Posted on: January 11, 2011 12:28 pm
Posted by Tom Fornelli
On Monday Illinois lost one of its best players on defense to the NFL draft in Martez Wilson, and on Tuesday the Illini lost their biggest weapon on offense as well. Though it didn't come as much of a shock, Illinois can't be all that excited to hear that running back Mikel LeShoure will forego his senior season in Champaign and enter the NFL draft.
"I know it wasn't an easy choice," LeShoure's mother, Jazz Jones told the Champaign News-Gazette. "He did his homework as far as weighing his options. He looked at the pros and cons of leaving and the pros and cons of staying."
"[Ron Zook] said Mikel has proven to him that he is capable of anything. He wished Mikel well. He spoke very highly of the maturity Mikel has shown. He said he's going to do whatever he can to help my son. I appreciate what he has done for my son."
Unfortunately for Ron Zook, he'll not only have to replace LeShoure's production next season, but he can't even attend the press conference LeShoure will be announcing his decision at. It's being held in his former high school, and since it's the recruiting dead period, no coaches are allowed in any high schools right now. Not even for a press conference.
LeShoure is coming off the most prolific season in Illinois history as a running back, rushing for 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns, including a 330 yard performance against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. He was also on the end of three receiving touchdowns.
Posted on: January 10, 2011 12:09 pm
Posted by Tom Fornelli
Here's one that may be considered a bit of a head-scratcher. it seems that Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson will be leaving school early to take a shot at the pros, as he's filed his papers to enter the NFL Draft. The reason I say it's a bit surprising is that Wilson, who was a highly-related recruit when Ron Zook landed him in Champaign, has had a bit of a rough road since his college career started. Still, that doesn't seem to have any affect on his decision.
"I know I can get better but I'm ready to make this move," Wilson said. "I can play inside or outside. I will be a versatile NFL player.
"College has been a great experience and I've matured greatly. I appreciate what I have now and I've been making good decisions."
Wilson's career in Champaign was a bit of a roller coaster. In his three years at the school he's had to deal with being stabbed in a bar fight, and a broken vertabrae in his neck. He's also battled through a bunch of smaller injuries -- other injuries would have to be smaller than those -- but did finally have a solid season in 2010. Still, though he'll be getting his degree this May, in my opinion Wilson would have been better off returning to school for another season.
Another season like the one he had in 2010 would have improved his stock quite a bit. Of course, given the things that have happened to him while he was in college, I guess it's hard to blame him for wanting to get out as quickly as possible.
Posted on: December 31, 2010 8:46 pm
Posted by Tom Fornelli
The Basics: Florida (7-5) vs. Penn State (7-5), Jan.1, 1pm ET
Why You Should Watch: Well, first of all, you should watch this game because it'll be starting around the same time you're finally waking up out of your New Year's Eve haze. Nothing like some football to help you shake the cobwebs out of your brain. Oh, and it's also the final time you will have a chance to see Urban Meyer nearly suffer a heart attack on a Florida sideline. Not to mention, depending on who you want to believe, it could also be the final time that Joe Paterno ever graces a sideline.
Keys to Victory for Florida: You could question how Florida will approach this game given everything that's gone on in Gainesville over the last month, but I don't think motivation is going to be a problem. There's no way these Gators want to send Urban Meyer out with a loss. To do this, well, the Gators will have do so something they haven't done all season.
Find some consistency on offense. Whether it's John Brantley through the air, or Trey Burton on the ground, whoever is at quarterback for Florida is going to have to make some plays against this Penn State defense. That means the Gators offensive line, which has been pretty disappointing this year, is going to need to step up the protection. When Brantley is back there he tends to make dumb decisions when facing pressure and has a hard time reading coverage.
The best way to help Brantley would be to get the ground game going with Mike Gillislee, Emmanuel Moody, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Penn State has had some problems with the run this season, and the Gators should watch the game film of the Penn State game against Illinois and copy Illinois' game plan. Maybe Ron Zook can finally win a bowl game for Florida after all these years.
Keys to Victory for Penn State: Florida is faster and more athletic than Penn State. The best way for Penn State to counter this will be to attack, attack and attack some more on defense. Blitz John Brantley like there is no tomorrow and force him to make decisions he's not ready to make. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the Nittany Lions need to tighten things up against the run.
When Penn State has the ball it should look to exploit the Gators a bit in the secondary. Yes, Evan Royster should still get plenty of carries to soften up the Florida defense, but the Gators don't have Janoris Jenkins in this game and he's not an easy player to replace. Now, the problem here is that as good as Matt McGloin has been, he's not very effective on deep routes. Which means that Penn State should look to attack Florida on shorter routes like slants and hitches.
Finally, it will be important for Royster and the offensive line to have move the ball against the Florida run defense. Royster had a couple of lackluster games against tough run defenses like Alabama and Ohio State this season, and for Penn State to have a legit chance in this game, he's going to have to produce.
The Outback Bowl is like: one of those Rolling Stones farewell concerts. You know that even though they claim it's the last time you'll ever see them performing, they're going to come back eventually. Yes, Urban Meyer may be leaving Florida to spend time with the family and tend to his health, but do you really believe a man that immersed in football is never coming back? I don't.
Posted on: December 29, 2010 10:08 pm
Posted by Tom Fornelli
Ron Zook got the first bowl victory of his career as Illinois handed Baylor a 38-14 loss in Houston.
Offense: This was likely Illinois' best all-around performance of the season since it beat Penn State, as both the offense and defense performed extremely well. We already knew that Illinois could get the job done on the ground, but Nathan Scheelhaase showed everybody why he has such a bright future on Wednesday night. The freshman completed 18-of-23 passes for 242 yards, while contributing 53 yards and a touchdown rushing. Of course, 55 of those yards came on one play in the closing seconds as he kept the ball on a bootleg and nobody from Baylor followed him. Still, as good as Scheelhaase was, Mikel LeShoure was the star of the show. LeShoure rushed for 184 yards and 3 touchdowns to set the Illinois single season marks for yards in a season and touchdowns. The Illini just had their way with Baylor all night long, racking up 533 total yards. Grade: A
Defense: Illinois' defense hasn't gotten as much respect as it probably deserved this season thanks to some rough games against Michigan and Minnesota, but this unit isn't nearly as mediocre as most people think. Case in point: On Wednesday night the Illini held a Baylor team that had averaged 32.6 points per game and 478.5 yards per game to 14 points. Corey Liuget and the defensive line were in Robert Griffin's face all night, and most importantly, got off the field on third down, allowing Baylor to convert only two of ten third downs. Grade: A
Coaching: After last season Ron Zook decided that if he wanted to keep his job and turn the Illinois program around he was going to have to start over. So he overhauled his coaching staff and brought on Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning to run the offense and the defense. Well, it paid off. Zook has the first bowl win of his career thanks to the game plans his coordinators drew up to stop Baylor, and suddenly things are looking good in Champaign again. Grade: A
Offense: Robert Griffin is a remarkable kid. I feel the need to make this point because I'm sure a lot of college football fans don't get the chance to see Baylor play all that often, but I assure you, the Robert Griffin you saw tonight was not the Robert Griffin the Big 12 saw most of the season. I'm not sure whether Baylor was nervous playing in its first bowl game in so long, but the Bears just didn't have it out of the gate on Wednesday night. They showed some flashes on offense in the second half, but they were few and far between, and just not in time. Any rhythm the team did pick up was quickly thrown off by penalties or bad decisions, and the Baylor offense that had shown up all season just never made its way to Houston. Some of this has to be attributed to Illinois' defense, but Baylor didn't do itself any favors. Grade: D
Defense: Was there that kid in your grade school that liked to beat up on younger, smaller kids during recess? You know, the fifth grader with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove to the second grader? Well, Illinois' offense was the fifth grader on Wednesday, and Baylor's defense was the second grader just lying on the ground hoping that a teacher would show up to break up the fight before he was dead. You got the feeling that Illinois could have let Baylor know what it was going to do before every play and Baylor still couldn't have stopped it. Grade: F
Coaching: There Baylor coaching staff isn't going to find much on the game film to be happy about when they get back to Waco. It was just a bad night and the coaching staff deserves some of the blame for the Bears coming out so flat to start the game. Still, considering what Art Briles has done at Baylor during his three years, and where this program could be going, it's hard for me to give Briles and company a terrible grade. Grade: C
I was hoping this game would be a shootout that would come down to who had the ball last, or at least the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. Instead it was a game that was pretty easy to figure out early, and felt more like a three and a half hour Illinois coronation ceremony. Which is nice for Illinois fans, but for the impartial observer, it's rather boring. Grade: D
Posted on: November 21, 2010 4:36 am
Posted by Adam Jacobi
1. Wisconsin fans shouldn't necessarily buy tickets to Pasadena, but they should at least be pricing them. We're sure that Badger fans weren't terribly excited to see their nemeses in East Lansing complete the comeback today, leaving the Big Ten title picture still in some measure of doubt, but Ohio State 's own comeback against Iowa later that day means that barring a sensational boost in the BCS rankings for the Buckeyes, Wisconsin is one win away from the Rose Bowl. Considering Northwestern -- the Badgers' last opponent -- clearly misses injured QB Dan Persa and struggles to stop the run, the likelihood of an upset at Camp Randall seems slim. Famous last words, yes, but still.
2. Don't mention fourth quarters to Iowa fans for a while. Or do if you want to anger them. In the Hawkeyes' game against Ohio State, the Buckeyes weathered Iowa's defense for three quarters before making a heroic drive in the last few minutes of the game to take the lead and win. For the Iowa fans, it was a broken record that desperately needs to stop; in each of Iowa's four losses, the vaunted Iowa defense has given up a go-ahead touchdown with less than five minutes on the clock, at which point the Iowa offense has failed to answer under pressure. In fact, Iowa would have five losses of that exact nature if Indiana wideout Damario Belcher hadn't dropped an easy fourth-down touchdown two weeks ago. It's to the point where "small sample size" just doesn't work as an excuse anymore: the Iowa defense clearly doesn't have the juice to play for 60 minutes, and that painful fact has snuffed out the high hopes of the Hawkeye faithful in Iowa City.
3. The Spartans might not be going to the Rose Bowl, but their season's pretty special anyway. Barring an Ohio State loss to Michigan next week, Michigan State will not be going to Pasadena; the fact that MSU and OSU didn't play each other this season means that their tiebreaker would be BCS ranking, and OSU was already comfortably ahead of the Spartans even before OSU took down a ranked Iowa team while MSU struggled with very-not-ranked Purdue. Michigan State's season-ender at Penn State isn't a gimme, but even if the Spartans lose, this is still just the third time in program history that MSU has hit 10 wins on a season (1965, 1999). The Spartans have never won 11 games in a season, and they have two opportunities to do that now.
The accomplishment isn't that much of a stunner, as the Spartans looked on paper to be at worst a darkhorse contender for the league title. It's just, well, they barely ever do this, so it was hard not to wonder how MSU would screw it all up this year. But credit Mark Dantonio and his staff for keeping the team on track, even through Dantonio's heart attack and other off-field problems, and en route to its best Big Ten record its best conference record in at least 11 (and maybe 45) years.
4. Okay, so football at Wrigley can be pretty cool -- even if one of the end zones is sort of a death trap. The Big Ten got it right when it forbade Illinois and Northwestern to run offensive series toward that now-infamous east end zone at Wrigley, and when Northwestern defensive back Brian Peters took an interception to the house, he had to be tackled by teammates before hitting that wall. No, he wasn't three yards away from certain doom, and the tackle by his pals was also nice and celebratory, but still: he was only about three or four yards away from impact before being taken down as he slowed from his sprint. Running offensive plays (like fade routes) toward that wall would have been just begging for injuries -- and lawsuits.
But past that, the fans in attendance got to see a special occasion, even if Illinois absolutely worked the Wildcats. Wrigley Field is one of the most hallowed sports arenas, and to see its famed scoreboard used to show Big Ten football scores and its marquee painted purple must have been a thrill for Northwestern and Big Ten fans in Chicago. Ron Zook said he'd "absolutely" have his team play there again, and Pat Fitzgerald was equally effusive in his praise of the event. Should the two teams play their rivalry game there every year? Well, that seems like an abuse of the novelty of it all, but have you ever actually seen Memorial Stadium or Ryan Field? Not exactly cathedrals of the sport, those. It might -- just might -- be worth keeping Wrigley on the table going forward.
Tags: Big Ten, Brian Peters, Damario Belcher, Dan Persa, Illinois, Illinois Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, Iowa Ohio State, Mark Dantonio, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan State Purdue, Michigan Wisconsin, Northwestern, Northwestern, Northwestern Illinois, Ohio State, Ohio State Iowa, Pat Fitzgerald, Penn State, Purdue, Purdue Michigan State, Ron Zook, What I Learned, Wisconsin Michigan, Wrigley Field, Wrigley Field Football
Posted on: November 17, 2010 10:44 am
Posted by Chip Patterson
Illinois head coach Ron Zook has always been one of the animated characters in college football. His praises have been occasionally overshadowed by his downfalls, and from time to time his dealings with the media provide an entertainment value not usually included in postgame press conferences.
For the Fighting Illini, one win stands between them and bowl eligibility. A win that could have been picked up at the expense of a struggling Minnesota team. So after Saturday's 38-34 home loss to the Golden Gophers, Zook took the podium with a loquacious explanation for why the Fighting Illini lost to a team that had not yet won a conference game. Unfortunately, an unexpected flash from a camera set off a charge in Zook's mind that replaced half of his argument with the phrase "bowl game."
Seriously, he uses the phrase six times in 17 seconds. Does he think about the bowl game? Does he not think about the bowl game? Are YOU thinking about the bowl game? BOWL GAME! BOWL GAME! BOWL GAME!
Okay I'm done. Video below.
Posted on: November 13, 2010 3:37 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
When the season started, the hot seat discussion in the Big Ten centered on their either-or question of who'd get the ax first? The so-fired-already Tim Brewster at Minnesota , or the equally-fired Ron Zook at Illinois .
It turned out that the correct answer was Brewster, as the head Gopher couldn't even make it past midseason and Zook's inspired-looking new hires at both coordinators' positions got the Illini out to a surprising 5-3 start. But if you can take the Zook out of the hot seat, however, temporarily, you really can't take the hot seat out of the Zook; his Illini handed the coach-less, hapless Gophers their first Big Ten win of the season today, falling 38-34 at home.
Making the loss even more brutal was how close the Illini came to another comfortable victory, going up 34-24 with 8:14 to play in the fourth quarter on a 55-yard Mikel LeShoure touchdown run. But the Gophers answered back with a 90-yard kickoff return for a DeLeon Eskridge touchdown run just 19 seconds later, and an expertly-executed Gopher two-minute drill resulted in a second Eskridge score with just 16 seconds to play.
Let's be clear about this: Zook is probably still safe at Illinois. There won't be a long list of better candidates available for the Illini, and even after today, 2010 has still been a dramatic improvement on the program's crushingly disappointing 2009.
But Illinois has now whiffed twice on the sixth win necessary for a bowl invite, and in two eminently winnable games. Now they'll need a big road win at either Northwestern or Fresno State , or the Illini will stay home for the third straight season. Improvement on 2009 or not, weak pool of candidates or not, there's a breaking point even at Illinois, and more than ever it seems like Zook's tenure is simply determined to find out where that is.
Posted on: November 6, 2010 1:53 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
The Michigan -Illinois halftime score is already eye-popping enough: tied at 31-31 in Ann Arbor with 30 minutes still to play.
But the box score might be even more mind-boggling: the two teams have combined for the aforementioned 62 points, 706 yards (394 for Michigan, 312 for the Illini), 26 first downs, and five touchdowns of 33 yards or longer. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has completed just 7 passes but for 262 yards, an average of 37 yards per completion. Illinois has run the ball 28 times already but for 185 yards, an average of better than 7 yards a carry. Craziest of all: Michigan has accomplished all of this while turning the ball over three times, Illinois while punting twice (the only punts of the game), losing a fumble, and settling for two early field goals in the red zone. The score could be higher .
Perhaps the biggest lesson to take from the game is how good the Wolverines could be if they had a defense with even the faintest pulse; the Illini entered the game ranked 15th in the country in total defense and have been totally shredded. But the other side of that coin, of course, is that Ron Zook 's team also came in ranked 85th in the country in total offense, and have barely been slowed down. Rich Rodriguez may be a certified offensive genius by now, but at this rate he'll be a certified defensive dunce ... if he's not already.