Sept. 22 Ask the Sports Editor chat

Sept. 22 Ask the Sports Editor chat

Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 2:00pm

What's next for an Illinois football team after losing to a MAC team at home? Is the Big Ten West bad enough the Illini might be OK? How is recruiting going for Lovie Smith and Co? Who's the most surprising team in the area high school sports scene? What do you want to see in the pages of The News-Gazette Sports section?

Nothing is off limits during sports editor Matt Daniels' weekly chat, which gets underway at 2 p.m. on Thursday. Feel free to submit questions ahead of time.

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Afternoon everyone.

Matt Daniels here for another weekly chat. This time, on a rather hot first day of fall here in Champaign-Urbana.

Illinois football is off this Saturday, with Lovie Smith's program trying to pick up the pieces after a disappointing 34-10 loss to Western Michigan last Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The players and the coaches were of the mindset that this is the perfect time for an off week, but then again, don't know if they'd feel the same way if Illinois was sitting at 3-0 or 2-1 heading into Big Ten play on Oct. 1 at Nebraska.

On the Illinois basketball front, practice starts soon and our upcoming 100-page IlliniHQ Yearbook previewing the 2016-17 season is well under way. Look for that on newstands in either late October or early November.

Hard to believe that the high school football regular season is entering Week 5 this Friday night. Lots to talk about in that area as well if you're so inclined.

Let's get going with this week's chat.

Thom wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Illinois State beats Northwestern. EIU beats Illinois State. Western Michigan beats Northwestern and our Illini. Have we slipped so far that Illinois State and EIU can beat us? Is there a game we can win before 2017? I don't see any and I try to be optimistic. Thank you for your comments.

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey Thom,

The state of football in Illinois is certainly not good when it comes to the FBS level right now.

Looking good, though, at the FCS ranks with Illinois State and Eastern Illinois each picking up FBS wins before the Panthers topped the Redbirds last Saturday.

Going back to Lovie Smith's Illini, winnable games left on the 2016 schedule look like Purdue, Rutgers and possibly Northwestern. A nine-game Big Ten slate certainly doesn't help the Illini this season, especially after going 1-2 in nonconference action.

Purdue is still struggling under Darrell Hazell, Rutgers is still adjusting to new coach Chris Ash and his system, while Northwestern doesn't seem to be what many people thought they'd be early in the season. Perhaps the regular season finale at Ryan Field turns into a must-win game for Illinois and its bowl hopes.

That's the optimstic outlook. Unless the run game improves mightily and the defense starts to force turnovers on a consistent basis, then the same problems that surfaced against Western Michigan might be prevalent throughout Smith's debut season at Illinois.

Hal wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Has Illinois ever had to forfeit a win in basketball or football because if using an ineligible player or for some other reason?

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey Hal,

Good question. A quick perusal of the Illinois football and basketball media guides doesn't seem to indicate so.

Illinois has dealt with NCAA investigations and subsequent fallout from those incidents throughout their history, but nothing major like vacating wins, which have happened at other Big Ten programs like Michigan and Ohio State when it comes to men's basketball.

Alvin wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

I know there's a monument at Parkland that lists people who have qualified for the Olympics. Have any of them won gold medals besides Bonnie Blair, Bob Richards and now Nichole Millage. ? Millage was an Olympian in 2012. Is her name on the list yet? If it isn't why do you suppose that is? I'm not talking about gold medals for people who went to the UI like Derron Williams, but people who grew up around here. What is that number?

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey Alvin,

Good question. It's been a few months since I've been out to Parkland and seen the monument you're referring to.

Pretty sure every Champaign native who has participated in the Olympics is paid tribute out there, including Nichole Millage. Millage, along with Gia Lewis-Smallwood and Tyler McGill, were honored there in 2012 with a short ceremony.

I don't have an exact number on how many people are represented out at the monument, but it is a cool feature and one that should inspire future athletes who have Olympic dreams.

Side note, we are having Millage on Monday evening at the Esquire for The News-Gazette Sports Page radio show at WDWS 1400-AM. Stop on by the downtown Champaign establishment to greet Millage and listen in to our show.

Jim Rossow wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Is Watseka/St. Anne vs. Dwight the game of the year?

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Only because Fort Wayne South and Fort Wayne North aren't in our coverage area.

Should be an interesting Sangamon Valley Conference game on Friday night in Dwight between a pair of 3-1 teams.

Watseka/St. Anne quarterback Brendan Fletcher has posted nice passing and rushing totals so far this season, and the Warriors have already surpassed the win total from each of the previous three season through four games in 2016.

wicky wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Can you, or will you, please shed some light into Wes Lunt's post game comments after the WMU game concerning something occuring at Thursday's practice that he felt had some effect on the team going into the game? Thanks!

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey wicky,

I wasn't around for all of Wes Lunt's postgame comments after the Western Michigan loss (they usually bring about 6-7 players into the players' lounge at once, so it's kind of pick and choose who you talk to), but he did say that the scheme Illinois had going into the game lent itself more to throwing the ball than running the ball.

That certainly showed with the final numbers, where 42 of the 57 plays Illinois had were passes by Lunt. And included in those 57 plays were four sacks that Lunt took, which accounted for runs.

I know Lovie Smith said he wasn't too pleased with how Lunt played, despite the Illinois quarterback going 29 of 42 for 311 yards. He did check down at times, and that's been a constant throughout his time with the Illini, so it'll be interesting to see how often he does that when Illinois plays again at Nebraska on Oct. 1.

Illini Orange wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Matt -

It is probable that attendance will swoon downward for the remaining home football games as the team likely will lose at best majority of the remaining season games.  How can Smith and assistants convince program-changing high level recruits to come to Illinois knowing there will be half empty stadiums in the next 2-3 years and only the opportunity to play right away as the only appealing reason to come?  Furthermore, there will probably be at best some coaching turnover in between season(s) as coaches see no fun to face this uphill battle.  What things would you do if you were in AD's shoes to team with Smith to turn this around?

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey Illini Orange,

Attendance took a hit this past Saturday against Western Michigan, where it was announced at just over 40,000, compared to the sellout of 60,670 that greeted the Illini against North Carolina on Sept. 10.

Convincing elite talent to come to Illinois, despite the program's woebegone history and the current struggles of this season, is one of the challenges Smith and his staff will have to overcome.

Selling to recruits the fact Smith coached in the NFL for two decades, plus the deep ties he has in the game, is something he can use. Getting the chance to play right away in a league like the Big Ten is another aspect Smith and his staff can tout to potential recruits.

Don't know about coaching changeover, although it does happen often at the college ranks, especially after only one season with Smith in charge. Essentially everyone Smith hired on his staff was brought in by Smith, and the chance alone to coach with Smith was a high selling point for many of the assistants. Now, if Illinois goes 1-11, Smith might be forced to let go of some of his assistants, much like what happened after Tim Beckman went 2-10 in his first season in 2012.

Josh Whitman and the university has given Smith ample resources when it comes to staff salaries and salaries of other key personnel in the football program. This is a rebuilding process Smith is undertaking, so in 2018 or 2019, we should have a better idea on what history will think of Smith's tenure with the Illini.


Illini Orange wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

With a shaky OL, should Smith go with a QB that is more intuitive and have the ability to improvise during a broken play? Is this under consideration? I sense too many passes slanted toward sidelines and more so needed over-the-middle targets.  Felt passing plays became oo predictable with WMU.



Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey Illini Orange,

Loren Tate touched on this topic in his column today. It will be interesting to see what Illinois does at the quarterback position if the season becomes a lost cause.

Maybe Chayce Crouch gets a series or two at Nebraska of meaningful playing time. He is the best running quarterback Illinois has on the team this season. But Wes Lunt, to me, gives Illinois the best chance to win this season.

The schedule isn't conducive to that, though, given the difficult opponents Illinois has on its 2016 slate. Should Illinois stumble to 1-6 or 1-7, perhaps then Smith might make a quarterback change to better prep for the 2017 season. Then again, given the lack of depth at the QB spot after this season ends, it wouldn't shock me at all if Illinois went out and got a junior college transfer or a fifth-year transfer to man the quarterback spot next season.

I.B. Joe wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Hey Matt, if you had to pick one of our Illini coaches who is on the hot seat, what would your pick be?

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Hey I.B. Joe,

Good question. Interesting one to ponder. For the first time in awhile, you can't have an Illinois football coach mentioned near the top of this list.

The direction shifts to both basketball programs then. Matt Bollant is entering his fifth season with the Illini and has not advanced Illinois to the NCAA tournament nor won a Big Ten tournament game. He's also had to deal with a mass defection of players transferring, an investigation into his program during the summer of 2015 (that ultimately cleared Bollant of any wrongdoing) and little on-court success. We'll see if he can survive another season that seems destined to find Illinois among the bottom teams in the Big Ten and on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason.

Josh Whitman seems firmly planted on John Groce's side, having said so publicly twice last spring despite all the incidents off the court surrounding Groce's program. On paper, the Illini should have the talent necessary to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. And with a solid in-state 2017 recruiting class already on board, that certainly helps Groce out. But if a losing season ensues this upcoming winter and no postseason play of any kind for the second straight season, Whitman might be hard-pressed to make a decision regarding Groce's future at Illinois. As we all found out in early March with Bill Cubit, Whitman wasn't afraid to fire a coach.

Matt Daniels wrote on September 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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Appreciate all the questions on a variety of topics today.

Going to wrap up this week's chat, but I'll be back again at the same time (2 p.m.) and same day (Thursday) next week before Illinois heads to Nebraska to start Big Ten play.

Be sure to check out Friday's N-G for Loren Tate's thoughts on the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday's paper for plenty of Week 5 high school football coverage and Sunday's N-G for a look at Illini commit Javon Pickett.