I had such a good time with my friends from Illinois at the Arch Rival Classic—which I wrote about at the beginning of the year—that I decided to travel to Urbana-Champaign to see what the Fighting Illini were really all about.
Fresh off a 27-20 upset of Penn State, the Illini played host to the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers. But before I get into the details, here’s a little background on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign...
The University of Illinois was established in 1867 as a flagship state university in Illinois, under the motto "Learning and Labor." Consistently ranked as one of the top-10 public universities and deemed one of the "Public Ivies," Illinois has established itself as one of the most prestigious state universities in the country.
Famous Illinois alumni include Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and owner of the Charlotte Bobcats; Jerry Colangelo, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns; film critic Roger Ebert; U.S. Representative from Illinois Jesse Jackson Jr. (the one you should take seriously); Utah Jazz stud point guard Deron Williams; Microsoft co-President Ray Ozzie; linebacker extraordinaire Dick Butkus; and a bunch of physics and chemistry Nobel Prize laureates.
While Illinois has historically been a basketball school, the Fighting Illini faithful now have something to cheer about on the football field too.
The defeat of then 21st-ranked Penn State marked the first time in 19 tries Illinois had beaten a ranked opponent. Also, for the first time since 1991, the Fighting Illini started 2-0 in the Big Ten.
Needless to say, it’s been a long time coming.
As for stars—LB J Leman is the impenetrable force in the middle of the Illini defense. What's with the single-letter "J"? My Illinois friends tell me his birth name is Jeremy John Leman, and his dad is Happy.
Yes, Happy is his real name.
On the field, J Leman is a brutish backer—and a cult figure amongst the Block-I crew.
QB Isaiah “Juice” Williams, on the other hand, has lost some of his appeal. The former Chicago prep star has underperformed in his sophomore season, earning mention from Sports Illustrated as of the 10 most disappointing players in the country.
Juice would need a convincing performance against Wisconsin to keep his job safe from redshirt freshman Eddie McGee—and to keep the Illini faithful screaming “JUIIIIIIIICE” before every play.
Other premier threats for the Illini include junior running back Rashard Mendenhall and freshman wide receiver Arrelious “Regis” Benn. The 5'11", 224-pound Mendenhall has been one of the most productive backs in the Big Ten. Benn has been impressive in his first few college games; he was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after returning a kick 90 yards for a TD against Penn State.
The Illini were surprising two-point favorites going into the Wisconsin game. True, the Badgers were one of the most overrated teams in the country—but I still would have put my money on them...if I could legally gamble and had more than $8 in my wallet.
My friends and I woke up early for the 11 AM Central start, then got something to eat and painted our faces for the game. I was a reluctant participant, but my friends Ed, Justin, Ryan, and Tim coaxed me into tasting the full Illini experience.
As an OSU diehard, I’m hoping Jimmy Tressel never finds out about this.
The Illinois student section proved more creative with their cheers than their Vanderbilt counterparts had been a few weeks ago. Aside from the basic "I-L-L...I-N-I" chant, my personal favorite was Oskee Wow-Wow, the Illinois fight song:
Our eyes are all on you.
Wave your Orange and your Blue.
When the team trots out before you,
Every man stand up and yell,
Back the team to victory,
The game off to a great start for the local faithful, with the Illinois offense dominating the Badgers' front seven and jumping out to a 17-0 second quarter lead. There were high-fives flying all over—to say nothing of our orange and blue paint.
Did I mention it was 93 degrees in Champaign?
Maybe the paint wasn’t such a good decision after all.
Wisconsin closed the gap to 24-19 going into the fourth quarter. That's when I began to feel a little sick to my stomach.
It might’ve been the excessive amount of Gumby’s Pizza and “Pokey Stix” I'd had the night before—but in any event the game felt like it was tipping in the Badgers' favor. That's how these things usually go, after all: The experienced favorite gets its act together, and the exuberant underdogs crumble under the pressure.
But Saturday was a different story.
After Juice went down with a leg injury, McGee coolly scrambled for a TD to effectively seal the game at 31-19. Wisconsin scored a late touchdown, but in the end the Illini faithful celebrated their team's biggest win in the past four or five years.
Are the Illini BCS-bound? Not exactly. But I’m pretty sure the 5-1 (3-0) team will do better than the Meineke Car Care Bowl this year.
On the day, Williams completed 12 of 19 passes for 121 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for another 92 yards. Unfortunately, he didn't return from a hyper-extended knee in the fourth quarter—making Saturday the second time in two games I've seen Juice get knocked out of action.
I'm officially Juice’s kryptonite. I hope he’s not mad at me.
Mendenhall notched 160 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He's now ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing.
As my friend Ed pointed out, Mendenhall has Reche Caldwell eyes—which accounts for his exceptional running back vision.
While Benn only had five catches for 51 yards before being injured late in the game, he did show flashes of brilliance. The youngster has many years to go as he develops into one of the preeminent playmakers in college football.
But will he ever outgrow the legend of JUUIIIICE?
That might be tough.
In other news, I twisted my ankle during the wild fray after the game as fans tried to get in front of the ESPN cameras. I’m officially listed as "probable" on the for my next football trip—but I’m a Soldier, so I think I can play through the pain
-USC was the “greatest team in the history of college football” according to Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh (sense the sarcasm?).
Since they lost to Stanford, is Stanford technically the greatest team now?
From criticizing Michigan's admission standards to mocking the Trojans, Harbaugh has made his share of enemies in his time with the Cardinal. But his ability to get under people's skin is unlike any I've ever seen—even from classic aggravators like Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and Les Miles.
Harbaugh officially owns USC, and there can’t be a better feeling in the world
-The Andre' Woodson Heisman bandwagon has grown exponentially larger over the past few weeks—so large that it was destined to tip over at some point.
Websites and blogs across the Internet have been touting him as the next Heisman Trophy winner (BleacherReport.com included). ESPNews and SportsCenter have kept an increasingly keen eye on him. “Fear the Apostrophe” T-shirts have appeared around the Kentucky campus.
Skip Bayless probably has no idea who this guy is yet, but that’s not the point. After Kentucky’s upset victories over Arkansas and Louisville, popular blog Every Day Should be Saturday said this about Andre’:
"Andre’ Woodson is a myth, a machine, a man among men, a monocled minotaur maniacally marauding secondaries and sorority houses across the South. [Neither] admonishment nor chains will keep your women from his musk. For now."
And then Woodson ran into the ultimate spoiler—Steve Spurrier.
Forget that ex-backup Chris Smelley was under center for South Carolina—somehow, some way, Spurrier always ends up on top. He’s been so successful and wrung the heart out of many so many SEC teams that the Ol’ Ball Coach is almost immune to criticism...the anti-Philip Fulmer, one could say.
While Woodson didn’t perform poorly against South Carolina, he did throw an interception. If the Wildcats just listened to wide receiver Steve Johnson’s pump up freestyle rap before the game, they certainly wouldn’t have lost to Mr. Smelley...and his Cocks.
-LSU is by far the best team in country. Running back Jacob Hester is a man among boys, and RB/KR Trindon Holliday strikes fear in the hearts of defenders across the country with his world-class speed.
To his credit, QB Matt Flynn was better than his numbers indicated—he was hurt by drops by wide receiver Brandon LaFell. While Ryan Perrilloux looked like the more effective quarterback, Les Miles doesn’t seem to trust Ryan to throw the ball with a healthy Flynn at his disposal.
With the parity in the SEC, it’s not hard to imagine LSU losing to a team like Alabama or even Auburn later in the season.
-Superman may no longer wear Tim Tebow shorts, but the sophomore quarterback showed some poise and improvisational skills against the LSU defense.
Despite a 1-2 record in the SEC, I don’t see Florida losing to another conference foe this season. Barely losing to the No. 1 team in the nation bodes well for the future.
-Louisville’s defense is one of the worst units I’ve seen in the past few years.
Brian Brohm continues to put up otherworldly numbers, but the Cards literally cannot stop anyone on offense. Linebacker Malik Jackson—my preseason Big East Defensive Player of the Year—has obviously underperformed, and the rest of his unit is embarrassing.
-Utah is the most bipolar 3-3 team in the country, having defeated UCLA and Louisville and been dominated by two 2-3 teams.
Senior quarterback Brian Johnson was supposed to be the heir apparent to Alex Smith, but his career has been derailed by injuries. Despite Utah’s two impressive victories, the Utes are still 0-2 in the conference—and winning the Mountain West will be a challenge.
-TCU lost to Wyoming 24-21, dropping their record to 3-3 and 1-2 in the Mountain West. It doesn’t help that star TCU defensive end Tommy Blake has disappeared for most of the season because of personal reasons.
-Kudos to Northwestern University, which beat Michigan State 48-41 in overtime.
In the most impressive statistical performance of the week, junior quarterback C.J. Bacher completed 38 out of 48 passes for 520 yards and five touchdowns. Northwestern is 3-3 and three games away from making a bowl—but unfortunately the Wildcats still have to deal with the fact they lost to Duke.
How does that taste?
-Kansas is bowl eligible already—they’re sitting pretty at 6-0.
With a 30-24 KU victory over instate rival Kansas State, the Jayhawks and Missouri remain the only teams undefeated in the Big 12. It will be interesting to see how Kansas performs when they play at Colorado and at Texas A&M in succession, considering they haven’t exactly played top-notch talent so far (see: SE Louisiana, Florida International, Toledo).
At least they Jayhawks don’t have to play Texas or Oklahoma. They should have fun with Baylor next week.
-“Beamer Ball” is at it again.
Virginia Tech special teams scored two touchdowns—one on a 82-yard punt return by Eddie Royal and one on a 100-yard kick return by Victor Harris—in a 41-23 drubbing of Clemson.
Virginia Tech looks like one of the favorites to win the ACC. James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for 12 rushes for nine yards. Is it just me, or should Cullen Harper never under any circumstance throw 66 passes in one game?
-Matthew Stafford and Georgia got owned by Tennessee. Many of the talented Stafford’s passes were errant or overthrown. Maybe he’s been spending too much time lifting kegs.
-While UNC has played well in stretches, Butch Davis hasn’t been able to accumulate too many wins.
UNC has lost to ECU on a game-winning field goal and to Virginia Tech and Virginia by a combined nine points. Davis finally notched his second win for North Carolina—fittingly against his former team.
Led by redshirt freshmen QB T.J. Yates and RB Anthony Elzy, the Tar Heels went up 27-0 in the first half and held on to win by six. Though there was some skepticism about Yates after his four-interception performance against South Florida, he has performed relatively well for Davis’ squad.
-Colt McCoy redeemed himself in the Red River Shootout after some shoddy play in the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, his performance was outweighed by the fact that Texas lost and is now 0-2 in Big 12 competition.
Things aren't looking good in Austin.
Washington University (MO) Watch: The WashU Bears improved to 5-1 after dominating the LaGrange College Panthers, 33-10.
The Bears defense was key to the win, as sophomore safety Tim Machan forced two of the five LaGrange turnovers—including an 81-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.
WashU’s 5-1 record is its best start since 1995.
-In terms of Good Samaritan-ism, Allen Iverson doesn't necessarily rank amongst the most esteemed of men (see: throwing his wife naked out on the street)....but Mr. Iverson indeed showed a caring side of himself a few months ago.
After seeing an overturned car on the side of the highway, A.I. stopped his car and checked to see if everyone was all right. They were, so he drove away.
It's very fortunate for the girls involved that they had such a helpful person ready to assist them. Those were the first two people he’s actually assisted his whole life.
-Because we’re all waiting for the Mike Gundy video clip to be used in a Coors Light commercial.
-More Nick Saban Hate: The Great Nick Saban has now drawn the ire of the entire campus at the University of South Florida, including USF head coach Jim Leavitt.
Saban’s comments knocking the admissions standards at USF haven't pleased too many in the greater Tampa area. Saban is talking like Jim Harbaugh, who ripped on University of Michigan admissions standards prior to this season.
The only noticeable difference is that the University of Alabama isn't exactly Stanford.
Before the Alabama fans get their ‘Bama Bangs all up in a bunch: Alabama is a good school too. I know, it’s a top-50 public university, has 20 Rhodes scholars, plenty of academic All-Americans, a top-notch law school, and an incredibly cool castle-like administrative building.
Still, having Alabama criticize South Florida about football admissions seems a little peculiar. But beware, because Nick Saban Is Watching You.
-Speaking of Michigan, I think we’ve found the real reason the Wolverines got out of their 0-2 funk: ineligible freshman Artis Chambers.
-A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the conundrum that is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Whether you passionately love them or hate their guts, you have to agree these two defenders aren’t exactly the best stewards of the school’s image.
-Speaking of Notre Dame, this isn’t even as remotely funny as similar interpretations from other fans, but I’m obliged to ask...why can’t they just Leave Chaz Weis Alone?
-The best compilation of big hits I’ve seen in college football over the past few years.
-Speaking of which, last week Wisconsin freshman wide receiver and Cleveland, Ohio native Kyle Jefferson was officially introduced to Big Ten Football.
-Jake Locker got...JACKED UP!
-Bills tight end Kevin Everett is reportedly doing really well, according to this news reporting gaffe.
-Greg Oden named his new dog Charles Barkley McLovin.
-Former Miami kick return extraordinaire Devin Hester pumps his gas at Shell, just like everyone else! Oh, his car is kind of nice too.
-Boise State football player Vinny Perretta couldn’t hold it any longer so he used a stadium Porta Potty—uniform and all—in the middle of a game. Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
-Ron Jaworski was really, really excited to see Randy Moss, Tom Brady, and his goat.
-Though I’m getting incredibly tired of this song, it’s always funny watching drunk white girls who can’t dance attempt to crank dat Soulja Boy.
-Video of the Week: You’ve all seen the UPS commercials where the guy talks about innovation and consistency of the company with the slogan, “What can Brown do for you?”
Well, in response to former New York Knicks employee Anucha Browne-Sanders winning a $12 million lawsuit against Isiah Thomas, I present to you: “What can Browne-Sanders do for you?”
Next week: Sunday Afternoon Quarterback will take a break from the Football Bowl Subdivision to check out the Homecoming game of his Washington University Bears, who take on the University of Chicago Maroons in a D-III conference rivalry game.