Well, fellow Orange & Blue sufferers, we end 2010 on a positive note. It’s a rarity, so savor it while you can. With that convincing 38-14 win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl, the Fighting Illini gridders enter next season with momentum and promise. The game’s result was something of a surprise, as many had tabbed the Bears playing in front of a home crowd with their potent offense as the favorite. More surprising was the manner of victory, with Zook’s boys dominating on defense and ripping off an impressive 13 passes in a row to set up Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford’s cannonballing runs.
A few hours later, in Iowa City, the hoops team earned a Big 10 road win against the Hawkeyes, 87-77. These Illini rediscovered their shooting touch, hitting at around 66% for the game (and by the way, if you can’t win when you shoot that well, you might as well stop playing), but many of the previously noted problems with this team were once again present. Still, Fran McCaffrey’s version of the Hawks, while still undermanned, played hard and smart. If they don’t lose their way completely they will upset some teams this year.
But back to the bowl win. Sure, this was one of the also-ran bowls. Sure this team only finished one game above .500, but for a program that’s struggling to move up in the conference pecking order, that hasn’t won a bowl game since 1999, that has been an irregular post-season participant since the early 90s, you just can’t discount the potential momentum. Last night we saw the payoff of 15 extra practices with the improved coordinators. We saw potential in underclassmen and returning players. Now the coaching staff has something else to talk about when they hit the recruiting trail. The DIA has additional fodder for season ticket sales. The Zooker doesn’t have to hear as much rumbling and grumbling from the alumni. As an example, look at what regular bowl participation has meant to teams like Iowa and Mizzou – teams whose success Illinois should be able to emulate. Those two squads have parlayed regular post-season success into improved recruiting and program atmosphere and a chance to compete for their conference championships on good years. And that’s just what we’re hoping for around here.
Five points in your double victory pentagram:
- Coach Vic’s Defense the surprise MVP. Sure, Leshoure picked up the trophy, but Vic Koenning and his defense deserve the game ball for stopping the heralded Baylor attack. They used only used one guy (Martez Wilson) to spy speedy QB Robert Griffin III (as opposed to the two used against Denard Robinson), and Corey Liguet and Clay Nurse were in the backfield from the beginning. We also saw the benefits of getting healthy in the secondary (Terry Hawthorne) and extra practices (Justin Green). The defensive backs played very well with the exception of the 4th down TD and could actually become a strength next year. You have to credit Coach Vic with the gameplan, though – he had their tendencies scouted and schemed and kept Griffin from getting comfortable.
- Petrino provides a glimpse of the future. Nathan Scheelhaase was in rhythm and dialed-in, and we saw the potential of the expanded Petrino playbook. A passing game. Sure, Baylor probably had the weakest pass rush in months, and they were scrambling to shut down the run, but Nate showed why the coaches have such faith in him. He was checking down, seeing the field, and his feet were less happy. Freshmen receivers Ray Lankford and Darius Millines also showed some downfield ability. If the pass protection can give Nate confidence, if receivers can get open, Petrino will orchestrate a lot of points next year. Even if Mikel goes pro, Jason Ford, Jay Prosch, and others will ensure the running game remains strong.
- Scheduling could finally favor this team. This year’s schedule ended up being stronger than you’d like, with the O&B facing seven bowl teams, including three of the four non-conference opponents. We can all lament the disastrous St. Louis series against Mizzou and the ill-fated trip to Fresno. However, that December game did provide a shorter layoff to this bowl, and Baylor certainly appeared the rustier team. And take a look at next year’s schedule. Much, much easier at the start, with what should be four non-conference wins and a lot of momentum heading into the game against Ohio State. No, we’re not talking about a run for the conference championship or anything, but we are looking at a chance to build on some success and move up a notch or two in post-season placement. Considering the past two decades of Illini football, that’s all you can ask for.
- Shooting good, other stuff bad. You just don’t lose when you shoot that well and hit that many of your threes. You should, however, win by 30 when you shoot like that. Instead, after smacking the Hawks hard in the first few minutes of the 2nd half, coming out like you’re supposed to against a team you overmatch, the Illini proceeded to give up a 10-0 run and let them back in. The remainder of the second half was touch-and-go, with Iowa getting to within seven before McCamey hit a junk runner and a contested three to salt it away. The turnovers were a big problem, with guys throwing bad passes and generally experiencing brain farts with th ball. Iowa turned up the pressure and Illinois responded as they usually do by wilting instead of attacking the rim. On defense, Iowa penetrated and kicked for open shots as Illini defenders were continuously beat off the dribble. You know what might have knocked them off their rhythm a bit? How about some press and zone – even if only for a few possessions…
- Expand the rotation, Bruce! The box score tells us Griffey got four minutes, and Leonard got six. No sign of Crandall Head. Meanwhile, Mike Davis played 30 while DJ and D-Mac both played 35. We’ve said it before and will continue to say it: Coach needs to play the other guys. Yes, DJ was on fire and we’re frightened to play without McCamey. But Davis can play less IMHO, especially when he starts playing the ole defense. Again, four or five set plays would allow more minutes without D-Mac and improved confidence for the younger guys. We need to get Crandall, Myers, and Tyler on the floor more. We need to take advantage of our supposed depth. But with the Badgers coming to town on Sunday, expect even fewer chances for these guys barring foul trouble.