Big Ten: Chris Duvalt
For starters, Pilcher, like the rest of his Fighting Illini teammates, entered the season fully expecting to play beyond Saturday's contest against Fresno State (Big Ten Network, 12:30 p.m. ET). Illinois had both talent and depth, and was widely projected to end up back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus.
But nothing went according to plan, and a senior class that has endured an unusual tenure in Champaign will receive its sendoff Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“The season didn't go as well as we'd hoped," said Pilcher, who ranks second on the team in both sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (7.5). "We had high expectations. But you can’t really change it. It is what it is. Right now, we just focus on Fresno State and working hard to get that win. We want to go out with a bang."
The fourth-year seniors were part of head coach Ron Zook's first full recruiting class to Illinois. Juice Williams, a raw but talented quarterback from Chicago, headlined the group, along with other heralded prospects like Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt, Chris James and Jeff Cumberland.
Illinois fourth-year and fifth-year seniors were part of the team's surprise Rose Bowl run in 2007. They also have experienced plenty of losing. Remove the 2007 season, and Illinois has gone 12-34 since Zook's arrival.
"They've done an awful lot of good things and an awful lot of bad things," Zook said this week. "One thing this class has done is show us where we can be and where we need to get back to. When they came here, it wasn't necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that. As I told our football team after the [Cincinnati] game, they basically recruited everybody in this room.
"We owe it to them to do everything in our power as a football team and as a coaching staff to do everything we can do to win this game."
Zook recited the play-every-play-like-it's-your-last cliché during a team meeting Monday, but he further explained his point.
"Why do you think you talk about playing every play like it's your last play?" Zook said. "Because eventually it's going to be, and as I said, for some of these guys this is it. You will never play football again. ... The only thing they're guaranteed is one more game."
Though Illinois is playing strictly for pride Saturday, Pilcher doesn't expect any letdown. Fresno State boasts the nation's leading rusher in junior Ryan Matthews (149.1 ypg), who is cleared to play after missing the Bulldogs' last two games with a concussion.
"It’s always great to compete against the best," Pilcher said. "Everyone's fired up to play. It's important for us to get this win and send the underclassmen out on a high note."
If Juice Williams and his wide receivers performed like this all year, Illinois wouldn't be sitting at 3-8. Though Williams had several costly incomplete passes, including a sure touchdown to Chris Duvalt early in the third quarter, he performed well overall against a vulnerable Cincinnati defense.
The missed pass to Duvalt was one of several plays that seemed to sum up Illinois' disappointing season in Friday's 49-36 loss to the fifth-ranked Bearcats. Linebacker Nate Bussey was flagged for an inexcusable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave Cincinnati a fresh set of downs inside the Illinois 10-yard line (the Bearcats converted for a touchdown). Illinois drew eight penalties for 69 yards, as it remained the Big Ten's most penalized team.
Special teams also continued to hurt Illinois. While Derek Dimke went 3-for-3 on field goals, Cincinnati racked up 210 return yards, including a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Mardy Gilyard.
Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said last month that changes would be coming in Champaign, although head coach Ron Zook was safe. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz might be saving himself with the offense's progress down the stretch, but Zook might need to shuffle his defensive staff. Illinois had no answer for a one-dimensional Cincinnati offense, as Tony Pike shredded the Illini for 399 pass yards and six touchdowns. The back seven couldn't keep pace with tight end Ben Guidugli (149 receiving yards, 2 TDs) and Gilyard (102 receiving yards, 2 TDs).
It's nice to see a class act like Williams play well down the stretch, but the future of the Illinois program seems very shaky right now. The Illini finish up next week against Fresno State as they try to avoid going 3-9.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- We saw a little bit of everything during Illinois' practice Tuesday afternoon.
There was sunshine, and there was rain with drops the size of quarters (not joking). There was an appearance by Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. And I saw Juice Williams' little daughter, LaChez, steering a golf cart with the help of her mother. Very cute and slightly scary.
Oh, yeah, and there were a ton of long passes thrown.
Before I head back to Chicago, a few observations from Illinois' practice:
- As I expected, this wide receiving corps is absolutely stacked. I don't see another group in the Big Ten that comes close in terms of talent and especially depth. Arrelious Benn made his share of plays and so did Jarred Fayson, but I was most impressed by the number of guys making tough catches. Big man Jeff Cumberland caught several downfield bombs, and Chris James, Cordale Scott, Terry Hawthorne and Chris Duvalt all made nice grabs.
- It wasn't all good for the passing attack, as the defensive backs made their presence known. Safety Bo Flowers picked off Williams and safety Garrett Edwards squeezed an Eddie McGee pass. Cornerback Miami Thomas, who doesn't lack confidence, had two picks, bringing his camp total to five. Thomas told me he expects to have 10 picks by the end of camp.
- Illinois is lining up with two tight ends a lot more this summer than last year. Senior Michael Hoomanawanui is the starter, but Hubie Graham and Zach Becker are both on the field for a lot of snaps.
- Sophomore running back Jason Ford took most of the reps with the first-team offense, though senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Mikel LeShoure are both in the mix for the top job. Ford picked up a huge gain on a screen pass from McGee, thanks to a nice block from Fayson. He also was dropped for a loss by safety Supo Sanni.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.
Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.
Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.
Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.
Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.
Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.
Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.
Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.
Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.
Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook divided up his team to create more balanced competition in Saturday's Orange and Blue Game, but the score ended up lopsided as the Blue squad shut out the Orange team 20-0 at Memorial Stadium. With first- and second-teamers playing alongside one another in the game, it was a bit hard to evaluate units, though several individuals stood out.
Senior quarterback Juice Williams directed two scoring drives for the Blue team, completing 13 of 26 passes for 150 yards with a 10-yard scoring strike to Chris Duvalt and an interception that freshman linebacker Evan Frierson tipped to himself. High winds hampered Williams a bit, and Zook said the senior threw "a couple of balls that have been his worst of the spring."
Still, Williams shouldn't be a major concern for Illini fans going forward.
The big questions with Illinois come on defense, and there were several bright spots, including the play of Martez Wilson, who likely will stay at middle linebacker after making the switch from the outside this spring. Wilson recorded 4.5 tackles and broke up a pass for the Blue team. According to The (Champaign) News-Gazette, Wilson has been getting advice from former teammates Brit Miller and J Leman on playing middle linebacker.
Other notable items from the Orange and Blue Game:
- No one had a better day on the field than junior defensive end Jerry Brown, who recorded a game-high seven tackles, including six for loss and two sacks. Brown appeared in all 13 games last fall and could assume a greater role after Illinois lost ends Will Davis and Derek Walker. Zook isn't getting too excited about Brown, though, noting that the junior needs to clean up some academic issues for the fall.
- Running backs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford were undoubtedly the best stories of the spring for Illinois, which can feel much better about its ground attack heading into 2009. Both LeShoure and Ford averaged more than five yards a carry in the spring game, and both Ford and fellow back Daniel Dufrene scored touchdowns.
- Don't be surprised if backup quarterback Eddie McGee sees more time at wide receiver this fall. Though Illinois is loaded at receiver, McGee led the Orange team with three receptions for 23 yards in the spring game. He completed 3 of 8 passes for 25 yards and was sacked twice. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest got more work at quarterback behind Williams.
- Illinois and Northwestern announced their new rivalry trophy Saturday. The two teams will compete annually for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, which still must be designed but will coincide with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. The trophy replaces the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, which was retired in November as part of Illinois' effort to remove all Native American imagery from its athletic teams. I personally was hoping for the Graham-Grange Trophy, but it didn't make the cut.
- Cornerback Tavon Wilson led the Orange team with four tackles and two pass breakups. Wilson could enter the fall as the team's top cover corner. Defensive end Clay Nurse (hello, nurse) added a sack and two tackles for loss.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Last season, Illinois fans got a taste of good Juice (total offense records in three stadiums, including the Big House) and bad Juice (nine interceptions in the last five games).
Those in attendance Wednesday at a blustery Memorial Stadium for Illinois' full-pads scrimmage saw both sides of Juice Williams but left with a slightly sour taste about the Illini senior quarterback.
Williams looked solid in 7-on-7 red zone drills, firing touchdowns to Jeff Cumberland and dynamic Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. But Williams threw at least four interceptions, two of which went to cornerback Travon Bellamy, who appeared to injure his neck after making a pick in the end zone. Walk-on cornerback Nattiel Perkins also picked off a Williams pass.
"We got the best of him out there," cornerback Tavon Wilson said with a smile. "We compete like that every day, though."
Illini fans shouldn't be too concerned about Williams, who has loads of experience and a ton of weapons at his disposal. But seeing that limiting turnovers was one of head coach Ron Zook's top two goals for spring ball -- limiting big plays on defense was the other -- Wednesday's mistakes shouldn't become a habit.
There were several bright spots at the practice, and here are my other observations.
- Illinois' rushing game will be much better in 2009, and Williams shouldn't have to carry such a large load as a runner. Sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both performed well in the scrimmage, delivering just as many hits as they took. The physical development of both players is obvious -- more on that in the coming days -- and as bigger backs, they can do some damage this fall. Ford broke free for a big gain late in the scrimmage, and LeShoure rocked Patrick Nixon-Youman after catching a screen pass.
- Ford and LeShoure rotated with both the first- and second-team offense because both Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are banged up. Don't be surprised, though, if the two sophomores are Illinois' primary backs this fall.
- The Illini should have the Big Ten's top wide receiver corps this fall. Even without All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, who had class Wednesday and missed practice, the Illini receivers showed plenty of promise. The 6-5 Cumberland is a huge target, and Fayson already looks like one of Williams' favorite targets.
- Former NFL coaches Jim Haslett and Rick Venturi attended practice for the second straight day. Haslett, the former Saints and Rams coach, will coach the Orlando franchise in the newly formed United Football League. They were in town to see Zook, their former colleague from the New Orleans Saints, and the three spent a lot of time breaking down film.
- Several Illinois coaches raved about Tavon Wilson's progress when we talked earlier in the day, and he didn't disappoint. The sophomore defended a screen well during the red zone portion and rocked LeShoure on a run, eliciting cheers from his fellow defenders.
- After playing two years at outside linebacker, junior Martez Wilson worked mainly in the middle on Wednesday. It makes sense since he's by far the team's most experienced linebacker. Wilson, who has recovered from a stabbing incident in December, still looks huge at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He had some good and bad moments during practice but teamed with Rahkeem Smith to drop LeShoure for a loss.
- I was impressed with third-string quarterback Jacob Charest, who made several nice throws to Cordale Scott.
- Suspended defensive tackle Josh Brent was at practice, watching from the sideline and hanging out with several recent Illini players, including former defensive lineman David Lindquist. The feeling is that Brent is expected to rejoin the team at some point.
- The first-team offense: Williams at quarterback, LeShoure and Ford at running back, wide receiver Cumberland, wide receiver Chris Duvalt, wide receiver Fayson, tight end Hubie Graham, offensive lineman Corey Lewis, offensive lineman Jeff Allen, offensive lineman Eric Block, offensive lineman Jon Asamoah.
- The first-team defense: defensive lineman Rahkeem Smith, defensive lineman Antonio James, defensive lineman Clay Nurse, defensive lineman Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson, linebacker Russell Ellington, linebacker Ian Thomas, cornerback Tavon Wilson, cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman, safety Bo Flowers, safety Garrett Edwards.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Illinois has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Schultz, but most of the team's holes come on the defensive side. The Illini lose two first-team All-Big Ten defenders (linebacker Brit Miller and cornerback Vontae Davis) and need to replenish several other spots following a subpar 2008 season.
Aside from a few vacancies on the line, things look very promising on offense. Here's a closer look at Illinois.
Strongest position -- Wide receiver/tight end
Key returnees: Junior Arrelious Benn, senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, senior Jeff Cumberland, sophomore A.J. Jenkins, senior Chris Duvalt, junior Jarred Fayson (Florida transfer), sophomore Fred Sykes
Key departures: Will Judson (21 receptions, 401 yards, 2 touchdowns)
The skinny: Illinois returns nine of the top 10 receivers from an offense that led the Big Ten in passing last fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn headlines a group that could light up opposing secondaries this fall. Senior quarterback Juice Williams will have plenty of options, as Fayson joins a corps that features a ton of young talent in Sykes and Jenkins. Other strong spots include quarterback and running back.
Weakest position -- Linebacker
Key returnees: Junior Martez Wilson, sophomore Russell Ellington, sophomore Ian Thomas
Key departures: Brit Miller (132 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles), Rodney Pittman (53 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble), Sam Carson (36 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble).
The skinny: The spotlight will be on Wilson this spring as he returns from a stabbing incident weeks after the 2008 season. If the immensely talented junior becomes a star, Illinois' defensive midsection should be stable. If he continues to fall short of expectations, the defense probably will, too. Miller certainly did his part last fall, and Illinois will be extremely young at linebacker aside from Wilson. The Illini also could struggle at cornerback and defensive end after losing several multiyear starters (Vontae Davis, Will Davis).
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Juice Williams enters 2009 as one of the Big Ten's most recognizable players, a proven quarterback in a league starved for them.
|Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMI|
|Juice Williams was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall.|
Williams has experienced just about everything at Illinois: A 10-loss season as a raw, yet talented freshman, a thrilling Rose Bowl run as a sophomore and a very disappointing campaign as a junior last fall. Illinois led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense but struggled to a 5-7 finish. Williams, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall, wants to end his college career on a good note, and perhaps for the first time he has truly taken ownership of the team.
Earlier this week, Williams discussed his up-and-down 2008 season, his outlook for the future and his legacy at Illinois.
What's been the mood for you and the guys during offseason workouts after things didn't go the way you wanted them to last fall?
Juice Williams: The attitude of this year's team is completely different from what we had last year at this time. Obviously, we didn't end up the way we should have or what we thought we should have. But that's affected this team in such a positive way. [The struggles] may be one of the best things to happen to this team.
Guys now are realizing that if we don't come to play every week, we're not going to be successful. And in order to come out there and play like that, we have to train and prepare our bodies to play 12 games to the maximum potential. Guys have really taken on that role, and I think we'll be ready by the time the season comes around.
Do you think guys were taking things for granted a little bit last year, especially coming off a Rose Bowl run?
JW: I think it had some type of affect on it. Guys kind of slacked off a little bit. We didn't really have the same intensity in the offseason as we should have. But like I said, I think it was probably the best thing that happened to us, not going to a bowl game. Us bringing back so many seniors and so much experience for this year, it's going to really prepare this team in the right direction.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Illinois wide receiver Arrelious "Rejus" Benn followed typical bye-week protocol after his team's underwhelming win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 13.
|Mark Cowan/Icon SMI|
|Illinois wide receiver Arrelious 'Rejus' Benn has come on strong in the past few weeks.|
"I just rested by body," Benn said. "Took my mind off football for a little bit."
The second part might have been more important. Benn maintains he had no injury issues in Illinois' first few games, but his numbers suggested something was wrong.
The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and one of the league's most feared players had 15 receptions for 150 yards and no touchdowns in the first three games. Not terrible numbers by any means, but not Rejus Benn numbers, either.
During the bye week, Illinois coach Ron Zook challenged his best players to start acting like it. No one has responded to Zook's message better than Benn.
The sophomore has been spectacular in Big Ten play, making 29 receptions for 543 yards and three touchdows in four games. Benn averages 18.7 yards per reception and 135.8 yards per game in conference, 26 more yards than the next best wideout, Minnesota's Eric Decker.
"I maybe put a little bit of pressure on myself early in the season, and I just calmed down," Benn said. "I'm having a lot of fun right now. This is something I love doing."
Quarterback Juice Williams shares the love. Williams continues to put up incredible numbers in Big Ten play (306.5 pass ypg, 9 pass TD, 174.1 rating), and Benn is a big reason why.
After securing single-game total offense records in two separate stadiums in consecutive weeks, Williams helped Benn claim his own distinction Saturday against Indiana. Benn became the first player in Illinois history to pile up 100 receiving yards or more in four consecutive games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The conference title race is taking shape, some teams are surging and others are sliding.
It's time to take the pulse of Big Ten fans.
Derek from St. Louis writes: Explain this to me... Illinois has 2 losses, both to top 5 teams, both on the road, neither were embarrassing. They don't break the top 25 in ANY poll after destroying Michigan in Ann Arbor after (still ranked and 0-2 in the Big Ten) Wisconsin loses there a week prior. Auburn (also still ranked) also has 2 losses and a pillow fight 3-2 victory AT HOME to Miss St. WAKE FORREST is still ranked... and they're coming off of a loss to NAVY... AT HOME. How is ANY of this possible. I can't say it's because the Big Ten doesn't get any love because WISCONSIN is included in this mess.
Adam Rittenberg: For the first time this season, the Illini played to their potential in the final three quarters at Michigan and will regain some respect by continuing to win. Illinois soured some people with a poor performance against Louisiana-Lafayette, but pounding Michigan at the Big House still means something, even this year. Wisconsin fell out of the AP Poll, if it makes you happy, and the Badgers need to beat No. 6 Penn State at home to remain in any other rankings. Auburn's continued inclusion has to do with the strength of the SEC, nothing else. Wake Forest moved up in the poll only because a bunch of teams between 20-25 lost last week.
J.Z. from Bloomington, Ind., writes: Many IU fans including me had high expectations for the football team this year. Coming off our first bowl game in ages, 8 home games, a super soft OOC schedule. The way I see it we should have ended with at minimum a winning record this year. Ending the year with 4 wins seems like wishful thinking now. There are many fans that never wanted Coach Lynch hired based off his terrible past in the MAC and lack of Big school experience. With the new stadium and facility renovations come higher expectations. Do you think if things continue the way they are that Coach Lynch could get his walking papers this year? With a new AD coming in I could see that happening. I do also realize that IU also needs to step up and be willing to pay a new coach to come in, as there are some coaches in conf USA that make double what our Head Football coach makes. Do you think IU will be willing to finally spend the cash on football that they do on basketball?
Adam Rittenberg: The Ball State loss looks better and better, but I agree with you that Indiana has been a major disappointment this year. Lynch acknowledged today that the team could still be looking for its identity, which should be based around quarterback Kellen Lewis and several promising defenders. But turnovers and penalties kill teams, and Indiana hasn't been able to avoid them so far. The new athletic director will have a decision to make if things don't improve, but I don't see Lynch getting fired less than a year after receiving a contract extension. Next year, maybe, but the program has been through some tragedy and transition, much like Northwestern went through in 2006-07, and Lynch deserves a ton of credit for last year's bowl run. Indiana is making a greater commitment to football with the stadium renovations and even with the eight home games, so expectations are justifiably higher. But I would wait a little bit longer to see how things play out.
Andrew from Pittsburgh writes: What are your thoughts on the Spartan defense? We're giving up tons of yards between the 20s the last several weeks, but we keep coming up with stops or turnovers in the red zone. Is that the mark of a better defense, or have we just been lucky?
Adam Rittenberg: They are tough and physical, a perfect reflection of head coach Mark Dantonio. They don't have the most talent in any one area, but stars like safety Otis Wiley and linebacker Greg Jones take on a lot of responsibility and guys like Adam Decker step up and make big plays like the fourth-down stop on Iowa's Shonn Greene to seal last week's win. Honestly, giving up yards between the 20's doesn't matter if you make stops in the red zone, and that's how teams like Michigan State and Northwestern have improved on the defensive side. Michigan State is limiting the big play and forcing other teams to execute near the goal line.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's Tuesday. That means mailbag time. As a reminder, please include your name and hometown on your e-mails. I had to leave out several good ones this week because they had no names attached.
Cory from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam, Chris Fowler wrote a column a few weeks back about a desire for more 'Clemson-Alabama' type early season games. I, too, would like to see more of these - and I think I found at least one possibility. Instead of OSU opening up w/ Youngstown State or another in-state team, the Colorado Buffaloes have an opening, as do the Bucks on Saturday August 31, 2013...I know it's a distance off, but what do you think of the possibility? Can we start a write-in campaign from your readers?
Adam Rittenberg: That would be an interesting matchup, and Ohio State certainly could benefit from scheduling another BCS team in addition to its annual premier matchup. It's almost like Ohio State gets more criticism for the three cupcakes it plays every year than for going out on a limb and playing teams like Texas and USC. Maybe Ohio State should schedule two solid BCS teams instead of one elite one. The Buckeyes host Cal in 2012, and they might have to return that game in 2013, so it's unlikely they would add Colorado to the slate. Minnesota already plays Colorado in Boulder in 2013, and I'm not sure the Buffaloes would want to face two Big Ten teams in the same year.
Nick from Mayville, Mich., writes: Michigan going into the next two games against ranked teams #8 Wisconsin and #22 Illinois, what do you think our chances are to upset against these two teams?
Adam Rittenberg: The bye week should really help the Wolverines, who I think will give Wisconsin a good game this weekend (could be wishful thinking since I'll be at the Big House). As Rich Rodriguez said today, inexperienced teams can make significant improvements in short periods of time, and that's what Michigan is hoping for on Saturday. As bad as the Notre Dame loss was, Michigan found its quarterback (Steven Threet) and its running back (Sam McGuffie). That said, Wisconsin is simply too powerful up front, and Michigan's D-line will need an especially strong showing against P.J. Hill & Co. If Michigan loses big, confidence could be a factor when Illinois comes to town. But if the Wolverines hang in there with the Badgers, they could knock off the Illini, who will be coming off a tough game at Penn State.
Brad in Bloomington, Ind., writes: So after that disgusting loss to Ball State is it safe to say the Hoosiers are the worst team in the Big Ten this year? I would have to imagine there is no chance they will make a bowl this year.
Adam Rittenberg: I wouldn't count out the Hoosiers just yet, but they really struggled against a Ball State team that could have lost its composure after the injury to Dante Love. This is the problem when a team begins the season with two opponents -- Western Kentucky and Murray State -- that provide no challenge whatsoever. Indiana had faced little to no adversity in the first two games and crumbled when Ball State provided some on Saturday night. I still like Kellen Lewis and blog-favorite Matt Mayberry, but Indiana has to do a better job of stopping the run. The Hoosiers still aren't good enough to overcome mistakes, and Lewis made several against Ball State.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Illinois linebacker Brit Miller noticed something different as soon as he walked into the weight room before dawn today.
Wideout Chris Duvalt was bouncing around, and other players had more zip to their step. After struggling at times on both sides of the ball in their first three games, the Illini had returned from a bye week refreshed and recharged.
"Whenever there's excitement on Monday morning at 6 a.m. during the lift," Miller said, "you know guys are ready to play."
Miller didn't sense the same excitement earlier this season, even before a much-anticipated opener against Missouri.
"People had that first-game wonderment, kind of wondering what's going to happen," Miller said. "This team has grown since that first game, knowing you have to go out and take it from your opponent. Having the guys excited and having people talking about Penn State this morning, that's a big deal. We had that a lot last year."
Another thing Illinois had a lot last year -- and for most of this decade -- was the underdog tag. Coming off consecutive 2-win seasons in 2005 and 2006, few outside the Champaign-Urbana corridor pegged the Illini for a Rose Bowl run. But the team pulled several upsets, none bigger than a road win against top-ranked Ohio State.
The Illini are underdogs once again heading into their Big Ten opener Saturday night at No. 12 Penn State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Nittany Lions looked dominant in non-league play, albeit against weak competition, and will test an Illinois team that can prove it hasn't regressed from 2007.
"I've heard that, that we're the underdog going in," defensive end Will Davis said. "We've played our best games like that. When people say we can't win, we come out and play our hardest. That's what's happened in the past and you've got prove it on Saturday."
After an underwhelming 20-17 win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 13, Illinois coach Ron Zook challenged his best players to start performing like it. Zook certainly was referring to junior quarterback Juice Williams, who had only 147 passing yards against the Rajin' Cajuns, but also players like wideout Rejus Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Benn has yet to catch a touchdown pass this season but can change games at any time, as he showed last season against Penn State with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"Coach expects a lot out of us," Benn said. "We came here to be on the forefront of that stage and be depended on in certain situations."
Illinois knows it can depend on Williams in hostile environments like Penn State. He turned in his signature performance last November at Ohio State (four touchdown passes, 70 rush yards) and relishes situations like the one he'll enter Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.
"It's a lot easier being the underdog," Williams said. "There's less pressure for you. We can pretty much go out there and play the game, not worry about everything. I've been the underdog my whole life. It gives you the opportunity to prove yourself."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This will be a regular feature Tuesday and Friday, so send in your e-mails. I'll pick things up as the countdown to the opener reaches four days.
Kyle from Louisville writes: I give all due respect to Rashard Mendenhall because he was a horse last year for Illinois, but looking back it seems to me that the Illini offense could be just as good or better this year. In Illinois' five biggest games of the regular season last year - Missouri, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State - Mendenhall only went over 100 yards once, and twice (against Missouri and Ohio State), returning sophomore Daniel Dufrene outrushed him. Otherwise, Rashard put up huge numbers against less-talented teams. Am I completely off-base here or could Illinois be just as good this year on the offensive side of the ball?
Adam Rittenberg: You can't underestimate what Mendenhall did last season. He wasn't just a workhorse, but a breakaway threat. He helped Juice Williams, he helped Rejus Benn, he helped everybody, even when he didn't rush for 100 yards. But I agree that the Illini offense should be strong this fall. Dufrene looks like a solid back and he's picked up his play in preseason camp after a poor spring, but the only reason he outrushed Rashard against Ohio State was the 80-yard run that should have resulted in a fumble. Where Illinois should be much better is the wide receiver position. Benn will be dominant this season as he's fully healthy, and I've heard great things about Chris Duvalt's emergence this summer. When Jeff Cumberland returns from a foot injury, he gives that group size and tremendous leaping ability. Chris James and three freshmen also will contribute. So Illinois could certainly match last year's numbers on offense with a better passing attack.
Matthew from Toledo, Ohio, writes: Adam, you've got to further explain your reasoning behind ranking Purdue as having the toughest schedule. I just don't see how that works out. OSU and Purdue go to Michigan State; there's no way Oregon is even in the same difficulty ball park as the USC game, even if Oregon's quarterback wasn't sidelined with injury. Yes, Purdue goes to Columbus, but the Buckeyes go to Camp Randall, and given the Buckeye lack of success there, and given that Bielema is undefeated in Madison...sorry, but I just think you're wrong on this one.
Adam Rittenberg writes: I struggled with those two, Matthew, and it could go either way. Nonconference schedule was the deciding factor. The USC game is by far the hardest non-league test for any Big Ten team, but other than that, Ohio State plays Youngstown State, Ohio and Troy, all at home. Pretty weak, especially since Troy should have a down year. Purdue not only plays Oregon but Central Michigan, the back-to-back MAC champion that boasts one of the nation's best unsung quarterbacks [Dan LeFevour]. The Boilers also have to go to Notre Dame, a team that, like it or not, will be much improved this fall. Ohio State has a slightly tougher league slate, Purdue has a slightly tougher non-league slate with a trip to Columbus. Again, it was very close, but Purdue got the nod.
Bobak in Minneapolis writes: Minnesota question: While I understand Gophers Head Coach Tim Brewster's desire to field a more competitive team this season --especially after allowing 36 points a game in 2007-- I am puzzled by the choice of Ted Roof who, as head coach of Duke from 2003-07, saw his teams allow an average of over 32 points a game during his 6-45 tenure. How was this a wise hire? Yes he ran a college football program, but Duke convinced a court of law this year that they're as bad as bad gets.
Adam Rittenberg writes: You can debate Roof as a head coach, and you can also debate whether anyone will ever win at Duke [David Cutcliffe will find out soon enough]. But the guy is a good defensive mind with a track record of turning things around on that side of the ball [Georgia Tech, early on at Duke]. Roof has a lot more talent to work with in Minneapolis, especially with all the junior-college transfers joining the mix this season. I like this hire because Roof loves major challenges and after last season, Minnesota certainly fits under that category. I really don't know how Everett Withers possibly got another coordinator job after last season, but Roof will be fine. He reemphasized fundamentals this offseason and should get that unit back to respectability.
Kenny from State College, Pa., writes: I was somewhat surprised to see PSU @ OSU or @WIsconsin not in your top big 10 games this year. I really think those games could decide the big 10 champion.
Adam Rittenberg writes: You know, I was really close to cheating on that list and adding an 11th game in my top 10. It would have been Penn State at Ohio State. The series is usually very intriguing and it will be interesting to see how Daryll Clark fares in a raucous road setting like Ohio Stadium. If the Nittany Lions start strong, and the opportunity is there with their schedule, they could head to Columbus playing for first place in the league. But they'll first have to get by Illinois, Wisconsin and a Michigan team that always gives them problems.
Michael from Springfield, Mo., writes: Adam, What does the depth chart at running back look like for Michigan? From what I've been reading the two-deep could include any combination of Brown, Minor, McGuffie, and Shaw. Are these freshmen really that talented, or are there other factors coming into play? Basically, I want to know if I should be concerned about the fact that Brown and Minor are in danger of being beat out for the starting spot by two true freshman.
Adam Rittenberg writes: True freshmen Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart, ahead of both Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Rich Rodriguez says all four backs will play Saturday and I believe him. He's got to see everything he has in a game situation, especially since so many guys are unproven. It is telling, though, that McGuffie and Shaw are listed first. They are smaller, quicker backs, the types that Rich has used in the past with his system. He's always willing to sacrifice size for speed, and those two freshmen fit the mold. I can't imagine Brown and Minor won't get a good chunk of carries as well, but if McGuffie and/or Shaw perform, they'll be the future at that position.
Kyle from Utica, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, Great coverage this offseason. Based on what you've seen out of the quarterbacks, if you were Rich Rodriguez, who would you start at QB against Utah?
Adam Rittenberg writes: Thanks, Kyle. I think Rich will start Steven Threet on Saturday, but I believe him when he says that more than one guy will play. It's highly unlikely Threet or Nick Sheridan will go out, totally grasp the system and dominate, so even though winning is paramount, Michigan has to see what it has at that position. It seems as though Sheridan has come on strong in preseason camp, and though he lacks Threet's size, teammates describe him as the more relaxed -- and potentially more confident -- quarterback. We'll see if it plays out on Saturday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Tom Dahlin/Getty Images|
|Juice Williams is prepared for the added leadership role he must assume this season.|
James, a potential starter at wide receiver, already knew he wouldn't be playing that day against Missouri after tearing his ACL in training camp. Williams started the game at quarterback, determined to muzzle his doubters after an erratic freshman season, but left in the second quarter after taking a blow to the head from Missouri's Hardy Ricks on a 4-yard run.
Together, they watched as backup quarterback Eddie McGee rallied Illinois to within six points before throwing an interception at the goal line in the final minute.
"He talked to me about not finishing the game," James said of Williams. "He was real sad and upset."
"He took that loss to heart," added Illini linebacker Brit Miller.
Fast-forward to Monday as Williams and James sat in the film room at Memorial Stadium studying Missouri. This time they spoke with a tone of optimism, sensing the opportunity that soon awaited them.
It arrives Saturday as Illinois heads back to St. Louis to face Missouri (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game has added meaning for Williams, who matches up against Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel.
"Even without the injury, it would still be special," Williams said. "The first game of the season, you prepared all offseason to get better as a player, as a leader, as a role model of this team. You're just so thrilled to go out there and show the world what you can do."
A greater burden will be placed on Williams this fall after Illinois lost running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wants to pass more to exploit a deeper-than-expected receiving corps and a junior quarterback no longer prone to poor decisions and an unsightly completion percentage.
Williams likely will look to air it out immediately against a Missouri defense that ranked 96th nationally against the pass last season (256.9 ypg).
"I'm pretty sure he can't wait to show the world what he can do as far as the passing," star wide receiver Rejus Benn said. "He's labeled as an option quarterback, a runner, but he's a passer and he's going to show that."
Williams spent a week this summer working with Eagles quarterback and fellow Chicagoan Donovan McNabb, who encouraged him to rely on more than just his arm strength to lead the offense. After completing just 39.5 percent of his passes as a freshman and struggling early last season, Williams began to get comfortable and played his best down the stretch, most notably in an upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.
He completed 6 of 9 passes against Missouri and added 11 rushing yards before the injury, which occurred when he started to slide on a scramble.
"I kind of learned my lesson," Williams said. "After that game, the coaches have pretty much been on me to run physical. As the season went on, I started running harder, breaking a bunch of tackles here and there, so it really paid off."
Illini coach Ron Zook doesn't expect Williams to think about the injury Saturday, which speaks to the quarterback's growing maturity.
"He has improved in every area, whether it be the way he talks with the media, the way he practices, all the things," Zook said. "Now it's going to be important that he goes out there and shows what we all think is going to happen, that he is a much-improved player."
Williams should get help from his receivers. In addition to Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Illini will start James and junior Chris Duvalt, who had a very strong preseason. Not having the 6-foot-5 Jeff Cumberland (foot) will hurt, but freshmen Fred Sykes, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott all are expected to contribute.
"I can't even imagine the feeling I'll have running onto the field knowing that I'm going to be able to play this year," said James, who started the final four games in 2006. "It's exciting knowing you can get out there and know where you are from the start, going against a top team like Missouri."
Despite the Ohio State win and a run to the Rose Bowl, Illinois enters this fall needing to shed the one-year-wonder tag. What better way to start than against a team that many around the country would have rather seen in a BCS bowl than the Illini.
"Being able to go out there and win a game against a top-notch program would mean a lot for this program," Williams said. "It would hopefully make other guys start to believe in the Illini program, that the Illini guys are back and last year was not a fluke."