - valley sunshine in November.

The big winners tonight reside in the BIG-12: Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. Suddenly the national picture is much clearer (and less controversial). If the Jayhawks win out they go to New Orleans. If the Sooners win out, we could be looking at an LSU / Oklahoma rematch. But, the Ducks are done - they have no chance at the title this year. It was a great run with Dixon in charge - a great year overall. They do have an outside chance to make it to Pasadena provided they take care of business in LA and Eugene to close the season. Suddenly for the Ducks, nothing is guaranteed including two more wins (with one against Oregon State). Seems par for the course in 2007.

And a final note - is their a worse conference in the nation when it comes to officiating? Most of the blown calls weren't even close. It hasn't been a good couple of years for the men in PAC-10 stripes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What has the Zooker Done?

First, a little love for my basketball squad who boasts the nation's best winning percentage over the past four years. Nobody has more wins than us (113). How 'bout them ILLINI hoopers? Not that we don't have our challenges in 2007/8 (we return only three starters from last year), but that is quite a feat topping Duke, Florida, Memphis, Gonzaga, and North Carolina. Thanks Coach Bruce. Now, go get 'em this year! Bring another BIG-10 Title back to Champaign for the winter. Oskee Wa WA ....

OK, now back to the Zooker. In only his 3rd year as head coach, we're now bowl eligible - big deal you say. Well, it's the best turnaround in CFB this year and one of the best all time (+6 over 2006). With 8 wins and soon to be nine, Ronnie has led our team to as many wins as the past four years combined. You don't get named the Tostito's Team of the Week for nothing. For the first time since 1965 we've beaten two top-5 clubs in the same year (anybody else done that yet this year?). And the list of great accomplishments rolls on:
  • The 'O' - line is on pace to set a record for fewest sacks in a season, by a long shot. The big boys in the trenches are only giving up 1 sack / game for tops in the BIG-10 and 5th in the country.
  • We lead the BIG-10 in rushing and rank sixth in the nation at 261 yards / game or 5.8 yards / carry behind Arkansas and WV.
  • And we're doing this with the 9th toughtest schedule in the nation.
  • And when we take a lead in the locker room at the break we're a perfect 8 for 8.

Not bad - you say. Well, our last win just happened to end a 29-game regular season streak, including 21 consecutive BUCKEYE wins in conference. And coming into the horseshoe last Saturday, Ohio State gave up just 5 passing TDs all season (now make that nine 9). The Buckeyes owned the 3rd best rushing defense in the land (and really the best for big-time programs) at 65 yards / game. We lit them up for 260 (right on average); the first time since 2001 they gave up more than 200. Vote for ILLINOIS as the PONTIAC GAME-CHANGING PERFORMANCE for this week. And tune into the Oregon game Thursday night on ESPN to see if we win.

As for this weekend and the Battle for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk (what a great name for a trophy), we take a 51-44-5 record into Memorial Stadium against Northwestern. I expect big things from Leman, Mitchell, and Miller this weekend. The last time out against the WILDCATS, the Bednarik Finalist (#47 J Leman) recorded 22 tackles - to lead the nation in a single - game performance. Oooooooh - raaaaaaah! With 36 sacks for the season (#10 in the country), look for my defense to go 'off' on Saturday in front of our 5th sell-out crowd.

I expect Rashard to come out on fire for his 7th 100-yard effort of the year (which has never been done at ILLINOIS). He is a great one. As a Doak finalist this year, consider these numbers:

  • He's 3rd in the nation at 6.4 YPC, ahead of McFadden, Hart, Slaton, Rice, and Hill.
  • He's 8th in the nation at 128 YPG on the ground behind Rice, Hart, and McFadden.
  • Among active rushers in the conference, he ranks #8 as a junior and could finish his career in the stratosphere with a big season next year. We'll see if he comes back to join Juice in teh backfield next season.

That's progress...so what about the season finale against NW? In Ron's own words:

What about the Students - "I'll do whatever I have to do. I've said it many times. Anything that's legal and any amount of money that my wife will let me spend."

About the seniors - "Not only great guys, but great people and ambassadors to this University. Great team guys. For the first time, I've never done this, but I am actually going to go out there for senior day. I think that it's important that I show my appreciation."

On recruiting after the Ohio-State victory for the ages - "It's always ringing off the wall. I don't think that there's any question when you're able to have a win of that magnitude, of course on national television and the way it's talked about. The players are going to take notice of that. I've said this many times. Recruiting is still about people. Everyone understands that it's going to be hard to go somewhere and win every single game. There's going to be tough times wherever you go. And that's why I think that it's important that it comes down to people and feelings."



Saturday, November 10, 2007

Week #11 Wrap - Battle for the ILLIBUCK

And for the first time since 1956 we beat #1. Down goes BUCKY! And the wooden turtle (ILLIBUCK) goes back to its rightful home in Champaign. Every Oregon fan in the nation should send the Chief his $20.00. The Ducks now own their own destiny. Win out, and they go to New Orleans and the BCS title game. Remember which team put you there - ILLINOIS. Oregon needed a break in the BCS despite two big wins over USC and ASU. Just don't screw it up. The last time a #1 team lost at home was 1998 - Ohio State. And for the first time since 1959 (2nd time ever), both Ohio State and Michigan lost today, one week before the most meaningless rivalry game in the land. Life is good. I can expire a happy man.

In our past 17 games versus #1, we had just three wins to show for our efforts. Make it four! Winning is an attitude - and so is losing. Winning is a culture, and we're building a culture of winning in Champaign under Coach Ron. Yes, we are a wild pack of hyenas on defense. And today we took down the Lion King ending the nation's longest winning streak, including 20-straight conference wins for Ohio State. Yes, Vermont LUVS the ILLINI, and the Chief loves Vermont (GAMEDAY reference from William and Amhurst)! Today's big ILLINI win opens the door for a host of teams to seize the opportunity. Oh my - what a season of CFB.

This was a classic BIG-10 game of ball control, big plays, defense, and big-time hitting on just about every play. We're one of the most physical teams in the nation, and that was clearly on display in Columbus all afternoon today. On a team that gives up just 9.7 points / game, we scored 28. For a team that gives up just 200 yards / game, we lit them up for 400. While Benn was held in check, Mendenhall and JUICE (4TD passes / 0 picks) led the way today - with Williams taking control and having his breakout game as QB. What a turnaround from a year ago, three years ago. With today's win (8-3 on the season), we have more wins in 2007 than in the past four years combined. And with wins over Penn State and Wisconsin, we should finish #3 in the conference; in-line for a 2008 bowl game. The Zooker can coach. Hail to the CHIEF! A year ago the Illini were 2-10, but they showed signs of improvement for the first time in years in a 17-10 loss to No. 1 Ohio State. The year before the Buckeyes beat Illinois 40-2. "We said two years ago when we were here," Zook said, "it would be a different story when we came back."

Message to Coaches - Great job guys, you really had an excellent gameplan for Ohio State. 400 yards, including 260 on the ground is pretty amazing considering the competition today. And the coaching was first-rate; especially on 4th down. The team came ready to play today. Nowhere was that more clear after going down 7-0 early in the game. Keep up the good work. At 8-3, ten wins isn't out of the question this year. And that would result in one of the greatest program turnaounds in CFB history. Realizing potential is a great thing. But in the end, it's really just another win. Let's go for two more this year .... Oskee Wa Wa. I said back last January that this year's club would be going bowlin' and then again in August with a 6-6 record. Needless to say, those expectations have been exceeded with bigger things in sight (like a CAP ONE BOWL appearance against maybe, hmmmm?).

And here comes the BUT....don't be satisfied with beating Ohio State. This shouldn't be a replacement for our eventual championship run i the conference and on the national stage. We should have higher expectations. It's one thing to beat the Ohio States in the world, it's quite another to climb the BIG-10 mountain and remain on top. Championship programs are great because they reload each year for another title run. I'm talking about the four or five elite programs of today: USC, Ohio State, Florida, Texas, and LSU. These clubs bring a swagger or confidence of expecting to win each game and a championship at the end of the year (culture of winning). Anything less constitutes failure / disappointment. When measured against these standards, today's Ohio State victory doesn't quite measure up.

We have a lot more work to do as we close the 2007 season in preparation for 2008. The passing game is a work in progress. The running game can be tuned further. And the kicking game - oh, the kicking game (probably what cost us the Michigan game earlier in Champaign). Not to mention some shoring - up on defense, especially in the secondary. It's true that while we can hit like a ton of bricks, we also cover like them at times on 3rd and long. So, keep your eye on the prize, don't lose focus, play within, expect to win, and do it like you've been there before. Champions make winning big games look easier than it really is. Are you a champion?

Lasting Quotes from the Day / Game:
Late in the game on 4th and inches on our own 33 yard-line, "I will get you an inch," Williams told him. "You better," coach Ron Zook said.

Williams assumed that the ball would be put in the hands of star running back Rashard Mendenhall. Instead, the call was for a quarterback sneak. "I froze up a little," Williams said. "I just said to myself, 'I will get this first down and do all I can for this team.'"

"That doesn't mean he's going to make a lot of major decisions from here on out, but I saw it in his eyes," Zook said.

"Coach told me it's going to be a different story in two years," Williams recalled. "It's going to be a fun experience and it was absolutely true."

"You can't come into the No. 1 team's backyard and not be able to coach," Leman said. "We have talent, but I don't know if we have as much talent as they do. So, it takes coaching."

"I don't have any redemption," he said. "I was asked the question many times with the national championship game (when the Gators played Ohio State last year), I was so happy for those kids because that's what we talked about doing. Obviously it hurt when people question whether you can coach or not but when you believe in something and you know you're doing the right thing, you keep doing it. That's what life is all about."

My New TOP-10 (Elsewhere around the nation):

1) LSU, 2) Oregon, 3) Kansas, 4) Oklahoma, 5) WV, 6) Mizzou, 7) Georgia, 8) Va Tech, 9) USC, 10) Ohio State with your latest BCS rankings here.

BOWL UPDATE - yes, it's getting to be that time of year. LSU / Oregon? Guess where we're (BIG TEN #2) going now and who will be playing if it all pans out? Chomp Chomp in the swamp might offer up a clue.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Week #10 Wrap - Juice is Loose!

I said last week that we're goin' bowlin' this year. Not that I was wrong, but technically - the win over Ball State just made is bowl eligible. But tonight's blowout of Minnesota under the dome puts a stamp on our bowl game, potentially a Florida Bowl in Orlando or Jacksonville. How 'bout those Illini - building a culture of winning? Doesn't happen over night, but it starts with winnnig games you are expected to win, at home or away.

This was a game we needed to not only win, but to do so by making a statement. Missions accomplished. Isiah 'Juice' Williams and Rashard Mendenhall (RMIII) combined for over 350 yards rushing between the two of them. Juice looked good throwing the ball on 14/21 for 207 and 2TDs. The offense was clicking tonight on the road - granted, against the Gophers. But, this is the kind of win that was expected and was delivered. Both of these guys should be leading Heisman candidates in 2008 assuming RMIII returns for his senior season. At 124 yards / game, RMII is right behind Stewart at Oregon on the national scene with 1371 rushing yards from scrimmage on just 196 carries, making him 3rd in total yards behind two kids from Tulane and UCF; and leads the country with a gaudy 7.0 yards/carry.

For the night, we had 31 first downs - 22 on the ground amassing 660 total yards under the canopy (453 yards on the ground). 44-17 was your final, and it could have been a lot worse. Great job all the way around. The defense played OK and is holding opposition to just 19.1 points / game for the season (down from near 40 just two years ago). As a unit, we're ~ 20th in the nation for scoring defense. And if you don't believe that defense doesn't win championships, Ohio State leads the nation in scoring defense at 9.7 points / game. Believe it now? Guess who else tops the list? This is why I think Oregon will struggle down the stretch in terms of any national title hopes. As a team, Illinois is 6th in the nation in total rushing behind Oregon, averaging 261 yards on the ground / game on 442 attemps. Up next, the battle for the ILLIBUCK trophy in Columbus. Yes, we travel to Ohio State to take on those nasty BUCKEYES where we've had some success of late. Remember last year? In a crazy season where anything can and has happened; you just never know.

DUCK WRAP - Another big win for the quack attack today in Eugene, this time in front of the nation against #4 ASU. It really wasn't it doubt all afternoon while Dennis was large and in charge chucking 4 TD passes on 13/22 for 189. Stewart looked sound in the running game as well putting on 99 yards on 21 carries. And the 'D' had 9 sacks on Carpenter. Ducks should move up in the polls this week. With three to go including a Thursday-night game in Tucson up next, they control their own destiny with the worst outcome being the Rose Bowl barring a total collapse job with three to go, including the CIVIL WAR.

Elsewhere - How about those Jayhawks? Wow, the final score was like a basketball game. How bad is it now for Nebraska who owned a 32 - game winning streak and 37 of 38 against the Hawks. KU put up 11TDs on the vaunted black-shirt defense who gave up more points today than ever before (117 years). At one point, Kansas put together 10 straight TD drives on that Husker 'D'. And for the first time in 49 years the Huskers have lost 5 in a row. For the season, Callahan's crew has allowed 359 points this year (10 games). Wow! Oh, how the children of the corn have fallen. A new low each week. I don't know how you field this team next week at home against KSU. If your Callahan, maybe you don't. Ugh!

Oh the pain in South Bend tonight in 3OT. For the first time in 43 years, the MIDDIES down the Irish to end the nation's longest winning streak. ND is now 1-8 on the year to forget; NAVY improves to 5-4. Notre Dame's first 8-loss season since 1960. Good news for IRISH fans is that their 2008 recruiting class still leads the nation - for now.

And SPARTY still hasn't won in November since 2004. MEECHIGAN won a close one on the road to lead the BIG-10 with Ohio State, who rolled today over the Badgers. And how about LSU? Oh, I haven't seen a team win so many close games in a long time. But, sooner or later their luck will run out in the SEC. Texas overcame a 21-point deficit in Stillwater to beat the Pokes at home.

Just when you think this season might calm down a bit and finally make some sense, DOWN GOES #2 AGAIN! How 'bout those Noles? In a night where Ryan threw 3 picks and looked average at best, BC goes down at home opening the door for LSU and Oregon in the BCS. Three more weeks to go in this unbelievable season. It's that time of year. It's November that they remember. It's when Championships are won, and lost. Here's the complete round-up.

My TOP 10:

1) Ohio State, 2) LSU, 3) Oregon, 4) Oklahoma, 5) West Virginia, 6) Kansas, 7) Mizzou, 8) Georgia, 9) Michigan, 10) UCONN.

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