In the last week, Illinois has received word that the starting quarterback position would have another playing vying for it as Jon Beutjer was granted a sixth year of eligibility due to issues surrounding his transfer from Iowa to Illinois. While last season cannot be described as anything other than a complete and unmitigated disaster, there is now a slight glimmer of hope for 2004. If Jon Beutjer can come back at 100% and take over the quarterback position like he did at the end of the 2002 season, Illinois might be able to be competitive and win a few games next season that no one expects them to. Jon played through a back injury through his final games of 2003 and struggled mightily, but when he is healthy, he has shown to be a gunslinger that when equipped with great receivers (Lloyd and Young), he can make Illinois' offense into one of the most potent in the Big Ten.
Now, I am not going to come in and predict a multitude of wins for the Fighting Illini on the basis of a returning Jon Beutjer, considering there is no guarantee he will be healthy, let alone be the starting quarterback. It will be interesting to see how Ron Turner works the quarterback situation, if Beutjer is healthy because he has young quarterbacks like Chris Pazan and Brad Bower waiting in the wings. In my opinion, Coach Turner will decide to start Beutjer (assuming he is healthy) because he knows he needs to show a marked improvement over last years 0-11 (I do not count the Illinois State game as a win or a loss since it was not a Division I-A opponent) if he wants to retain his job as Illinois' head coach.
The other good news for the Illini football program is Mike O'Brien will be back on the defensive line next season. Now, this is the same Illinois defensive line that with Mike O'Brien let up 121 yards rushing to Missouri, but pretty much held Brad Smith in check. Last year, Illinois' defensive line could not get any push on the quarterback and was manhandled by opposing offenses throughout the season. The culmination of this manhandling occurred when Northwestern did not even pass the ball once in the second half, running all over Illinois in Memorial Stadium. While everyone including the players and coaches already knew the season was over by that point, and the team had packed it in already, it was still humiliating, an experience that I hope to never sit through again in Memorial Stadium.
Hopefully with the new defensive coordinator, the Illinois defense will play with the passion that was missing last season. Maybe the addition of Mike O'Brien on the defensive line will help fortify the defensive front and they will start to get a push against the offensive line, but I doubt it. While I do not think a highly improved Illinois defense is likely, I would like to see a defense that puts more pressure on the offense instead of letting the offense make plays and reacting.
Now I do not think Illinois football will have a winning season in 2004, but I do expect some sort of improvement, and the additions of O'Brien and Beutjer can only help the cause.
THE FIGHTING ILLINI BUCKLE IN BUCKY BADGER LAND
In what has become an all too common occurrence this season, meaning it has happened twice, and that is two times too many, Illinois has given up on a game and come home humiliated. Saturday in Wisconsin was Illinois' chance to say to the country, but more importantly themselves they were back in the Big Ten race. Unfortunately, all they did was cave in and fold the tent when times once again got rough after Nick Smith's boneheaded technical foul. Why are they caving in? I don't know, but this team is just not tough, it doesn't play defense, and it definitely does not have a leader no matter what Dee Brown said or says to the media.
Why is this team not tough and why is their defense so porous this season?
To be honest, I have no idea why this team is not tough, just theories. Last year, I would have considered these players tough, and I would have considered the defense they played good, the numbers backed this up. With the losses of Sean Harrington and Brian Cook, I would not have expected the team to lose its toughness, considering both players were not what I considered tough.
I did hear this week from a friend that no one on the team will throw elbows in practice like Brian Cook did last year, and I am simply shocked to hear that. No one will throw elbows or be tough in practice, but that last year it was Brian Cook doing it! That was not what I considered to be in Brian's personality, even last year, but it just goes to show how much this team lost with Brian's graduation. Now, it is a yearly occurrence for players to graduate and new players to step up into roles like a leader, but this team just does not have that in their personality. Is it something they can learn? I don't think so; I believe a leader is born not taught. I was wrong this summer when I assumed Dee Brown was a leader, as this season he has shown to be anything but. Right now, there is no leader on this team that can have an affect on the court, and there is no player that will even instill toughness on the team by knocking someone on their ass when they are in the middle.
As far as the defensive lapses of this team, I think it is time to start throwing junk defenses against teams to hide the weaknesses in Illinois' team defense. Bruce Weber has tried and tried to get these guys to buckle down on defense this year, but no one has done it for him. When you head into Wisconsin, you know there are two players you need to stop to win the game, and what did they do against Illinois? Score 54 points, two less than Illinois did as a whole team. I think it is time to throw a box and one, or a triangle and two at every opposing team to hide the flaws of poor defenders Illinois has. There is no post defender that can stop an opposing big, and right now no guard, even Deron Williams, Illinois' lockdown defender last year, can stop another team's star guard one on one. I know Bruce Weber hates the zone defense more than I do, but I think it may be time to junk up the defense and work to help out your defense by confusing the other team with different looks.
STEVE ALFORD & SPORTSMANSHIP: A MATCH MADE IN IOWA CITY AND PARK RIDGE
When I first heard the Big Ten's new sportsmanship rule for student cheering sections, I immediately dubbed it the Pierre Pierce rule, especially because Steve Alford was spearheading the charge to have this rule implemented. Now we see that Steve is more worried about opposing student sections making cheers singling out Pierre, than he is about winning basketball games as Iowa's head coach.
Iowa traveled to Champaign two weeks ago, and with it came cheers from all over Assembly Hall directed right at Pierre Pierce. For those that do not know, Pierre plead guilty to assault causing injury, a serious misdemeanor, and admitted in his allocution that he forced unwanted intimate contact with the victim. In a public apology, Pierre also admitted that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a fellow student. Pierre's punishment was a year's suspension, but he used his redshirt year and was still able to practice with Iowa.
Back to January 2004 in Assembly Hall … Pierre is on the free throw line, and cheers reign down from the crowd, including, but not limited to Illinois' student cheering section, Orange Krush, of "No Means No!" and "Pierre, she said no!" directed right at Pierce. Now, these cheers were in direct violation of the Big Ten's new sportsmanship rule, I will not disagree with that at all, I just disagree with the premise of the Pierre Pierce rule. Were these cheers out of line? Not at all, in fact, all they were was stating a fact about what happened in an apartment room during the summer of 2003, check the court records.
Rewind to 1991 in Iowa City … keys are rattling and guess who is on the line, Illinois' Deon Thomas. Of course the sportsmanship rule was not in place in 1991, but, Steve, you better keep the Hawk's Nest in line when Illinois travels to Iowa City because if I hear one cheer for your fans on TV directed at any single Illinois player, I will personally write a letter of complaint to the Big Ten office and copy you. I would expect that you would be fully behind the reprimand that the Big Ten would hand out to your school for them taunting Luther, Aaron, or Rich after their transgressions earlier this year.
Don't get me wrong, I fully expect Luther, Aaron, and Rich to receive the treatment from every opposing fan, because after what they did, they deserve it when they are on the court. They are all over eighteen and they all know this is what is to be expected when they travel on the road. In fact, I would be upset if any other cheering section from Northwestern's to Penn State's did not use this to their advantage and try to get in the heads of these Illinois players.
The difference in it happening at Iowa is that, Steve has worried more about Pierre Pierce's feelings when he is playing basketball instead of coaching the game. Steve should be more worried about what is happening in between the baselines and the things he can control instead of trying to control the actions of a college student. Maybe, just maybe, he should have better controlled the actions of one University of Iowa student and he would not have to worry about him being taunted when he travels on the road.
- WR Bryant Creamer is expected to announce his decision tonight on CLTV. Why is it that even though Chris Pool and Tom Lemming have both said that they expect Creamer to choose Illinois that I will not believe it until I hear it? I think it may be my reaction to the Corey Maggette & Shaun Livingston announcements that had all signs pointing to Illinois, and the eventual answer was in both cases Duke. I just will not get my hopes up, because there is no point in getting disappointed if he chooses another school. Bryant, I want you at Illinois, please come, but I will not get excited until you say "Illinois" and sign a Letter of Intent, this year I can take nothing for granted.
- Devin Harris, please collect your Big Ten Player of the Year trophy. Bo Ryan, your coach of the year trophy is waiting for you as well. Wisconsin is right now the class of the Big Ten, more so than Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois. They no longer play Bennett ball, and this team will run through a wall for Bo Ryan. It is just too bad the Illini will not run through a wall for Bruce Weber.