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.

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