Oct. 10, 2008
by Brian Barnhart, the Voice of the Fighting Illini
The Fighting Illini split their first two Big Ten road games this year with memorable trips to Happy Valley and to the "Big House." The win over Michigan was a record breaker...including points scored by an Illini team (45) and total yards accumulated at Michigan Stadium (Juice Williams-431 yards). It was only the fifth Illini win over Michigan anywhere since 1958. It was amazing to watch how empty the stadium was in the fourth quarter...but the Illini fans that made the trip were sure making a lot of noise!
The trip to Happy Valley did not turn out as well for the Illini in a 38-24 loss, but the atmosphere was unbelivevable. The "white-out" conditions with more than 109-thousand fans in the stands for a night game made for quite a scene. The Illini started well in the game, but Penn State proved to be better on that night and in particular...Derrick Williams. He scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a kickoff return and was easily the star of the show.
The Big Ten race always seems to hold a surprise or two along the way. The so-called "experts" had Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois as the top three in their pre-season picks. Illinois can still get there and Ohio State seems to have rebounded nicely after its USC debacle. But you look up now and it is Penn State that seems to be the team to beat...at least as of the middle of October. And who among us thought Northwestern would be undefeated after September 30th?
I think one of the big stories early has been the job former Illini Tim Brewster is doing up at Minnesota. I know the Gophers didn't necessarily have a killer non-conference schedule, but teams like Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic beat the Gophers last year, and Minnesota was able to turn the tables on them this year in a big way. Brewster has been able to go to the junior college ranks to get some help for the defense, and Adam Weber and Eric Decker on offense have become one of the top quarterback-receiver combinations in the country.
I thought the Illni defense would be the strength of the team coming into this season and despite some early trouble, I think the defense will eventually be a big part of the story of this year's team. But right now the storyline is the amazing transformation of Juice Williams from wide-eyed freshman two years ago to confident and cool junior quarterback now. Dating back to the middle of last year, Juice has become one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. And he still has a year to get even better.
And what about Daniel Dufrene? A lot of Illini fans were wondering how the rushing attack would hold up without Rashard Mendenhall. Well as it turns out, things are going quite well. In fact, Dufrene and Juice Williams were BOTH among the top 10 rushers in the Big Ten as of the middle of the season. And young tailbacks Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford are fitting in very well and have already notched their first Illini touchdowns.
We are very excited about the new broadcast facility at Memorial Stadium. While we were away for three weeks, a lot of new features have been added to the radio booth and hopefully soon, Illini fans will get a complete tour of the new skybox/suites/press area so you can see what I am talking about. You will be very impressed.
This is shaping up to be an exciting 2008 season for the Illini. We will keep track of everything for you. Talk to you on the radio!