Ragin’ Crap From the Illini and Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay – 9/18/2008

I attended the Illinois – Louisiana-Lafayette game this past weekend in person and let’s just say that I enjoyed the company and the new look of the west side of Memorial Stadium, but little about the actual contest on the field.  Juice Williams telegraphed several passes to the opposing defense as usual, the wide receivers ended up dropping passes even when Juice ended up throwing the ball well, Rejus Benn seemed to be on the field for 58 out of 60 minutes yet was a complete non-factor, the Illinois defense allowed significant plays to an inferior offense, and all phases of the Illini suffered from a lackadaisical attitude and idiotic penalties.  Deron Williams deserved a much better effort after his return to campus just off of winning a gold medal in Beijing.  (Speaking of Beijing, check out this Chicago Tribune article on the significant impact that the University of Illinois has had on the development of the Paralympic Games both here in the U.S. and around the world.)  The only positive comparison that I’ve seen is how the Illini played against Western Illinois last season, where the team similarly looked sluggish against a clearly inferior team yet went on to reach the Rose Bowl.  I hope that’s the case, but I’m concerned that Juice is still making some of the same mistakes as a junior that he was incurring as a freshman.  I’ll give him credit that he’s making some more accurate downfield throws this year and I’m long past the point of believing that he’ll ever be a great pocket passer, but his habit of looking straight at the receivers that he’s about to throw to is not going work when Big Ten conference play starts in two weeks at Penn State (let’s hope he looks a bit better on our first prime time ABC telecast of the season than Ohio State’s tandem of quarterbacks did last week).  Juice’s arm is going to be much more of a factor for the rest of this season with the Illini running attack clearly truncated without the presence of Rashard Mendenhall.  The fact that we open up the Big Ten portion of the schedule with back-to-back road games in Happy Valley and Ann Arbor means that we need to use this bye week to get things back into order very quickly if we want to make a January bowl game.  The bye week also gives me the chance to pick three games without having to worry about the Illini (home teams in CAPS):

(1) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+8.5) over MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS – I’ve seen the horror story called “Michigan State hosting Notre Dame” way too many times.  I doubt that Michigan State is going to give up 97 turnovers in a game in the same manner as its in-state rival last week, but there will be a brain-freeze by the Spartans at some point which will at least allow the Irish to cover the spread (if not win the game outright).

(2) Iowa Hawkeyes (+1) over PITTSBURGH PANTHERS – Dave Wannstedt is still coaching Pitt… ’nuff said.

(3) FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL GOLDEN PANTHERS (+28) over South Florida Bulls – I’ll admit this is a complete gut feeling here since FIU has lost 2 games by a combined score of 82-10, including a 40-10 loss to a Kansas team that USF just beat last week.  Still, FIU is at home opening a brand new on-campus stadium against a USF team that I’m already on the record of being skeptical of the Bulls on the road.  Such a large spread with the road team as a favorite is a red flag in my eyes, so I’m taking the points here.

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Illini Games for the Season: 0-2
Overall Season: 5-4

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Bearly Excited and Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay – 9/5/2008

What a difference a year makes – at this point last September, I had visions of a Bears team on the ascent to another Super Bowl run while hoping for a Motor City Bowl appearance for Illinois.  It turned out that I got a listless Bears team but an Illini trip to the Rose Bowl.  For the 30th season out of my 30 years on this Earth, the football gods refused to allow me to enjoy both my Saturdays and Sundays in a single year.  With the expectations for my respective football teams suddenly reversed along with a stellar baseball pennant race on both sides of Chicago, it has honestly been tough for me to get geared up for the Bears.  Kyle Orton is the starting quarterback by default, the running back situation is a complete unknown and the offensive line probably can’t open up holes anyway, the defense could be still solid yet Tommie Harris and other starters are either banged up or aging quickly, I’m horrified that Ron Turner is going to have Devin Hester run a slant pattern in the middle of the field that results in our one true scoring threat getting his legs crushed by some random safety looking to make a name for himself… these are issues that are just off the top of my head at this point.  Like the Chicago sucker that I always am, though, I’ll put on my Walter Payton jersey on Sunday and watch every moment of what will likely be a mashing at the hands of the Colts.  Well, at least I’m running three separate fantasy teams this season (yes, I have a gambling problem).  Following the form of the college football parlay, here are my three picks (including the Bears game) on the NFL side this week (home teams in CAPS):

(1) GREEN BAY PACKERS (-2 1/2) over Minnesota Vikings – I saw this line and quite honestly was perplexed with the love that the Vikings seem to be receiving from the football pundit class.  Granted, Adrian Peterson could have a breakout session on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field the same way Randy Moss did many moons ago (no pun intended).  Still, the Vikings have Tavaris Jackson at quarterback – ’nuff said.  I’ll take the potential suckitude that I don’t know in Aaron Rodgers than the absolute suckitude that I do know on the purple side of the ball, especially when the game is in Green Bay.

(2) PITTSBURGH STEELERS (-6 1/2) over Houston Texans – The Rashard Mendenhall Era begins in the Steel City.  I don’t really care that the Texans are the sexy turnaround pick of the year (I seem to recall that the recent trendy picks of the ’06 Cardinals and ’07 49ers didn’t make anyone forget ’85 Bears).  The Steelers have one of the best home field advantages in the NFL, so my rule is if they are anything less than a touchdown favorite at home (unless they’re playing New England), I’ll give the points all day.

(3) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (-9 1/2) over Chicago Bears – I hate this, but what can I reasonably do?  Even if Peyton Manning comes out there with a cast set in concrete, the sheer emotion of the Colts opening up a new stadium combined with the general ineptitude of the Bears in nearly all facets of the game of football leads me to no other choice.  I hope that I’m very wrong here, but this feels like a two touchdown loss for the Bears to me.

So, it looks like I’m taking all the points for college football on Saturday and giving all the points for the NFL on Sunday.  Be sure to enjoy a plethora of sports this weekend and especially all of the football.  Go White Sox! Go Illini! Go Bears!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

A Rosy Trip Despite a Thorny Game

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It’s time to rehash my trip to Pasadena over New Year’s, which was pretty awesome with the exception of the playing of the actual Rose Bowl. The Illini simply still has a talent gap compared to a program at the caliber of USC and it showed. I really didn’t think Illinois necessarily played badly for the majority of plays, but the gravity of our mistakes was too much for any team to overcome. Two fumbles within the red zone on potential touchdown drives certainly will do that to a team. Plus, when USC can mess up a lateral that bounces on the ground and still turn it into a 65-yard gain, you know that the football gods aren’t with you.

As disappointing as it was to get seriously thumped (the hangover from this game was every bit as bad as the Bears loss in the Super Bowl last year), this season was obviously a whole lot more than any rational Illini fan could have ever hoped for. I was hoping for the Motor City Bowl berth back in August, but we ended up at the Grandaddy of Them All in an amazing turnaround story. The Rose Bowl venue itself is spectacular – stepping out of the front gate and seeing the field with the mountains in the background for a college football fan is akin to a baseball fan getting to step into Wrigley Field for the first time. Equally amazing was the Rose Parade. I’ve watched the event on television for years, but it’s difficult to understand the amount of work and detail that goes into each of the floats unless you see it in person. Finally, in the days leading up to the game, nothing was as heartwarming as seeing fellow Illini in orange all around Los Angeles, whether it was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (my Hollywood celebrity moment of the trip was my wife and I sitting next to Jon Voight fresh off of his reconciliation with Angelina Jolie at Spago), up in the mountains at the Getty Center, or taking in the rides at Universal Studios. If anyone ever questions why the Rose Bowl insists on inviting Big Ten teams, one only needs to take a look at how its members’ fans simply blanket L.A. every New Year’s. Say what you will about whether we have an answer to the urban legend of “Southern Speed”, but we definitely travel en masse.

Back to the field of play, what’s especially important is that, unlike the Illinois run to the Sugar Bowl in 2001 which was mostly led by players in the their senior seasons, this team will be bringing back much of its core (save for the broad shoulders of J Leman and Rashard Mendenhall) next year. Judging by the demise of the Bears, the lackluster play of the Bulls, the offensive offense of the Illini basketball team and the fact that the White Sox just traded away its entire farm system for, um, Nick Swisher(?), the start of the 2008 Illinois football season is pretty much the next thing that I’ve got to look forward to on the sports front. Looking ahead on the calendar and assuming Chase Daniel is still at the helm at Mizzou, the Illinois-Missouri opener in St. Louis on Labor Day weekend could very well be the most significant non-conference game that the Illini have played since the days of Dick Butkus.

In the end, I got the chance to see my favorite team play in the Rose Bowl, which was very close to one of my most foremost sports dreams coming true. We’ll just need to win the game the next time around to fulfill it.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

The Way Kathy Lee Needed Regis That’s the Way I Need Rejus

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Alright – I’m officially excited.  When I wrote my college football preview a few weeks ago and predicted a Motor City Bowl appearance for the Illini (which plenty of people at the time thought was a monster stretch), I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that they would do so well that the most important football game between teams from Illinois and Wisconsin this past weekend would end up taking place at Memorial Stadium in Champaign as opposed to Lambeau Field in Green Bay (the Bears are slowly redeeming themselves, but that’s a post for another day).  Now, I’m clearing out my holiday calendar with the real prospect of Illinois making a top tier bowl.  While we are a long long way from legitimately talking about a Rose Bowl with games against Michigan and Ohio State still coming up, let’s just say I’ll break the bank to make it to Pasadena if that ever happens.  Honestly, next to an Illini national championship in basketball, watching the Illini in the Rose Bowl is my top sports wish – as much as I love the Bears, White Sox, and Bulls, seeing Illinois finally finish at the top would mean the most to me personally.

What I love about how the Illini are playing right now is that these are anything but fluke wins.  I got to witness the victory against Penn State a couple of weeks ago in person, which meant that I also got to attend the coming out party for my favorite athlete in the world today outside of Devin Hester:  Arrelious “Rejus” Benn.  I’m not sure how Ron Zook is getting top recruits such as Benn and Vontae Davis to come from Washington, D.C. to Champaign, but it needs to continue.  Rejus is the type of guy we would always see across the line in a Wolverine or Buckeye uniform before – a huge wide receiver who will also burn the best cornerbacks (and also in the case against the Nitanny Lions, the best special teams units) out there.  Anyway, considering that Benn is only a month into his college career, he has a pretty good chance of becoming the best athlete that I have seen in an Illini uniform for either football or basketball (even more so than Deron Williams) if he keeps up this pace.  The only thing with having such a talent is that he may have a short stay in Champaign he could very well be a top ten NFL draft pick after playing the minimum of two years in college.

As starry-eyed as I am with Rejus, it’s Rashard Mendenhall and the Illinois running game that’s really the team’s catalyst in rolling over teams.  Sure, Wisconsin might have been the second most overrated number 5 team in country this season (after our good friends at the University of Michigan), but can you believe that we put up another 289 yards on the ground against them?  I was brought up on old-school smash mouth Chicago Bears and Big Ten football, so there’s nothing more beautiful to me than watching the Illini just ram the ball down people’s throats.  Quarterback Juice Williams might still be throwing the ball as if he spent the summer at the Rex Grossman Passing Clinic, but the boy (along with his backup Eddie McGee) can still run like he stole something.

So, it’s going to be the middle of October and Illini football is still relevant.  There’s the proverbial trap game next week atIowa – as bad as the Hawkeyes might be playing this year, Kirk Ferentz seems to have our number – and if we survive and advance there, it makes the prime time game against Michigan into the biggest game in Champaign since, well, the most horrific sporting event that I have ever attended in person.  When we’re six weeks into the season and we’ve already won more games in 2007 than the past two years combined, Illini fans are entitled to some irrational exuberance.  I know I’m there.