From the darkness, light.
As an Illini fan who was born in 1997, life has been tough in the revenue-sports section of my favorite university’s sports teams. It hasn’t always been bad, and I have gotten to watch elite athletes like Derron Williams and Dee Brown run the court, and Rashard Mendenhall and Vontae Davis perform on the gridiron, but for the revenue sports in my lifetime, it’s been far from great.
If all of the recruits that Illinois currently boasts for their 2019 recruiting class turn out to be as good as advertised, which so far they surely have looked the part, this class could be one of the best Illinois recruiting classes, in any sport, for as long as I’ve been alive. Sure, 21 years isn’t that long (or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself) but this could be a defining moment for the University of Illinois Athletics Department going forward.
And it’s well deserved.
For far too long, Illini fans have struggled in the misery and mediocracy of their revenue sports. And yes, before I’m corrected on this, I know non-revenue sports have been good if not great in recent years. As an avid baseball and volleyball player and fan, I couldn’t be happier, and as a student, it’s been an absolute blast to witness the success of these programs.
But what’s been missing in this consistent craving of success? Football and basketball.
Not only does the Illinois’ women’s basketball team look completely different than in years past, starting off the season with good non-conference play and a fresh feel under Head Coach Nancy Fahey, but the 2019 recruiting class for Illinois football looks to be a program-changer.
Spite me if you must, but despite some bad losses recently, I still have (maybe naïve) faith in Brad Underwood’s Illinois basketball program.
As I look to graduate after four (sometimes long) years at the University of Illinois, I look back at the sports I’ve witnessed and cast a sad shadow on the basketball and football programs. As a four-year member of both the Orange Krush and the Block I, far too long was I led to disappointment. That could all change with the going forward of the 2019 class.
Many of you know that my favorite subject so far in my young journalism career has been covering the NFL Draft and NFL prospects playing in the NCAA. For far too long have I yearned for a true NFL prospect to come out of this Illini program.
My heart has been enlightened in recent years with performances from Illini alums like Clayton Fejedelem, Geronimo Allison, Justin Hardee, and many other UDFAs and late-round draftees that have risen to the occasion of the NFL.
Though I’ve loved these moments of greatness, and greatly respect those athletes and every athlete to come through the program, it isn’t enough. And with the classes of 2018 and 2019, it might be time that I, and Illini fans like me, get some much-needed encouragement in that front.
Though it won’t be a while until prospects like Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper make it through the ranks and (knock on wood) declare for the NFL Draft, the thought of it should serve to provide a sense of hope for Illini fans.
With the commitment of Shammond Cooper tonight at the All-American Game, and the incoming transfer of the former MVP of that game in ex-Miami star Jeff Thomas, the future is finally looking up for Illini fans, and the program alike.
Though the Illini recruiting class won’t show that much better on the recruiting boards thanks to the way most recruiting services work, Cooper’s commitment brings a much-needed bright spot for a revenue-sports program that has been dreadful so far this year. Though there have been flashes where Illini basketball and football looked the part of a developing team that could have a presence in the Big Ten conference, it has seemed as though fate itself were against the Fighting Illini.
But for Illini football? There’s hope.
The Illini have recently landed great commitments from athletes like Williams, Beason, and Cooper, and are winning competitive recruiting battles all over the country in order to try to turn the program around.
I’ll have a more technically focused breakdown of what Shammond Cooper brings to the Illini team in the future, the do-it-all linebacker will fill what has been a hole at the linebacker spot for the Illini for years on end, but perhaps the most important thing that Cooper does for the Illini is provide hope.
I’ll be graduating from the prestigious Alma Mater in May, (likely) without seeing a Basketball team go to the NCAA Tournament, and definitely without seeing a Football team go to a bowl game.
As I make my exit from my home of four years, I’ll be looking forward to the great things to come.
The main reason I’m writing this is to tell— no, insist – Illini fans to keep their heads held high and eyes focused on the future. As a journalist, I’m not one to voice my opinions out loud, but until my next article, I’ll leave you with this opinion:
The future is bright.
Location: West Lafayette, IN.
Mascot: The Boilermakers
2017 Record: 7-6
The Purdue Boilermakers (2-3) enter this game having won their previous two contests and are looking to keep the winning momentum going against the Illini. It was a rough start for Purdue’s 2018 season as they fell to Northwestern in their first game 31-27. This was probably a game they should have won, especially with freshman wideout Rondale Moore emerging as a star, in this contest.
The next contest saw Purdue host Eastern Michigan. This ended in disappointment as Purdue fell in upset fashion yet to a 2018 opponent by a final score of 20-19. The next matchup pit SEC foe Missouri and Purdue together. This was a back and forth contest with the Missouri Tigers coming out on top 40-37.
After this game there were a lot of questions being asked about Jeff Brohm’s team and whether his team could handle the preseason expectations. Purdue then hosted then ranked #23 Boston College and Purdue had their best showing of the year, winning 30-13. Finally, two weeks ago Purdue continued B1G play against Nebraska and was virtually unstoppable on offense and thus cruised to a 42-28 victory. Coming off a bye week, Purdue has had plenty of time to prepare, so it’ll be interesting to see how they come out against the Illini.
The Boilermaker’s offense is quite intriguing because it has all the major components to be one of the best in the B1G. Starting at QB is senior David Blough who had a fantastic season last year before suffering a season ending injury against the Illini. He has been fantastic this season completing around 68% of his passes, throwing for 1318 yards, and a 7 to 1 TD to INT ratio in just 3 games (took over starting job in third game of the season).
He is not the only threat for Purdue’s offense. Senior RB DJ Knox has also had himself a nice start to the season totaling 390 rushing yards on 70 carries while also scoring 5 rushing TD’s. Knox is the type of player who doesn’t look very fast at first, but has excellent second level speed. If I were to compare him to anyone in the B1G it would have to be the Illini’s very own, Reggie Corbin.
As stated before, freshman wideout Rondale Moore had a pretty outstanding first collegiate game against Northwestern. As a receiver he had 11 receptions for 109 yards and a TD, and as a runner he carried the ball twice for 79 yards and a TD. These stats were absolutely phenomenal and he instantly become a Purdue fan favorite. He has kept up that pace too as he has totaled 41 receptions for 457 yards and 4 TD’s this season. Purdue’s offense is one to watch even if they aren’t playing the Illini that week.
Tune to FS1 at 3:30 PM ET on Saturday to check out this matchup!
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Saturday, the Illinois Fighting Illini Football team comes back to Champaign to take the field looking to win two Big Ten Conference games in a row for the first time in years, after they’ve looked promising so far to start the season.
Lovie and co will square off against one of their two rivals from the next state over in the Purdue Boilermakers. The Boilermakers sit at 1-1 in the conference on the season, with a 2-3 record overall with losses against Northwestern, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri.
Illinois is the only team that the Boilermakers have a multi-game active win streak against, after topping the Illini in the last two seasons.
Two years ago, hearts were broken as the Boilermakers completed a last-second kick to down the struggling Illini at Memorial Stadium. Then last year, the Boilermakers took control early of the game at Purdue, and though they definitely didn’t take momentum and blow out the Illini, they grabbed a comfortable win in front of their home fans.
Illinois and Purdue are both in rebuild mode this season, with Illinois’ Lovie Smith in his third year of the process, and Purdue’s coach Jeff Brohm is in his second season with the Boilermakers, with a 7-6 record overall.
Rebuilding teams collide at Memorial Stadium for Illinois’ Homecoming game on Saturday in a game that will have significant bowl-game impact for both teams, the question stands: will the Illini achieve their second Big Ten win in a row, or will Purdue spoil the Illini celebrations?
Illinois Fighting Illini vs Purdue Boilermakers: Preview
Last week, Purdue got their first Big Ten win of the season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Purdue offense went off, and the Cornhuskers couldn’t keep up as Purdue’s Junior Quarterback David Blough threw for 328 yards and a touchdown on 25 completions of 42 attempts. HE also rushed for 38 yards and a touchdown on just seven attempts.
Purdue didn’t look bad last week against Nebraska, and if they are able to run the ball and mix in misdirection as they did last week, Illinois will need a lot of offense if they are to remain in the game.
Rutgers defense struggled last week, allowing Nebraska’s Quarterback Adrian Martinez to throw for 323 yards and two touchdowns on 25 completions out of 42 attempts. He also threw an interception, and accumulated 91 rushing yards on 18 attempts.
Purdue also allowed Nebraska’s Devine Ozigbo to take control of the game, rushing for 170 yards on 17 attempts, with two touchdowns of his own. If Illinois can take advantage of Purdue’s rushing defense, and prove that they can (at least, sort of) throw the ball, they’ll be hard to stop on offense.
Illinois didn’t look half bad either in last week’s game against Rutgers, in which the offense starred against a poor Scarlet Knights defensive effort. And when I say the Rutgers defense is poor, I mean really poor. Illinois did what they needed to, and took care of Rutgers.
The Illinois defense had 3 interceptions in the game, and allowed just 267 passing yards from Freshman QB Artur Sitkowski, on 29 completions for 46 attempts. Though the interceptions are great, the passing statistic still jumps out to me as something the Illini need to improve on. Passing defense, simply has to be better. The new loss of last year’s freshman stud Bennet Williams certainly won’t help that.
The Illinois offense, however, looked good last week. Quarterback A.J. Bush didn’t have much chance to really take control of the game, as the Illini focused on running the ball down the throats of a poor, Rutgers rushing defense. That being said, in the statistical category, Bush only threw for 89 yards on 10 of 18 attempts, but managed to throw for one touchdown.
Bush’s real impact was seen in the ground game. Bush ran for 116 yards with two touchdowns, on 18 attempts, and was a vital piece of an Illinois offense that put up one of it’s most impressive showings in recent years, combining for 334 yards rushing, and scoring 38 points to add to 89 passing yards.
Purdue will have to keep it’s offense moving against the Illini, and force the young Illini offense to compete with it, in order to win this game in the scoring category.
Players to Watch: Purdue
Rondale Moore, Freshman, WR
Moore comes into this season as a highly-touted four-star recruit at the wideout spot for the Boilermakers. He originally was committed to Texas, but then flipped his commitment to Purdue during the process. Moore is an immediate impact player, and he has shown it thus far on the season. Currently, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Moore leads the Big Ten in receptions per game with 8.2, and also leads in all-purpose yards per game with 179.
Moore gives the Boilermakers a talent you usually only see at big-name schools like Ohio State, Alabama, etc., and will be a big test in coverage for the young Illini secondary.
Markus Bailey, Junior, LB
One of the most impressive things about the Boilermaker’s star linebacker is his durability and longevity. Bailey has started 30 straight games for Purdue headed into Saturday’s game at memorial stadium, and has racked up a massive 226 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and five interceptions to go along with many other impressive stats. Bailey is a big, athletic man in the middle for the Boilermakers, and will be key to shutting down the dynamic Illinois rushing game.
Players to Watch: Illinois
AJ Bush Jr, Senior, QB
The temptation to put one of Illinois’ playmakers in this spot was incredibly tempting. And of course, the likes of Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin, and Ricky Smalling will need to have good games in order for the Illini to win this game.
But honestly, football is a game ran by quarterbacks, and without a decent-to-good passing game, games are much harder to win. Bush will need to shake off some rust from his weeks away when M.J. Rivers was at the helm, and prove that the Illini can pass the ball, in addition to run it. Some of this, of course, relies on playmakers like Ricky Smalling and Luis Dorsey to get open enough to allow for passes to be completed, but the responsibility lies heavy on the head of the Illini quarterback.
Nate Hobbs, Sophomore, DB
Hobbs did some of his best work last week against the Rutgers offense, and was rewarded with his ffirst interception as an Illini. Hobbs was a BTN.com All-Freshman Team recipient last year, and started in ten games for the Illini. Hobbs was suspended earlier in the season, but has already made his presence known to opposing offenses.
Though thus far this season there has been stability at the defensive back position in the form of Cameron Watkins, Hobbs, alongside guys like Tony Adams and Sydney Brown, will need to step up and perform this weekend against a solid Purdue offense. If the Illinois defense can slow down the Boilermakers and put their offense in a good position, the Illini will have a good chance to take the game.
It’s been tough for the Illini defensive backs thus far, and the defensive unit as a whole, as they’ve let up more than their fair share of yards. If they can pull it together, they can give Illinois a chance to win back to back conference games, and continue their momentum going forward.
Illinois 34, Purdue 31.
I predicted Illinois to win this game earlier in the preseason.
It isn’t going to be easy for the Illini to take this game, but they won’t be disappointed with their chances and opportunities, as Purdue has been far from struggle-free this season. I think that Illinois’ offense continues their run of good from from their game against Rutgers, and QB A.J. Bush shakes off the rust. This will allow the Illinois defense to do just enough to secure the win in front of their home crowd on homecoming. The Illinois RBs have to continue to do their job, and the offensive line has to continue to set their guys up to succeed.
Illini fans, you’ll need your fingers crossed for this one.
Illinois football travels to a stadium that is incredibly familiar to the program and many of those involved with the team: Chicago Illinois’ very own Soldier Field. They make the trip up to Chicago to face the Bulls of the University of South Florida, in a rematch from last year’s non-conference game in which the Illini were thumped by a score of 47 to 23 by a then-ranked USF team.
For one thing, Soldier field has an important place in the history of Illini fans because of the legacy of Illini alumni like George Halas and Harold “Red” Grange, who were so important to the foundations of both Illinois football and the Chicago Bears organization.
Halas was the original founder and owner of the Bears, as well as an Illinois football, basketball, and baseball player. Grange, perhaps the most well-known Illinois player of all time, and ESPN-voted Best NCAAF player of all time, starred for the Bears after his graduation from Illinois.
Perhaps just as relevant to the current Illini team is Head Coach Lovie Smith’s relationship with Soldier Field, one of the most historic NFL Stadiums. Smith was the Head Coach of the Chicago Bears (in case you forgot) from 2004-2012 leading the team to the Super Bowl.
Smith will no doubt have some fond memories, as well as some not-so-fond memories, from the stadium remaining from his time in the NFL, and will lead the Illini into their biggest challenge yet this season against USF.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois had a slightly more comfortable win last week in their matchup against Western Illinois, when they beat the Leathernecks by a score of 34-14 after falling behind by a touchdown early in the game (for the second week in a row.)
Illinois starting Quarterback A.J. Bush went off with a minor injury mid-way through the game, being replaced by true Freshman M.J. Rivers, who starred for the Illini for the rest of the game, finishing with one of Pro Football Focus’ highest QB passer ratings, tallying up 105 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air, and 36 yards on the ground.
The Illini offense also saw big games from RB Mike Epstein, who has starred in his playing time thus far, who ran the ball eight times for 105 yards. Epstein has starred in limited playing time for the Illini after having a breakout season last year before getting hurt. The Illinois run game will be pivotal if the Illini are to leave Chicago with a win against a very solid USF team, but I’ll have more on that later.
University of South Florida Bulls
The USF Bulls are coming off wins versus Elon and Georgia Tech. They beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets last week by a score of 49-38. The teams fought a high-scoring game in which teams scored 14 points or more in a quarter two times each.
USF QB Blake Barnett led the Bulls into the game, and walked out with a win after passing for two touchdowns, and running for another two. Barnett completed 21 of 31 passes and threw for 202 yards with one interception. Barnett is a good passer in the pocket, with the ability to break down secondaries if given time. More on him later, as well. The game wasn’t exactly impressive when you consider the impressive talent that resides on USF’s roster, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the top performance of the year for the Bulls. They’re coming out of a tough game against Georgia Tech, after beating Elon by 20 points the week before.
Keys Players: USF
Blake Barnett, QB
USF’s Barnett was a top-rated quarterback coming out of high school, rated as the nation’s No. 1 pocket passer-style QB, and a consensus five-star prospect.
He signed with Alabama out of high school, and redshirted his first season in 2015. The following year in the 2016 season, he played in three games for the Crimson Tide, starting one game. He completed 11-of-19 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns that season, before he was replaced by Jalen Hurts in the game against USC.
Barnett then transferred to Arizona State before the 2017 season, where he played in four games for the Sun Devils. He has two years of eligibility left for the Bulls.
Barnett has the opportunity and skills to give a young, depleted Illinois secondary a very tough time on Saturday, if he plays well, and if his offensive line can buy him some time in the backfield. The Illinois defense will be without several key starters this week, as far as we know, due to the suspension of players like Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs, two starters.
The Illini have also been burned by QBs when playing otherwise-solid defense in coverage, due to the defensive line not being able to close holes, but the secondary will have to lock down Barnett in the passing game before even beginning to worry about that. Barnett is a solid pocket passer, with a good throwing arm, and will without a doubt test the coverage-skills of the secondary.
The Illinois secondary has struggled thus far in the season, with the exclusion of a few stand-out individual performances, and will be up against their toughest QB opposition yet in Barnett.
Ronnie Hoggins, CB
The USF defense was picked apart last week by the Georgia Tech offense, in a game where USF faced their first true defensive test of the season, after giving up 14 points to Elon in week one of their season.
USF’s defense comes into this year with a lot of experience, and second-year coach Charlie Strong, formerly the head coach at Texas, will feel that once the group has fully gelled, they will be a solid defensive unit.
Ronnie Hoggins, a senior, comes into this season as the USF defense’s leader. Hoggins comes into this game with 30 starts under his belt for the Bulls, and the experience of playing both the boundary corner spot and the nickel spot.
Hoggins is a speedy cornerback, with seven career interceptions. When watching game-tape of Hoggins, it’s also not hard to see that the cornerback, who comes in at just a hair under 5’9” according to most sites, possesses a leadership trait and swagger that isn’t quite matched by anyone on his team.
Hoggins has 5 solo tackles to go along with assists on 4 other tackles last week against Georgia Tech, and will be a big, experienced challenger to go up against speedy Illini wide receivers like Carlos Sandy and Dominic Stampley.
He will have to be solid in pass coverage, and in run defense, if they are to hold the Illini offense to less points than what Georgia Tech put up last year.
The Illinois offense is far from what Hoggins and USF defended against last year, and the young Illini offense be hoping that they can use their new scheme under new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith to take advantage of the USF defense’s struggles from last week.
Key Players: Illinois
Mike Epstein, RB
Epstein hasn’t been used a lot this year, and that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by even the casual Illinois Football fan. The sophomore back came into last year as a 3-star recruit, and the 58th overall ranked running back in the nation according to Scout. Epstein came onto the big stage at memorial stadium and dazzled crowds almost immediately.
Epstein hails from Florida, and will be looking to perform against the opposition from his home-state. Last year, Epstein played in five games as a freshman, and started three, before getting injured and missing the final seven games of the season.
Against USF last year, Epstein had eight carries for 56 yards, with one resulting in a touchdown. He added to that with two receptions for 27 yards and another touchdown. Epstein was one of the lone, effective offensive players on the Illini last year as they were badly beaten by the Bulls.
USF gave up _____ yards in last week’s game against Georgia Tech, and the Illini have the ____ ranked offense in the NCAA so far this year. Illinois will no doubt look to break open the running lanes early against the Bulls, but it could prove a challenge as USF Head Coach Charlie Strong will no-doubt be preparing for such an attempt.
Epstein may see a bigger role than in previous games, as it is a far more important game to this Illinois team than the previous two. He has shined in the roles he has been given thus far, and has averaged almost nine yards per carry over his 16 carries, an impressive tally. Epstein will be backed up by a solid running back stable comprised of solid runners like Reggie Corbin, who has three rushing touchdowns already this season.
Bobby Roundtree, DL
Bobby Roundtree, and the rest of the Illinois defensive line, if I’m honest, were noticeably lacking in presence in the Illini opener against Kent State two weeks ago. The Illinois defense only tallied up one sack in the game against the Golden Flashes, with 12 tackles for loss.
The defensive line really picked up the pace the follow Saturday against Western Illinois, tripling their sack total from the previous week, and adding on seven tackles for loss as a team. Roundtree threw in one sack in addition to those of Jamaal Woods and Isaiah Gay. The defensive line was visibly better in their week two matchup against the Leatherbacks, and will look to build off a strong game against a talented South Florida offense.
Roundtree’s athleticism, as well as that of his line partner Isaiah Gay, will be much needed in the game at Soldier Field. USF will put out all the stops in order to beat their biggest opponent thus far this year, and a Power-5 Conference team. Blake Barnett isn’t quite as athletic as last year’s USF QB Quinton Flowers, but he is still a runner, just as much as a pocket passer. Should Barnett get forced out of the pocket, his eyes will be looking downfield, and he will look to take off running.
Roundtree and Gay are the athletic pieces that Illinois will need to ensure Barnett stays inside of his pocket. IF they win their one on one matchups right off the bat, they will give the Illini defense a much better chance at containing what, to this point, has been a dynamic offense from USF. Ensuring Barnett stays in the pocket will give the Illini secondary the chance to make plays, and will give the Illini a fighting chance at a defensive victory.
This is without a doubt the toughest challenge that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will still be missing key players like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Louis Dorsey to suspension.
I think this is going to be a tough game for the Illini to pull out a win in, but I think that the defense continues it’s up-trend in performance, and does just enough to allow the rapidly-improving Illinois offense to take the game for the Illini. Staying true to my predictions earlier in the year, I think that the Illini come out of Soldier Field with a win here.
It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini defense, but I think the Illini will be up to the task against Charlie Strong’s Bulls. To me, Illinois walks away with a stand-out performance from its offense, and come away with close win, 34-31.
Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as the big, upcoming Illini Basketball recruiting weekend.