Sports News Sports News Elsewhere  (fresh daily from the Web)

Illinois football: good news and bad news

By Jeff Mayfield          Send a link to a friend

[APRIL 19, 2004]  My son and I knew that if we hung around the house on a beautiful spring Saturday, his mother would find four or five things that would have to be done before the Second Coming. So, we escaped out the back door of our house and took in some good ol' Lincoln YMCA soccer before heading over to Champaign's Memorial Stadium for the spring football game.

I realize that by now most people have long since jumped off the Illini football bandwagon. And, yes, I remember that Illinois was an ugly 1-10 last season and that they were about as hard to watch as any time ever. However, loyalty demands more than just giving up on a ballclub, and I just can't resign myself to doing that with this team. Saturday showed me some signs that if we as fans get behind this group, maybe some good things can happen.

First, I was impressed with the new look of our defense. It is quite apparent that someone has gotten through to these guys with an urgent message. They displayed some all-out good tackling techniques and drilled people to the turf. Now I realize they were tackling our own guys and some of them do not have breakaway speed, but honing the fundamentals is a great start for this defensive unit. I also liked the more smothering coverage in the passing lanes. It seems we've been content to live with big cushions and just let good passing teams chew up yardage against us. That "bend but don't break" football doesn't do much for me. I liked the attacking D that we witnessed on Saturday.

On the offensive side of the ball, you have to be impressed with our running game. E.B. Halsey is trying to live up to all the great things that Greg Taylor said about him. I think that Greg was right about this kid; he looks pretty special to me. Our run blocking gave me more confidence in our offensive line, as they did a good job engaging the defense enough that Halsey and other backs could pick their holes. Pierre Thomas also made some very nice runs. I think he played for both the White and the Blue teams Saturday, but fatigue did not slow him down. Marcus Mason was also impressive running out of Illinois' backfield. Also, Jason Davis had a nice showing from the fullback's slot. He had some nice runs and did haul in a 36-yard pass for a touchdown.

I guess you may be wondering what was seen as the bad news. Well, there are still some concerns. Like once again we had a very slow start, and it didn't matter if you were cheering for the Blue or the White team. You might be able to get away with that when you play a I-AA team, but when you play a Big Ten opponent you may be out of it before you are ever into it!

Quarterback Jon Beutjer, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, was an especially slow starter this weekend. He did come back to throw for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns, but like I said, against a quality opponent we don't have that much time to come back. Beutjer was pretty good late and certainly has experience in his corner. But don't underestimate the emergence of quality quarterbacks Chris Pazan, Tim Brasic and others in the bullpen. Pazan and Brasic were especially impressive, as they had good poise and command of the offensive units.


[to top of second column in this article]

Probably the biggest concern with our passing game is the protection by our pass blockers; it will have to improve for us to have a great season. Our wideouts are coming along, but I would relish even more speed and more tough catches in traffic. Perhaps that's what Ade Adeyemo, Lonnie Hurst, DeJuan Warren and others will give us this fall. I do have some concerns about this unit, but if they improve and get to the level of our receiving corps from three years ago, they could become dangerous weapons.

Our kicking game seems to be improving. Steve Weatherford and Matt Minnes seemed to handle the duties quite well, and we will need huge production out of them to be successful.

Another impressive performance was turned in by the fans on Saturday as 5,612 came out to show their support. While it doesn't even compare with Oklahoma or Nebraska's crowds on Saturday (what else do those people have to do there anyway?) it was still noteworthy. These fans made a statement to the Illini that they will be backed and they will be supported. I am disappointed to hear that so many have not renewed their season tickets.

While I've certainly enjoyed the basketball run over the last several years, I'd like to have a fun fall and a bowl game victory to vault me back into another successful basketball season. And as for football, I don't think a winning season is out of the question. I can't see this team improving much beyond 6-5 or 7-4, but I'd love to see them get on a roll. The home schedule is favorable, but Illinois will need a raucous fan base to give them energy and lift them to heights that few will be charting for these gridders.

I just wish we didn't have four or five months to wait for it to begin. That is the really bad news!

[Jeff Mayfield]

 LDN sports sponsored by:

Previous columns

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor