What a week for the Illinois football program! From an eye-opening performance on the football field to an eye-opening win on the recruiting trail this was a week to remember. It's very possible that this might be the week that we look back on years from now as the week that the Illinois football program arrived.
This past Saturday at Memorial Stadium was awesome. A team that a year ago got ran off the field twice in the span of a few weeks (against Penn State and Michigan State) went toe-to-toe with the best team in the land for a full 60 minutes. When you really think about, they spent the last 30 minutes of the game completely dominating the Ohio State offense and putting the entire Buckeye nation on their heels.
When Rashad Mendehall stumbled into the end zone for that touchdown, the Buckeye nation—and probably every college football fan across the nation—was absolutely stunned. I was sitting in front of a lot of Buckeye fans and you could just feel them tense up before that onside kick.
The final minutes of that game are exactly what we have wanted for years. It was dark, it was cold and it was rainy and Memorial Stadium was alive. I mean the place was rocking! What impressed me most was that when Ohio State recovered that onsides kick the game was virtually over. Sure Illinois could get the ball back, but with only two timeouts and this new completely idiotic clock starting on the turn of possession rule they were going to get the ball back with less than 20 seconds to go.
I am not sure if the fans didn't realize this or they just didn't care, but that final Ohio State possession was something special. From Leman leading the ILL-INI chant and everyone in orange on their feet it was the kind of moment we have all been waiting for.
The Illini might have lost the game and they might still be 2-8 right now, but the last three weeks proved that this team is no longer a team that can be pushed around. In three weeks we have seen this team compete and at times dominate against some of the best the Big Ten has to offer. They topped that stretch by battling the best team in the country and proving that there is no team that they can't compete with anymore. That alone is a sign that this program is back on the map.
I am still shaking my head in disbelief from what I saw on Saturday from the Illini defense. The Buckeyes have a lot of players on their team who are going to play on Sundays and they have four guys who have given almost every team they have played fits. The Illini defense shut all four of those guys down! Check out the stats…
Troy Smith: 13 of 23 from 108 yards
Antonio Pittman: 32 carries for 58 yards
Ted Ginn Jr: 5 catches for 26 yards
Anthony Gonzalez: 2 catches for 18 yards
All four of those guys had their worst games of the season. All four of those guys—who have torched very good defenses all year long—couldn't do anything against the Illinois defense. In the second half, the Illini defense was as good as it has been since the days that Dana Howard and Simeon Rice were roaming around the field. They were tackling, they were getting pressure and they were flying all over the field.
J. Leman: Leman has the been the biggest surprise of the entire season and on this past Saturday he took his game to a whole other level. Leman came away with 19 tackles (8 of those solo and an incredible 3 ½ for a loss), caused once forced fumble and got one sack. Quite simply, he was awesome.
I was having a hard time putting Leman's play this year into words, but I have one story that shows just how good he has been. I have one good friend—who for the record I have known for years—who this week started to claim that his family was related to the Leman family. Keep in mind there was NO mention of this the last two years when many Illini fans—including myself—thought Leman was too slow to be a force in the Big Ten.
Now that he is leading the Big Ten in tackles, they are ready to break out the family tree and claim they are related to ‘Cousin Leman.' Unbelievable…I never thought Leman would get that big!
Leman now has 117 tackles (10 more than anyone else in the Big Ten) and it would be a complete joke if he wasn't a First Team Big Ten linebacker. Leman might not be the most talented linebacker in the Big Ten and I certainly don't think he is the best pro prospect in the conference but he has been THE best linebacker in the Big Ten during the 2006 football season. If Leman isn't named to the first team, the media and the coaches should absolutely be ashamed of the process.
Vontae Davis: I had friends from New York calling me this week asking me who that was that made that play? There were 50,000 plus in Memorial Stadium who shook their head in disbelief after the play was over. There he was—a true freshman—in one-on-one coverage against one of the premier wide receivers (and certainly the fastest) in the entire country going stride-for-stride and knocking the ball away at the last second in a play that hall of fame cornerbacks would have had to applaud.
Defensive Line: This unit continues to improve and Saturday was the best game they have had all season long. Chris Norwell is starting to become the type of player we all hoped he would be when he switched over from the offense. Quietly, Josh Norris has had a solid season in the middle. Will Davis's run around the corner and chase down of Troy Smith had every Illini fan in the building dreaming of how good he can be when he really figures out the position. Derek Walker continues to get better and better and by the time next year comes around he could be one of the best linemen in the conference.
For a unit that has struggled to make any impact over the last few years they have completely turned the page this year. Looking towards 2007 they have a chance to be pretty darn good.
RIGHT OR WRONG
I know some people had a big problem with Coach Zook pulling Juice in the 4th quarter, but I wasn't one of them. Juice really struggled throughout the game—he wasn't seeing the field well and he wasn't making passes that he would usually make. At that point, Coach Zook has to do everything he can to shake things up.
For the most part I thought the decision worked well. Brasic was able to complete a few short passes, get a few first downs and really was the start of the entire 4th quarter comeback. There's no question that Juice is the quarterback of the future and you have to give him credit for battling back when he got in there, but I didn't have a big problem with putting Brasic in there to try and jump start the offense.
LET THE DOMINOES BEGIN
He had the best schools in the country offering him scholarships on the first day they could. He took visits to schools that have won national championships and play in New Year's Bowl games every single year. He sat in stadiums with 70,000 people in it watching games that the entire country wished they could be at.
Arrelious "Regis" Benn could have picked any school in the entire country. He could have gone to USC, he could have gone to Notre Dame and he could have stayed home to play for his home-town Terrapins. Instead he chose to play his football in Champaign.
When Regis Benn stood at the podium on Thursday evening and announced he was going to be an Illini it was more than just a verbal commitment. His decision to play for Coach Zook announced to the entire country that the Illinois football program wasn't a laughingstock anymore and it told everyone across the country that Illinois and Champaign were back on the college football map.
If one of the best—if not the best—wide receivers in the country from Washington D.C. commits to a school that is 2-8 and hasn't had a winning season in years people take notice. And you know what they should take notice.
Regis Benn could have been a maintainer. He could have gone to the schools that were going to bowl games every single year and that already had their stadiums packed every Saturday. Instead he chose to join Coach Zook and the rest of the program in trying to build Illinois into a consistent winner.
Don't think for a second that the rest of that country (including a whole heck of a lot of recruits) didn't take notice when Benn put on that Illini hat. The Martez Wilson's, Josh Brent's, Robert Hughes's and dare I say Marvin Austin's (ok, I am getting greedy) of the world just might decide to follow Benn's lead. Let the dominoes begin to fall!
There's no question it was a monumental day for the Illini football program. When you add the commitment of Thornton wide receiver—Anthony Morris (whose commitment could end up being just as important down the road) it was certainly a great day to be an Illini football fan.
DOMINATING THE RECRUITING TRAIL
If you are an Illini fan this holiday season, I would sincerely hope you have one Larry Fedora on your holiday card list. I want to take this moment to thank Mr. Fedora one more time for quickly running away from Champaign to head to Stillwater. It might turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to the Illinois football program.
With Larry Fedora still in Champaign, there wouldn't be Mike Locksley. With Fedora still here, there's a good chance we don't see Vontae Davis knocking down passes, Derrick McPhearson catching balls and Regis Benn making his commitment.
A lot of credit goes to Coach Zook—who has been an even better recruiter than was advertised—but you have to stop and give a ton of credit to his top recruiter, Mike Locksley, for the job he has done since he has arrived in Champaign. In just a few years, he has brought a ton of talent to Champaign and absolutely raided the Maryland/D.C. area.
That brings me to something that I wanted to talk about a few Bleeding's ago. It drove me crazy earlier in the year when fans were complaining about Coach Locksley and his play calling. First off he still hasn't been given a full complement of players to work with and I think in just two years we have seen him grown as an offensive coordinator. I think people forget that last year was his first year as a coordinator at the college level and like a young player it was going to take some time for him to get his bearings and gather game day experience.
I don't think we know that Coach Locksley is going to be a great offensive coordinator, but I think its way too early to tell and I also think he has done a pretty good job this year with a true freshman quarterback, a sub-par receiving corp. and an offensive line that has struggled with their ability to protect the quarterback
Beyond all of that though he has been an extremely important part of the rebuilding process in Champaign and he continues to be one of the best recruiters in the entire country.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, but I wasn't the least bit surprised when Reggie Rose and his younger brother, Derrick, decided to take their one-year traveling show to Memphis. If you were surprised by this decision you weren't paying attention to college basketball recruiting in the last few years.
Illinois never had a chance to get Derrick Rose and they certainly had absolutely no chance when Eric Gordon was committed. Derrick Rose wasn't EVER going to play with Eric Gordon, because Reggie Rose wasn't going to let his little brother share the spotlight. Why go try and form one of the best freshman backcourts in the history of college basketball when you can go be the man in a ‘who cares' conference and increase your draft stock?
Beyond all of that what really upset me as an Illini fan was this quote from Reggie Rose speaking about Illinois recruitment of his brother on signing day.
"The recruiting changed—it went from ‘Derrick, you're a regular recruit' to ‘Derrick, you are a program changing recruit. If you would have had that set-up from the get-go, things could have been different…The atmosphere last weekend it was like he was a rock star. Every other recruiting visit we went to, Derrick was a rock star but the first visit we went to Illinois it was like, ‘Hey Derrick, how you doing."
I could only imagine how the Illinois staff feels reading that, because it fires me up. What a complete bunch of BS! First off given the opportunity—on the day they decided to go to Memphis—to say something nice about Bruce Weber, the Illinois basketball program and the state school obviously Reggie Rose couldn't be the bigger man and just do that. He had to whine that his brother wasn't treated like a rock star, which couldn't be further from the truth.
Derrick's first visit to Illinois was no different than his last. The fans chanted his name, the Krush brought him roses and everyone was fired up that Derrick Rose was in town. You really want the translation on Reggie's statement on signing day?
"Illinois never did anything for me. They never gave me anything, they never promised us a starting spot, they never promised us anything. I wasn't treated the way I thought I should have been treated."
Sounds about right doesn't it? The best part of his quote was when he said that Derrick Rose was going to be a program changing recruit. Are you kidding me? Earth to Reggie—you have to stay more than one year to be a program changing recruit. Derrick Rose is going to be a great player (one day an NBA star) but his short stay at Memphis isn't going to change the entire scope of their program.
College basketball recruiting? You got to love it!
MUSINGS FROM THE PAST WEEK
**There were a lot—I mean a lot—of Buckeye fans in Champaign on Saturday. When I drove into town for a second I thought I had made a wrong turn and ended up in Columbus. I hope in the years to come there won't be an opportunity to buy up that many tickets at Memorial Stadium but I have to admit that I enjoyed it Saturday. The Buckeye presence in the stands created an atmosphere and put a little buzz into the stadium.
Best line of the day from Section GG: "Ohio State—best team that money can buy."**
**Watching Rutgers beat Louisville just a few minutes ago makes me even more antsy to have a season and a night like that in Champaign. Good for Rutgers—they are a program with almost no history and they were able to turn their program around. You have to give a lot of credit to Greg Schiano who walked into a very difficult situation and turned it around.**
As I get ready to watch the Illini on senior day, Still Bleeding Orange and Blue—Jared Gelfond.