Barnhart's Fighting Illini Report Card

Brian Barnhart
Brian Barnhart

Nov. 13, 2008

Well, the Illini are in the home stretch of the 2008 football season, and they are still in a postion to make a bowl game. But they do have some work to do.

Obviously, the big challenge is directly in front of the Illini. The Ohio State Buckeyes are smarting over the Illini victory in Columbus from a year ago, and even if they won't say it publicly, you have a feeling they would like nothing better than to help keep the Illini out of bowl game.

Illinois did stun the Buckeyes and dropped them out of the No. 1 spot in the country last fall, but the Illini win did not keep Ohio State from playing for the BCS Championship. The upset did expose the Buckeyes vaunted defense and, in my opinion, was probably beneficial to the LSU Tigers' game preparation leading up to the title game.

Ohio State comes into Champaign with another loaded defensive unit and a talented freshman quarterback in Terrelle Pryor. He threw four touchdown passes in his college debut against Troy earlier this year. Pryor also led the Buckeyes on a 12-play drive and scored the game-winning touchdown with a minute to go in Madison to beat the Badgers. Ron Zook tells me that the Buckeye coaching staff has done a good job of getting the young phenom into situations where he can succeed and so far the Pennsylvania native is 6-1 as a starter for Ohio State.

"Intensity" is the word I think of when I get ready to watch Illinois' annual grudge match with Northwestern. The game with the Wildcats always has a different feel to it than any other Big Ten game. Probably it is the fact that so many of the guys on both teams are from Illinois and have played against each other before. To me, the Illinois-Northwestern game feels more like a backyard battle between brothers than a regular Big Ten game.

Obviously...a 7-5 record is what all Illini fans want, and I think that is what is going to be required to get to a bowl game this season. Some people think 6-6 will get them in, and it does make the Illini bowl-eligible. I do think a .500 record might open the door for the Motor City Bowl in Detroit.

One thing to remember...The Big Ten bowl tie-in situation is not totally dependent on the order of finish. The bowl representatives do have some flexibility. The pecking order for the bowls is the order that they get to pick the Big Ten teams they want.

I think an Illinois team with a 7-5 record would be attractive to someone with the Champs Bowl in Florida or the Insight Bowl in Tempe. The Illini have alumni bases all over the country and have some high-profile players like Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn that would attract interest nationwide.

But first,the Illini would have to get to 7-5. And in a roller-coaster season like this one, it has been hard to predict the future.

Some various thoughts as this season is winding down...

  • Ford Field in Detroit was the location of the Illini-Western Michigan game Nov. 8. It is a beautiful stadium that, when it is full (it seats 65,000), could get really, really loud.
  • Speaking of loud, I will never forget that late September night in Happy Valley. The 110,000 Penn State fans all wearing white and singing along with the music during timeouts. Even though the Illini did not win, it was still one of the most amazing atmospheres I have ever broadcast from in my career.
  • Juice Williams' three-game stretch in early October was one of the most amazing stretches of success for a quarterback I have ever seen. He broke two stadium offensive records in back-to-back weeks (Michigan Stadium and at Memorial Stadium vs Minnesota) and was making a push to be considered for Big Ten MVP at the time.
  • The new addition to the stadium in Champaign is something to behold. The fact that Warren Hood and his team were able to preserve the classic look of the stadium and yet vastly improve the media and skybox facilities was a terrific accomplishment. Not to mention the new weight room and recruiting lounge...which are second to none.
That is about it for this time. Talk to you soon and GO ILLINI!!