Illini Notebook: Improved Illini Embark Upon Big Ten Season
Sept. 20, 2007
As I write this column for September, it is hard to believe the Illini are just about to complete the first quarter of the 2007 football season as they travel to Indiana this weekend.
As I talk to Illini fans...some are really excited about the start to the Illini season with wins over Western Illinois and Syracuse and a close loss to Missouri.....while others are still in a wait-and-see mode. The latter group says that the Illini were supposed to beat Western Illinois and that Syracuse was not very good, anyway, and the real tests come later.
I happen to think that both thoughts on this subject are correct...and here is why.
First of all....The Illini are obviously improved on both sides of the ball.
They have already rushed for 10 touchdowns this year in their first three games.. In Ron Zook's first year, 2005, the Illini had a total of nine rushing touchdowns. The powerful running of Rashard Mendenhall combined with the speed and cutback abilities of both Daniel Dufrene and freshman Troy Pollard should produce many more touchdowns in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, Juice Williams really settled in and managed the Illini offense so well at Syracuse. His selling of the play-action and option plays was perfectly done and kept the Syracuse defense guessing. I compare the offensive skills of the current Illini to a baseball team that has a lot of home run hitters. At any time the Illini could get a "home-run" from Rashard, Arrelious Benn, or Juice Williams, and that really gives defenses a lot to worry about.
On defense, the Illini have nine of 11 starters back, and that experience has really made a difference during the early part of this season. A lot of people (media included) have made a big deal about the 40 points the Illini gave up to Missouri in the first week. But if you think about it, the defense was only responsible for 23 of those points. Also, remember that Missouri's offense is a lot like the Phoenix Suns in the NBA. The Suns are going to score 100 points every game they play; your goal is to not let them get 120. Missouri averaged 30 points per game last year; the Illini helped them a bit with a fumble at the goal line and by allowing a punt return for touchdown.
To me the real proof that the Illini defense is stronger is that it went nearly 100 minutes without giving up a point over the course of three games. From the 8:32 mark of the fourth quarter of the Missouri game until the 14:11 mark of the third quarter at Syracuse, the Illini pitched a shutout (there's that baseball terminology again!).
Plus, two years ago, the Illini gave up an average of 234 yards per game on the ground. So far this year the Illini defense is ranked 12th in the nation, giving up only 71 yards per game rushing, and is currently ranked 22nd in total defense. It has been a long time since an Illini defense has put up those kinds of numbers.
So to sum it up, yes, Illini fans, you should be excited about this year's team! And those of you that are looking for more proof that this year's team is a bowl contender, the big tests do lay ahead with Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all scheduled to visit Memorial Stadium in the weeks to come.
Now a couple of miscellaneous thoughts and a few "did you know" tidbits...
J Leman continues to have a spectacular season. Did you know that he is leading the Big Ten in tackles again with 39, which is also good for third in the nation? Leman now has 314 career tackles at Illinois and is closing in on Scott Studwell for 10th on the all-time tackles list at Illinois.
Juice Williams' completion percentage is improving. Did you know that Juice had the best compeletion rate of his career at Syracuse last week? That's right, he completed 13-of-18 passes against the Orange and is now at 61.8 percent for the year.
Jason Reda had his first two field goal attempts of the year at Syracuse and made them both, including one from 50 yards out. Did you know his career long of 52 yards came at Indiana two years ago? Did you also know that Reda is now sixth on the all-time field goals made list at Illinois with 37? That is just one behind Dan Beaver and two behind Doug Higgins. He also passed Red Grange on the Illini all-time scoring list.
By the way, didn't that north end zone look great against Western Illinois? I thought the students did a great job attending and making lots of noise on that end of the field. That end of the field should be a real "snakepit" for opposing teams in the future, so students, keep up the good work!
That's all for now. I'll "see" you on the radio!
GO ILLINI!!! Brian Barnhart, Voice of the Illini