Martez Wilson: Crucial to the Illini Defense

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Few have been more maligned on the Illini defense than highly touted Illini recruit Martez Wilson.  From his lack of a mark on the field to his off-field exploits, he’s had a tough go of it in Champaign.

However, much like they should be, his experiences have only gone to make him stronger, again, both on and off the field. He missed pretty much all of 2009 due to injury, but one good piece of news coming from the Zook Big Ten Media Day press conference, was the health of middle linebacker Martez Wilson.

“He had a great, great spring. He had a great camp. He was playing as well as any Mike linebacker I’ve been around probably anywhere,” Zook said. “In fact, actually he went through spring, he didn’t go through the contact. It was hard to keep him out of it because he was always trying to stick his face where he shouldn’t stick it. Just got his final checkup last week, and got 100 percent clean bill of health and ready to go.”

Wilson’s health means that the defense will automatically be more athletic and dangerous than they were last season.

By Paul Schmidt

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Illinois, Northwestern Announce Scheduling Updates

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The Big Ten announced today game times for 2010 conference Homecoming games. The Fighting Illini will play at Penn State on Oct. 9 at 11 am CT, at Michigan State on Oct. 16 at 11 am CT and home on Oct. 23 against Indiana, also at 11 am CT. The Illinois Homecoming on Oct. 23 will be the 100th Homecoming celebration on the UI Campus.

In addition, Illinois and Wisconsin have agreed to move the 2011 and 2012 football games to the first Saturday in December. In 2011, the teams will play on Dec. 3 at Memorial Stadium, while the 2012 game will take place on Dec. 1 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

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Illini Football, Cub fans know Soul-Crushing

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By Paul M. Banks

The year 2008 truly solidified my theory: to be a fan of either the Chicago Cubs and University of Illinois football means you know a lot about soul-crushing defeats. You know more than losing, you know exactly what it’s like to have any shred of hope or optimism crushed into grains of dust. You’ve had your hopes and dreams imploded so many times that you can’t even feel optimism anymore. You’ve routinely endured the type of losing that makes you wonder to yourself why you keep returning, but in ’08 took that disappointment spiked to cataclysmic proportions. The fallout from that devastation will likely linger for generations.

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Fighting Illini All-Decade Team Defense and 2nd Team

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By Paul M. Banks & Paul Schmidt of  The Sports Bank and Joe Kutsunis of Hail to the Orange, “Home of the Blogging Illini”

For the All-Decade First Team Offense click here

First team Defense

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Illinois’ Jon Asamoah Talks Tough About the Season, His NFL Future

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By Paul Schmidt

The University of Illinois has had a challenging season. Everyone knows about the copious amount of talent on offense, but what might actually surprise some is that the top rated player, by position, by ESPN’s NFL draft guru Mel Kiper isn’t Arrelious Benn – it is offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

Asamoah has been a three year starter for the team, and in fact started his career as a freshman, logging playing time during the 2006 campaign. With that level of experience, and that many games under his belt, Asamoah is viewed as one of the anchors of a strong offensive line.

Thus far this season, the disappointments have far outweighed the successes, and it is starting to wear on everyone, not just the offensive line.

“Offensively we’ve got to get it going consistently,” Asamoah said. “We’ve had those drives where we were moving the ball and moving the ball and moving the ball, and we’ve got to keep that going the whole game.”

Not to beat too much coach-speak into the ground, but it’s the little things that would help turn things around.“Individually, no one is perfect out there. We just have to play at a higher level. The Rose Bowl year, we were just out there playing as hard as we could. We’re still doing that, but just not executing.”

For an offensive line, Juice Williams presents an interesting problem as a quarterback.  He’s very mobile and likes to move around in the pocket, as well as creating his own magic with his feet, which makes things interesting for the lineman assigned to protect him.

“I’m out there and sometimes I get so focused, I’m blocking my guy and I have to say to myself, ‘Wait, where is he going,’” Asamoah said as he chuckled. “Then I think to myself that I really don’t really know what’s happening.”

The same problem doesn’t exist every time Williams drops back to throw, however. When forming the pocket, Asamoah knows that every moment that can be spared for his quarterback gives him a little bit longer to make the correct read.

“The way the game goes, you’ve got to get out there in that pass mode. We scout the D-Lines so much, so we know ASAMOAH,-JON_0393what they are doing,” said Asamoah. “We go out there and fight against that as long as we can to give Juice every second that we can to throw. With all the great players that we have out there, we know they are going to make plays.”

And even though they haven’t always made those plays this season, it is that type of intensity that helps carry a warrior like Asamoah through every down of the game.

“I wish I could block every guy out there, but honestly, it’s not really like that, once you’re really in the game,” Asamoah stated. “I’m focused on my guy, and then I trust that my other four guys out there are going to get the job done.”

That all goes back to one of the most important factors in determining the success of an offensive line: Continuity.  Quite simply, the more an offensive line plays together, the better they will be.Though the Illini have some youngsters on the line, it is Asamoah and other upperclassmen’s leadership that have really held things together for the unit and the entire offense.

“It’s so important, because I feel so comfortable in between (junior Ryan) Palmer and (senior Eric) Block, we talk out there and we only have to say a couple of words to each other and we know what’s going on,” Asamoah said. “The young guys that come in, like Corey Lewis, I feel just as comfortable with them, because he’s learned over his time here. Without that kind of continuity on the O-Line, you’re just not going to be a good group.”

One thing that he and the rest of the Illini have placed emphasis on is staying positive and putting the bad things behind them – And it’s that type of attitude that finally may have paid some dividends this past weekend with their victory over Michigan.

“It’s hard, it’s hard to lose. Things haven’t gone the way that we wanted them to, but there’s a fight tomorrow, and we don’t let a team beat us twice,” Asamoah said. “You just have to refocus,” Asamoah continued. “You look at the film and see there were some really good things from this game or that game, but in order to do this consistently, you have to go out there, play balls-to-the-wall on every play.  We’re capable of it – We just haven’t been doing it.”

All of that leads to the question of Asamoah’s future, a question that was posed to him after one of the team’s many losses this season. To his credit, he wasn’t thinking about anything other than finishing the year as strong as possible.

“You know, who knows what will happen? I could go out tomorrow, slip on something and break my leg. I’m not worried about any of that,” Asamoah said. “All of that will come later. Right now, I’m just doing my job, playing as hard as I can. All of that stuff will come after the season. The feeling I have in my gut right now, this sick feeling…I’m not worried about any of that other stuff right now.”

Closing the Book of Isaiah (Williams)

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By Paul Schmidt

I’m going to attempt to walk that fine line of blasphemy today and tell everyone a little bit about the prophet Isaiah.  Sunday School is now in session.

Isaiah was a prophet from the 8th Century BC, in both Judaism and in Christianity — For the sake of my own sanity, we’re just going to be dealing with the Christian/Catholic side of things today, mainly because I really wouldn’t know enough about Judaism to write anything intelligent.  In Christianity, Isaiah is also considered a saint. One of the more important parts of Isaiah’s message was, when the people of Israel had turned their back on God, “This land will be completely laid waste and plundered.”  Heavy stuff.

The Book of Isaiah is a book of the Bible that was traditionally viewed as being written by Isaiah himself. He is the central character (so to speak) in this book.  Interestingly, there is now a very widely accepted critical hypothesis that claims most, if not all of the Book of Isaiah was actually written by one or more different authors at a much later date. Tradition ascribes it to Isaiah, modern scholars to two or three other authors. Let’s absorb all that for a moment and flash forward 2800 years, to the sleepy little hamlet of Champaign, Illinois, and their quarterback Juice Williams.

Juice’s first name is actually…wait for it…Isaiah.  Spelled the same and everything. No one ever calls him Isaiah, I know, but it’s still his first name.

I think that it’s safe to say, for his pleasant demeanor, friendly personality and all-around approachability, Juice was being considered for sainthood in Champaign.

The football team, the offense in particular, was certainly going to play football with the book according to Juice.  The offense was certainly focus as the team marched out in 2009.  And when the offense came out of the gates struggling this season, the blame (from fans in particular) was laid at young Isaiah’s feet.  Anyone intelligent really zook_thinking1knows that there’s other authors to that offensive playbook– Namely offensive coordinator Mike Schultz and even head coach Ron Zook himself.

The book Juice should be credited with writing, all on his own, was the record book: breaking  total offense records at three stadiums last season; and just last week he became Illinois’ all-time career total offense leader.

At this point, after we have stuck with Juice for as long as we have, we’re looking at a season laid completely to waste. I think I can also safely say that anyone watching last week’s stinkbomb against Penn State could use the word “plundered” in describing the Nittany Lion offensive line versus the Illini defense.

Isaiah or “Juice” certainly could have been considered the prophet, at regarding Big Ten football. He was easily the most experienced and knowledgable quarterback returning to the Big Ten this season, entering his fourth year as a starter.

Except, not so much.

Today, head coach Ron Zook benched Williams for backup Eddie McGee, putting Juice in the odd position of holding many major Illinois records, having 3-plus years of starting experience, yet relegated to the role of clipboard holder.

This is where the similarities between the prophet Isaiah and Isaiah Williams, unfortunately end.  This isn’t about a kid saving a program from the depths and returning them to the promised land any more.  It’s about a coaching staff and, in particular, a head coach frantically trying to turn a season around in an effort to save their jobs.

Mike Schultz almost certainly will be a one-and-done coach.  I cannot envision any scenario where he is allowed to come back and call plays for the offense next season.  Ron Zook, however, is another matter.

Zook, with an amazing amount of talent coming back and a predominance of optimistic feeling surrounding  that the team, signed a one-year extension to his contract, keeping him contractually obligated to the Illini until 2014 (to the tune of $1.5 million per season). This off-season it looked like Juice and Zook would either ride the tide of victory or sink together.  They would be inextricably linked, especially since Juice was Zook’s first recruit.

ill-osuNow, it appears Zook is not only willing to chuck the under-performing QB under the bus for all of his team’s problems, and use it as a last ditch effort to save his job. Hopefully, it will have the opposite effect. By benching Juice, Zook is essentially admitting that he was either unable to coach Juice (a blue chip recruit out of high school) into the star he should have been, or that their talent evaluation of him was initially wrong.

It doesn’t really matter which part of that statement is correct. If either one is, it doesn’t bode well for the Eddie McGee era — especially given that McGee is so similar to Juice to begin with.

One thing can be said for certain — This effectively signals the end of the 2009 football season for the Illini, and that the rebuilding for next year has begun. But never forget that 90 percent of college football is recruiting. If you were a high-profile recruit, would you come to Champaign to play for a coach that historically hasn’t gotten the most out of his team’s talent? Or maximized the talents each player possesses?

There’s been no comment from Juice, as of yet. There really isn’t much he can say, because he would tell you that he hasn’t been playing well.

Still, you can’t help but feel this was supposed to end differently.  Anyone who saw Juice diving over center on fourth down one dreary Columbus night in November 2007, gaining that first down after convincing his coach to believe in him, to go for it with him…you can’t help but feel a little misled.  A little betrayed.

And more than anything?  Just really, really disappointed.

Live! From the Press Box! It’s the Illini Football Exchange!!

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By Paul M. Banks and Paul Schmidt

10:30 AM – YAWN.  What in the world are you doing here now??  Even Red Grange Statue is still sleeping….and he stands on one leg!  In front of Memorial Stadium!!!

Anyway, PB and I will be back here in roughly 4 hours bringing you all the news that’s fit to print from the aforementioned Memorial Stadium, maybe with some campus stories earlier than that (You ever stand in line at a Follett’s on game day?  Yeah, I didn’t think so…).

So sit back and relax, maybe read why Paul and I are so disappointed in this football season.  Or check out my college picks against the spread.  I call this week my own personal “Battle to get to .500.”  If mediocrity can’t drive us, really, what can??

And don’t forget, we’ll see you in 4 hours!  I-L-L!!

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3:00 til game time: Shockingly, the weather is crappy here at beautiful Memorial Stadium, but it’s sold out!  Well, at least in terms of ticket sales, anyway…it’s probably about 2/3rds full by my estimation.  Some space shuttle action here today.  Woo.

Late prediction is a Penn State route, 31-7.  On the plus side, Illinois gets on the board for a score in Big Ten play…on the down side, they get killed again and a fan base revolts….PS

Illinois 0, Penn State 0, 10:13 left 1q
Interesting start to the game, and special teams are failing the Illini early.  TERRIBLE kick catch interference penalty by Jeff Cumberland and then terrible positioning from Jarred Fayson on the ensuing punt left Illinois backed up to their own three-yard line, when they could have had Penn State similarly backed up.  The Illini offense has shown some early life, but two stupid mistakes that are becoming symptomatic of the Ron Zook era. PS


Illinois-Penn notted up at 0, 6min 1st qtr

My prediction is closer than that. I’ll say PSU 26-17. But that score again is only that close, because I think ILL will score a lot in garbage time. At least Juice is now throwing ahead of his receivers instead of behind them, so that’s progress right? Well it’s a start. JoePa are doing a great job taking away the deep ball. He’s had to go all check-downs and safety valves

Clay Nurse is having a big game again..early at least he’s getting to the ball. Not many guys on ILL def we can say that about. Clay Nurse is a great name for an emo punk band. Maybe an indie emo punk band. “Dude I saw Clay Nurse when they were openers and unsigned 5 years ago man. Now they’re all corporate sounding man..since they play arenas these days. Clay Nurse sold out”

PMB

Illinois 0, Penn St. 0 1:41 left 1Q
The Illini defense deserves some credit for their start to this game, as they’ve done a really nice job of shutting down a good, if not great, Nittany Lion offense.  They’re dynamic, and they do have a lot of weapons, but so far they aren’t looking anything other than shaky.

It’s difficult, at this point, to say whether or not they ARE just shaky or whether or not the Illini D is playing UP to their competition.  Either is possible (though the former is more likely).  No turnovers yet though for either side.

Something that is slightly depressing is that I’m thinking the Illini offense is looking lively, and that’s simply based on the fact they have 64 yards of total offense in the first quarter….PS


Illinois 0, Penn State 0 End 1Q
Well, for Illinois fans, you have to feel as though the first quarter was a success.  You’re not down two scores already, you don’t look overmatched, and, for the first time this season against FBS competition, it looks like your team showed up ready to play today.

The offense has been a little sketchy, but don’t underestimate the effect of the wind and weather on today’s game.  Illinois really didn’t effectively throw the ball into the wind, and Penn State’s Darryl Clark had a lot of trouble throwing the ball WITH the wind.  It looks as though the running games of both teams are going to be extremely important this afternoon. PS

Penn State 7, Illinois 0 11 min 2nd qtr

Well, there you go, the first major offense of the day, as PSU’s 2nd back Stefon Green breaks off a 52 yd TD run. At least Illinois bottled up Evan Royster. the rain has been on and off, I agree that this battlefield’s contest will not be decided in the air, but on the ground. It’s a shame…cuz Juice Williams and Darryl Clark are essentially very similar. both dual threat QBs that have led their team to a Rose Bowl…both got destroyed by USC in that Rose Bowl. I was hoping for total offense show between the 2 today PMB

Penn State 7, Illinois 3 7:16 left 2Q
A beautiful pass over the middle to Rejus Benn (remember him??) for 49 yards — more than doubling Benn’s receiving yards for the season — set up first and goal for the Illini.  Who promptly gained one yard and had to kick a field goal.

Juice Williams also became the total offense leader at Illinois with the Benn pass. Which proves just how meaningless that record really is.  LONG LIVE KURT KITTNER! PS

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Penn State 7, Illinois 3 2:28 left 2Q
Penn State is driving and just got an unfortunate call on an incomplete pass that they challenged, because the catch looked pretty good from where we were and on replay.  Perhaps just not enough to overturn the call.

However, that may not matter as the Illini can’t seem to stop the Nits when they throw the ball.

Nice play by Donsay Hardeman over the middle on a deep ball though, and Illinois holds and will take over on their own 1 yard line with 1:31 remaining in the half. PS

PSU 7, ILL 3, 33 sec in half

Those were some good YACs there by Rejus. And now the pass sets up the run. Juice QB draw this IS what we signed on for. This is why we came down here on a 100 degree in August for Media Day to see offense like this drive, or the last one. PMB

Why did they just play Garth Brooks “Friends in Low Places”? not really a football song. more like a drinking with pick-up trucks and gun racks song…

Dufrene looked almost Pierre Thomasesque on that run. Sort of.

I love this ref, and his authoritarian announcements. He’s the college Ed Hochuli.PMB

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Penn State 7, Illinois 3 HALFTIME
Wild end to the first half as Penn State got a looooong run back on an interception on the last play of the half.  Stephon Morris made that run back everything that it was, because the Illini had that pretty well contained around midfield.

Of course, he could have taken it back to the house and it wouldn’t have mattered because of the block in the back, but still.

All in all, if you’re an Illinois fan, coach, player or whatever, you have to feel really good about that first half of football.  Solid job on defense (if not spectacular) and a nice effort on offense that got the Illini over 200 yards of offense in the first half.  Arrelious Benn has 84 receiving yards already, continuing his assault of Penn State over his career here.

The rushing attack has been adequate for the Illini, but they’ve made their bones passing the ball and running an occasional option pitch.  That’s what the offense needs to look like in the second half to remain successful.

Also, as a side note, the hurry-up was a nice addition this far, and has really kept Penn State on their heels thus far.  PS

Penn State 7, Illinois 3 13:50 left 3Q
Quick post to say that the Illini kick coverage has been excellent today.  Typically Penn State has moved the ball out of that field position easily, but still, it’s nice to start them backed up.

Nice 21 yard carry from Darryl Clark, easily the most confident he has looked with the ball today.  Nits at midfield. PS

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Penn State 7, Illinois 3 11:49 left 3Q
And the Illini get an all important hold!  Wayne Ellington came in out of nowhere on Penn State’s Derek Moye and put his hat right on the ball to force a fumble, and Evan Frierson made the recovery.  It’ll be first and ten Illini on their own 30.

It’s also important to note that this is the Illini’s quarter WITH the wind…look for Juice to come out passing early and often this quarter. PS

Penn State 7, Illinois 3 9:14 left 3Q
What looked like it could be good for the Illini has turned very, very bad…

First, the Illini’s last drive was 4 plays for -5 yards.  Ouch.

Then, on 3rd and 6 in Penn State territory, their QB, Daryll Clark, ran a designed QB draw for 51 yards, deep into Illinois territory, and now the Nits are knocking on the door.  A complete swing of momentum at Memorial Stadium, and it is very, very quiet in the stands here. PS

Penn State 14, Illinois 3 6:34 left 3Q
And as quiet as it was about a minute ago, you could hear a pin drop now.  The crowd doesn’t even look like it is moving.

The score came on second down, a one-yard vertical dive from Daryll Clark, but the damage was truly done on his 51 yard scamper just three plays before.  It was the longest run of Clark’s career.

The crowd isn’t even getting up for “Heyyyyyyyy Baby…” with the band…they sound defeated right now.  Let’s hope the Illini have more fight. PS

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PSU 14, Illinois 3 3:25 3rd qtr

Is that the same Wayne Ellington from UNC hoops? and the NBA Draft last year? Ever since ESPN started banging us over the head with Greg Paulus coverage, the idea has popped into my mind. Mehhhh. This game flew by in the 1st half. Getting more blah as it goes on though. Illini are getting hard to watch on offense PMB

Lions are running it right down Illini throats right now. UI running game? looks decrepit PMB

start of 4th qtr. Penn State 14, Illinois 3

PSU is right near the Illini goalline. A TD here pretty much seals the deal. Cuz an 18 pt lead in a game like this, is like a 40 pt lead in a regular game. PMB

TD State 17-3 now 14:28. And you can put a bow on this….Juice Williams HAS STILL NOT THROWN A TD PASS THIS SEASON! And we’re getting to Mid October!

Remember when Jim Everett of the early 90s L.A. Rams didn’t throw a TD pass until like week 8 or something crazy like that one year? And Wayne Gretzky didn’t score a goal for the Kings until unexpectedly late into the season? But still scored ahead of Everett, that’s how this feels? PMB over to you PS

Penn State 21, Illinois 3 12:43 left 4Q
I guess this is how that feels, PB, but I thought that those Rams teams won some games.  That’s not exactly the greatest example.  At least I don’t think.  Plus I think they had Eric Dickerson or Jerome Bettis or someone at running back…they had people who could score for them.

Right now, the Illini don’t.  Another uninspired 3 and out for the Illini, and Penn State just picked up 22 yards on their first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive.  To put that in perspective, that’s more yards than the Illini have in the entire second half — only 16 for Illinois.

It should be mentioned that Ron Zook, at halftime, said that that last drive of the first half, the way it all went down, was deflating.  That should have been a tip for how the Illini were going to come out in the second half — Deflated.

Also, Penn State outgained the Illini 208 yards to just eight in the third quarter.  An all-around fail for the Illini.

This is going to wrap up our in-game content…I will be back with a post game summary and some comments from the presser.  For now, this is shaping up as another Illini debacle.  Truly a stomach punch for the team and the fans. PS

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Penn State 28, Illinois 10 8:46 left 4Q
Ok, I lied….but Juice just threw his first TD pass of the season.  I had to check in.

Of course it was against Penn State’s second string…and they were in a prevent defense…but still!  His first TD pass of the year!!!

AND IT’S OCTOBER!!!!!!!!!!

Oy. PS

Penn State 35, Illinois 17 FINAL
Sooo…I guess the Illini showed some life in the final minutes with the wind at their backs.  That’s great.  What I was looking for today was some life.  In the end, it didn’t really matter, because they fell to 0-2 in Big Ten play, effectively ending the Big Ten season before it began.

All in all, the defense played pretty well, but was hung out to dry by an offense that didn’t wake up until the fourth quarter.

Again, from Champaign, your final was an underwhelming 35-17 victory for Penn State, effectively keeping them in the Big Ten race.  PS

The Illini may be Alright this Year

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By Paul M. Banks

This past weekend, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini got some measure of redemption from their week one DISASTER in St. Louis. The Illini responded from their 37-9 thrashing at the hands of Missouri to rout FCS opponent Illinois St. 45-17 in Champaign. Granted it was against a lower tier team predicted to finish near the bottom of their vastly inferior conference, but the Illini did without the services of arguably their three if not best, most important, players: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, and LB Martez Wilson. Williams, a Chicago native who’s been tutored by another Chicago product and star quarterback, Donovan McNabb contributed just one series before getting hurt. His injury is not supposed to be extremely serious and his return is key, for the Illini to have a legitimate leader.

Williams spoke about what he learned from working with McNabb. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

His top-flight receiver in a highly heralded corps is Arrelious “Rejus” Benn, a projected top ten pick in the NFL Draft. But his stock is falling because Rejus has been a total non-factor so far. The Illini receivers have been extremely hyped, and if Benn isn’t 100% healthy then other players like Jeff Cumberland, Jarred Fayson, and Tight End Michael Hoohoomanawananuii (have fun with trying to pronounce that) will need to step up big time. illinois

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook also needs to realize who his starting tailback is. It should be Daniel Dufrene, with Jason Ford as a capable back-up, not the other way around. They’ve battled some injuries as well this young season, so they fit right in with the rest of the team.

On the other side of the ball, it comes down to another well-recruited Chicago product, Martez Wilson, who moves over to Middle Linebacker, and needs to be the “quarterback” of the defense.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.” Wilson was also hurt and missed the last game. But Illinois won in impressive fashion, despite all the key missing pieces, which is a good sign. It’s also a good thing they have this week off- to get ready and healthy for mighty Ohio St. on September 26th.

Illini Tailback Situation Part 2 Daniel Dufrene Troy Pollard

Illinois Ohio St football

By Paul M. Banks

Heading into this season the talk about the Illinois Fighting Illini program, certainly offensively at least, was about the passing game; and the stellar group of receivers that were allegedly one of the best position groups in the nation. There were lots of questions about the defense and the running game- the latter of which took a big step backward last year. Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing in ’06 and ’07.

But after Saturday’s phantasmagoria, no one’s raving about Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn anymore, the defense seems even worse than anyone’s lowest expectations, and the tailback situation is more unresolved than ever.

The Illini truly have a rotation of four guys at the position, with no real bonafide starter. The depth chart hierarchy is far from established. The injury bug bit both Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford, the two guys who shared starting duties last season. Dufrene dressed in St. Louis, but didn’t play. Ford touched the ball once, as he nursed an ankle injury.

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that you don’t need to have a legitimate number one/go-to-guy at the position, and that it’s perfectly fine to go with a “tailback by committee” approach. And in certain situations (say for instance you have solid depth and talent at almost every other position) that scenario could work. But with a total disaster within every component of the team Saturday, in a game in where the Illini were heavy favorites, finding a dependable and reliable ball-carrier would be a great place to start picking up the pieces. Illinois needs to show that the program can recover from the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall.

Here are two of the candidates that could try and play the same role that Mendenhall did in ’07.

Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard

5-11, 205 pound senior Daniel Dufrene has without a doubt showed the most talent of all the four candidates. He’s also BY FAR the most accomplished. He’s mostly known for his controversial 80 yard run in the Illini’s big win over at #1 Ohio State in 2007. Because the run ended with a fumble out of bounds, and depending on who’s side you’re on…maybe the ball should have been OSU’s? The huge upset was one of four games in which Dufrene has rushed for 95 yards or more.  In a perfect world, Dufrene would be the unquestioned starter, as he has the most talent and speed burst, and he’s averaged 5.8 yards a carry during his Illini career.

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What’s kept him from being the feature back, isn’t really clear. It’s been said that he’s missed games because of arcane off-the-field issues, being in the coach’s doghouse, and mysterious health problems. He has had some injury issues, missed time for personal reasons and it’s rumored that he’s fallen out of favor with members of the coaching staff, at times. “It’s just up to the coaches. I probably did something in the game or in practice that they didn’t like and that kept me out of the game. Ultimately I just have to do what I have to do to stay on the field,” Dufrene said when asked this veru question at Illini Media Day. So we can’t exactly answer why he’s never carried the rock for 25-30 times in a game. 

 

His career single game high for carries is 19. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy keeps him from becoming the feature back- people (rightly or wrongly) think he can’t carry the load, and thus he’s never granted the opportunity.

Dufrene has a lot to prove and goals to accomplish once he reaches the field this season. “Pretty much, I just want to show my toughness at handling things better than I did last year, and just being more of a leader to my fellow running backs and the whole team,” he said. Conversely he defines his best assets as “Just my vision and my speed, and also my leadership on the field. I played the Rose Bowl and in other big games so I know how to handle things a little bit better than the freshmen and sophomores would, because they weren’t here. The year we went to the Rose Bowl it was a long season, and it was a grind, and they gotta understand that.”

In order to get better, Dufrene does have a couple of specific RB role models in mind. “Adrian Peterson, or even Marshawn Lynch, I really kind of like his running style, also. Even Jahvid Best out at California, anyone I can pick up little things from, and learn from and make myself better, that’s what I do,” Dufrene told me.
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Troy Pollard has had to fight off a lot of injuries taking a medical redshirt in ’07 and missing half the season in ’08. He has been explosive when actually on the gridiron, averaging six yards a carry during his illini career. And he averaged 7.6 on Sat as he led the team in rsuhing. I asked him about what he brings to the table “vision, cut back ability,” he responded. And also what he needs to work on. “Pass-blocking, I’m not really that big,” Pollard answered. Perhaps he’ll contribute more this season? as he’s finally healthy. “I feel like I can make all my cuts, I’m feeling 100%”

Illini Tailback Situation Part 1- Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure

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By Paul M. Banks

Heading into this season the talk about the Illinois Fighting Illini program, certainly offensively at least, was about the passing game; and the stellar group of receivers that were allegedly one of the best position groups in the nation. There were lots of questions about the defense and the running game- the latter of which took a big step backward last year. Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing in ’06 and ’07.

But after Saturday’s phantasmagoria, no one’s raving about Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn anymore, the defense seems even worse than anyone’s lowest expectations, and the tailback situation is more unresolved than ever.

The Illini truly have a rotation of four guys at the position, with no real bonafide starter. The depth chart hierarchy is far from established. The injury bug bit both Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford, the two guys who shared starting duties last season. Dufrene dressed in St. Louis, but didn’t play. Ford touched the ball once, as he nursed an ankle injury.jason-ford-690

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that you don’t need to have a legitimate number one/go-to-guy at the position, and that it’s perfectly fine to go with a “tailback by committee” approach. And in certain situations (say for instance you have solid depth and talent at almost every other position) that scenario could work. But with a total disaster within every component of the team Saturday, in a game in where the Illini were heavy favorites, finding a dependable and reliable ball-carrier would be a great place to start picking up the pieces. Illinois needs to show that the program can recover from the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall.

Here are two of the candidates that could try and play the same role that Mendenhall did in ’07.

Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure:

Sophomore Jason Ford (6-0, 230) isn’t exactly the headiest player or the most savvy of veterans, but he does have plenty of experience, and a ESPN College Gamenight “Helmet Sticker” to his credit, from when he rushed 19 times for 172 yards and 3 TDs versus Indiana last season. Unfortunately, that was the only good game he had in 2008, as he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on the season. Ford, from Belleville, Illinois chose the Illini over Iowa.  At Illini Media Day, Ford gave the standard company line response about the Illinois tailback situation. “All of us, our goal is to try and become the main guy, but if it’s running back by committee, we’ll just be happy for whoever gets the most carries.”

Ford was a little bit more insightful and interesting when discussing the role of each back in this offense. “Me and Mikel, we’re kind of like I guess you could say the power backs. Troy (Pollard) and Daniel (Dufrene) are like the little scat backs, who could break the home run. So we got it all,” he said. Ford did score eight touchdowns last season, but almost all of them were from 2 yards or less. He did break off a 41-yarder against Indiana, but he’s much better suited to run in-between the tackles, and in short-yardage situations. His homecoming to the St. Louis area was an extremely disappointing one, as he carried just once for zero yards, and the Illini got throttled 37-9 by a Missouri team in severe re-building mode.
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Fellow sophomore and inside runner Mikel LeShoure (6-0, 225) ears Mendenhall’s number, but has yet to display his level of production or talent. However, he has plenty of potential. “When Mike Locksley was recruiting me, he was telling me that if Rashard was going to the NFL, which they thought he would, then I would get my same high school number. Turns out it worked out that way,” LeShoure said at Illini Media Day. If he does become the one to finally fill the Mendenhall void, perhaps it will be later in the season. “Shard did take over the 2nd half of the season, and I’m sure all four of us want to be that guy,” he said. LeShoure saw the bulk of the carries Saturday, and also caught 3 passes for 41 yards, finishing second on the team in both categories for the afternoon.

One could expect his career arc to develop similar to Ford’s. “Last year we had kind of the same thing, we had a 3 man rotation, even though we were freshmen, we had a role in the offense. Both of us are really more experienced now, we got a better understanding of the offense. We can just play without having to think too much, which is going to make a big difference in how we play,” Mikel said about his connection with Ford.

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Illinois Season Preview Part 3…Fearless (Fearful??) Predictions

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By Paul Schmidt

The success and failure of the Illinois Fighting Illini football season isn’t a difficult prospect.  With the previews in, the necessity of the offense to take care of the ball and the defense to force turnovers and play soundly is pretty well known, but in the end the Illini will have to try really hard to miss a bowl game again this season.

The only question left, then, is what type of bowl game can they can make.

First and foremost, there’s the games that, barring a series of unforeseen events, they will not lose.  The Illini have four of those games: Illinois State, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan. If Illinois loses any of these games, the season is not only an unmitigated disaster, Ron Zook should be fired immediately with his entire staff as well as Athletic Director Ron Guenther.  Without mercy or prejudice.  Quite simply, they are un-losable games.  They just are.

So, let’s take the remaining eight Illini games piece by piece, as they are the ones that will shape the way the Illini season goes.

9/5, Missouri (in St. Louis)– Missouri has constantly been a thorn in the Illini’s side since renewing the Arch Rivalry in football.  Why these games can’t be played on Mizzou’s and Illinois’ campuses on alternating years is mystifying to me, though. How St. Louis qualifies as a neutral site when your opponent is Missouri is baffling to me. It’s like saying the United Center in Chicago is a neutral site for Illinois basketball…there’s a reason why they’ve only lost twice there all time.

Just on the basis of returning stars and players overall, the Illini should win this game going away. With so many skill players graduated from Mizzou, it would seem as though they would have trouble scoring points against an Illinois defense that should be much improved.

The problem is, no one knows just how improved the Illini will be on the defensive side of the ball, and in a rivalry such as this, if either team gets a little bit of life breathed into it, that might be all they need to make a run.

VERDICT: Win, and a fantastic yardstick with which to measure the team’s prospects.

9/26, at Ohio State –Illinois obviously has a history of success in the Horseshoe. A stadium that is typically a house of horrors for most teams has been really somewhat neutral for the Illini.  Some very bad Illinois teams have

A celebrating Terelle Pryor...something Illini fans should familiarize themselves with.

A celebrating Terelle Pryor...something Illini fans should familiarize themselves with.

gone into Columbus and performed very well, and you don’t have to go very far back to remember an un-ranked orange and blue squad coming away with a win against the number one team in the country (in a related story, it got a little dusty inside Joe’s Bar on Weed Street in Chicago- also the night I got my first tattoo).

While last seasons’ game against the Buckeyes was viewed as something of a revenge game, expect this season’s game to act as the Buckeyes’ actual act of revenge as they take the Illini out to the woodshed.

VERDICT: Loss, and probably by more than a few points.

10/3 vs. Penn State– The Illini might be looking for their own measure of revenge against the Nittany Lions at home. The Illini weren’t exactly embarrassed on national TV last year, but the game certainly turned their season the wrong direction.  They never seemed to recover any momentum after that loss.

A team that features Darryl Clark, Evan Royster and more returning from a BCS team last season, they seem to be primed for a run toward a Big Ten title at the least. While I don’t think the Illini’s defense can stop a dynamic Penn State attack, I do think this is a winnable game at home for them.  Not that they actually WILL win it…it’s just a winnable game.

VERDICT: Loss, but a close one that might come down to the last possession.

10/10, vs. Michigan State –The constant praise heaped upon the Spartans is a little mystifying to me.  Easily their best player graduated.  And while their defense will again be strong, losing Javon Ringer will most likely make a weak offense last year even more stagnant this.  Maybe there’s something there.  I just don’t see it.

Also, there’s the problem they have less of a history of back to back successful seasons than Illinois does, and that’s really saying something.

VERDICT: Win, and I think it could be a blowout at home.

11/7, at Minnesota –

The Illini never play well at the Metrodome…the Golden Gophers have almost always dominated us there.

Wait, they opened their new stadium? They don’t play in the Humpdome anymore?  Then this one is a gimme!

VERDICT: Win, and a measure of revenge for a homecoming loss last year.

11/14, vs. Northwestern –The Wildcats dominated the Illini last year, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. However, the Wildcats lost their starting QB and RB, starting WR…I mean, the list goes on and on.  The Sports Bank founder has a big-time man-crush on Corey Wootton, and I agree that the defense will still be very good, but don’t they suffer from the same problem as the Spartans do?  How are they going to score enough points to win?  I know they have confidence in Franz Kafka at QB, but, again, I just don’t see it.

VERDICT: Win, and probably another easy one.

11/27, at Cincinnati –The Illini made a conscious effort this season to do two things: Beef up their non-conference schedule, and move their non-conference schedule around so that they wouldn’t have such a long layoff after the Big Ten regular season. This road game against the Bearcats is one of the games that is fulfilling those efforts.

This game scares the bejeezus out of me…hopefully it won’t come down to this as a must-win game for a bowl berth if I’m apocalyptically wrong about the above games. More than anything, the coaching matchup of Brian Kelly versus Ron Zook is…umm…well, let’s just say that doesn’t favor the Illini.

VERDICT: Loss, though with the number of starters that the Bearcats lost, this is a winnable game.

12/5, vs. Fresno State – Senior day, it should be important. This, in my estimation, will be the difference between a New Year’s bowl game and a lesser one.  The opportunity to play on New Year’s should be important to this squad.  It very much should be….right?

And still, the Bulldogs, a spunky mid-major, will be a stern test that will be difficult to overcome. They will be a fringe bowl team, led by a great head coach in Pat Hill.

The fact it is senior day for so many talented pieces of the Illini squad, that should lead the Illini to victory.

VERDICT: Win.

That leads the Illini to a 9-3 record. That’s enough for a major bowl, and would be a spectacular success by anybody’s measure.

The journey starts tomorrow, and it should be a fun ride.

Orange Juice (Williams) and Champaign

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The Juice Williams Interview/Profile Part 1

By Paul M. Banks

On May 10, 2005, Urban dictionary made “juice” the Urban Word of the Day and defined it as such “Respect and credibility on the street. A.K.A. Sauce “I can’t be seen with them – they don’t have juice.”

Sounds like another word for power, connections, a big time reputation- something a star quarterback at a large, Big Ten University would have. But University of Illinois quarterback Isaiah John “the kids call him Juice” Williams didn’t get his name on the southside of Chicago’s mean streets, or because he has juice from his teammates. (and to play the most high profile position in all of sports, having juice is a must) Williams was dubbed “Juice” by his grandmother because of his large size as a child. “I was kind of big … you know, big and juicy, I guess.” Williams nearly died at birth due to his large size of 13 pounds and 8 ounces. Today, he’s large within the Illinois and college football record book.

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He enters his senior season with 6,405 career passing yards, fifth on the Illinois all-time list. He ranks 14th on the Illinois all-time rushing list and is the first non-running back in Illini history to top the 2,000 yard career rushing mark. Juice is third on the Illinois career total offense list with 8,455 yards.

His 475 pass completions and 909 pass attempts both rank fifth on the all-time list, he’s also thrown 44 career touchdown passes, third in school history. Oh, and as you might have heard 1000 times before, he attended the same school as former Illinois and Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus. At Chicago Vocational High, Juice was an honor student.

Former Illini QB Kurt Kittner holds a lot of the records that Juice is poised to break, and as the team’s current radio color analyst, he remains close to the program. “We’ve had a few conversations. Kurt is a great guy, he’s not too worried about me breaking the records, if I’m able to, he’s fine with it. A compliment to the type of mentor he’s been to me, he loves Illini football,” Juice said about his interactions with Kittner.

In the bigger picture, Juice realizes that these records are just numbers. Instead he wants his legacy to be something else.kurtkittner

“I want people to say that Juice was one of the best guys to ever come through here, as far as leadership, being the captain, being the playmaker, being the role model, and being a great human being, not only just around campus but around the community…helping out youngsters, being a positive influence in other people’s lives…on the field, hopefully I can say that I will be the all-time leader in passing, passing yards, rushing yards by a QB, those things would be huge.  In order to get to that point, you have to do things as a team…fulfill team goals and the individual goals will come after that.”

Williams knows that the most important thing for him to do as a quarterback is be the “field general,” to be almost James Bondlike- staying calm and composed when dire situations arise. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

Of course, Williams has not had this healthy attitude during his entire Illini career. At Big Ten Media Day I asked him if he ever had read some criticism of himself online and gotten offended, thinking “hey, now that’s just not true.”

“I used to do it all the time my freshman year and part of my sophomore year, but you got to get over it, if you look at it too much, you read the blogs, the newspapers, all the negative criticism it takes a toll on you…even outside of football when you’re walking around, I’ve kind of let it go and learned from it,” Juice responded.

The flow of negative press is even more constant in today’s world of Web 2.0 and social media. Juice discussed not being online with Facebook, Twitter etc. too much. “You have to in order to be happy with your life, you got to get away from that,” Isaiah John Williams said.juice2willimas

Last year, the team slipped back a big step, going from a 9-4 BCS season to a lackluster 5-7, could the added media attention and pressure have had something to do with it? Perhaps the bright lights and constant TV cameras of the Big Ten Network’s Illinois Football: the Journey have had something to do with it? “I don’t think it hurt us at all. I think that it gave us an opportunity to showcase what goes on behind the scenes within our team.  It gave guys an opportunity to go out there and represent this University well. I think it was very beneficial to the program. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get the job done on Saturdays, but I don’t think having the cameras around had anything to do with it. I keep all the copies…of course the season didn’t go the way we wanted to, but you’ve gotta have all the videos for when you get older so you can show your kids, and your grandkids and your friends.  Especially with my daughter cause I can say, ‘Hey, you were on TV too.’ You have to have that stuff around,” Juice answered.

That was 2008. In 2009 Juice will get his final opportunities at collegiate glory. “We have to do our job. You have to count on the next man to do their job, and the next guy and the next guy, and you have to do yours, and all the parts to the machine really have to come together and operate. Once you do that you know, that’s when things start happening. You start getting the rushing yards, you start getting the passing yards, but most importantly, you get the W’s.”

Despite their awful record last season, Illinois was not a bad team. Almost all their losses were by narrow margins and came at the hands of teams that eventually played in the postseason. “Anybody who plays this sport is going to lose by just one or two points a few times and you can get very upset at that. But you have to just keep your cool and learn from it,” Williams said.

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Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll post part two of this exclusive. It will feature Juice thoughts on working out with Philadelphia Eagles QB and Chicago native Donovan McNabb, his thoughts about going on to the next level, and much more.