Tate: 'A' for Ashante

Ashante Williams, a fifth-year senior from Mayfield, Ohio, started the 2011 season on a three-game suspension resulting from a DUI.

As of Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz., he'll be one of the Illini captains after being named defensive MVP in the opening 24-7 defeat of Western Michigan.

After some bumps and skids, Williams is off to a running start in his final collegiate campaign ... and living proof of what it means to a football team for the seniors to buy in and lead. He sparked the Illini with nine tackles and a 60-yard pick-six Saturday.

With former starters Supo Sanni (safety) and Justin Staples (end) scheduled to return this week, that makes 10 contributing seniors on the defensive unit, of whom eight may start. Add crack juniors Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown, both NFL prospects, and Illinois offers one of the nation's most experienced defensive units. It was a top 20 unit nationally a year ago, and it thoroughly dominated the Broncos on Saturday, intercepting three passes while holding them to negative yardage on the ground.

"Ashante is one of the guys who took me under his wing when I came to campus," senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne said. "He has always been humble, and he has worked hard for this opportunity. It means a lot to have so many seniors on the unit. We've been together a long time. There is a feeling of togetherness."

Follow the leader

Williams is inspired by his new role as a team leader.

"If I work hard, I know others will follow suit," he said. "I feel that my game has improved tremendously."

Williams first benefited from an injury to Trulon Henry, which allowed him to start the last three games of 2011.

And now he has the extra benefit of having head coach Tim Beckman as his position coach.

"During individual drills, Coach Beckman works with the 'star' position (half-safety, half-linebacker)," Williams said. "It's fun, but it's scary to have the head guy at your position. He pulled me aside early and gave me a lot of confidence. I didn't prepare as I should have last year after I got in trouble. I lost my position and had to play catch-up. The coach gave me a fresh start, and I hit it running."

For any new head coach, it is always critical to bring the seniors to your side.

"How these seniors are responding is huge," Beckman said, "because it is not always the case. They've done a great job buying in."

Add note on seniors: It helps when veterans are handling the ball (one turnover Saturday). QB Nathan Scheelhaase is a fourth-year student and third-year starter. Center Graham Pocic started his 27th game and never came out. Zak Pedersen is the fifth-year long snapper and received the award for special teams. And senior transfer Tommy Davis handled punts in a tricky wind.

Difficult reads

Scores on a single day are not necessarily an accurate representation of comparative strengths.

Examples:

— Michigan State was dramatically superior to Boise State but kept shooting itself in the foot with all variety of backfires before winning. You can point to shoddy quarterbacking, that's true, but if the teams played again, all things equal, Michigan State would win by three touchdowns.

— Penn State is better than Ohio and had the lead, only to be victimized by several incredible aerial strikes, one a deflection for a lucky Ohio TD and another pinpoint bomb along the sideline. The Nittany Lions' defense was strong but was helpless against these remarkable completions.

— Wisconsin got a scare from Northern Iowa and, OK, maybe the Badgers are overrated without quarterback Russell Wilson. But the guess here is that they'd thump Northern Iowa in a rematch.

On the other hand, some results looked appropriate:

— A Michigan team with four injury setbacks, two suspensions and serious graduation losses could play Alabama every day and twice on Sunday, and the outcome would be the same. Alabama is overwhelmingly superior.

— Illinois was aided by a clunker offensive performance by Western Michigan, but it was clear the Broncos were overmatched against Michael Buchanan and the veteran UI defense. This wouldn't change if they met again.

— Iowa squeaked past Northern Illinois 18-17 in Chicago. If they played again, it would be another squeaker.

Just the ticket

The Big Ten has become a conference with two defined football "divisions" based on attendance: Along with Iowa, purring along with 70,000 sellouts, six others are drawing at least 80,000 and mostly more. These are the ones vying for Top 25 positions. And then there's the quintet attracting fewer than 50,000 on most Saturdays ... Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern.

The long-term record shows a clear connection between winning and attendance. For Illinois, the telltale game was last Oct. 15 against Ohio State, when the Illini were 6-0 and ranked No. 16, and drew barely 55,000 even with Buckeye fans contributing.

The key is advance season ticket sales. And it gets harder to sell season tickets if the fans know they can "cherry pick" and buy a good ticket on game day.

We can point to rain Saturday, but one longtime fan emailed me as follows: "It was mostly the weather, but I've never seen this level of indifference starting a season. I must have asked 25 people, and no one challenged that premise."

It's a long pull back from the string of sellout crowds over 70,000 in the 1980s. The stadium won't even seat that many now.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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illinizeeman wrote on September 04, 2012 at 11:09 am

Beating the dead horse (aka attendance):

I'm calling this the Tupper, Turner and Zook hangover.  Too much losing. (it has been noted repeatedly that the last time we were winning was the most recent period in time we had sellouts, shocking).

In 2001, we had a few sellouts.  Why?  We were winning and the team was winning in solid fashion.

In 2007, we had a sellout or two.  Why?  Ditto.

Last year, we were winning with no sellouts.  Why?  We were beating mediocre teams by unconvincing margins, and Zook's coaching decisions were purely idiotic.  Who wants to shell out precious funds for that?

 

YsoSerious wrote on September 04, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Ashante can only make the "D" that much stronger.

Zook and his teams would find away to loose this upcoming road game. Is it a tall order to beat ASU out in Tempe? Coach Beckman has a chance to seperate himself from the disfunctional coaching that seemed to follow a solid performance from the past coaches. Lets see a solid win against ASU and maybe the arrow will start to point up for attendance. I will get my "I-Clicker" ready.

namber wrote on September 04, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Ticket sales will always be contingent upon expectations of winning.  As long as the expectation is that we will lose the sales will never rise.  It is hard to sell tickets for nonconference patsys when the bigger games are projected loses.  When we reach a point where the fans anticipate a win against good teams the season tickets will sell.  They have in the past.  Making the transition from anticipated loses to anticipated wins is going to be a major challange for the staff.  When the fans have to buy season tickets to get good seats to see quality football with anticipation of winning the stadium will begin to rock.  TB and staff have a major challange in the recruiting arena and have to perform well enough that the recruits can vision being part of a renasaunce if they sign on.  So far TB looks like he has things moving in the right direction but it must unfold on the playing field.  6 straight wins vs weak teams does not foster great expectations (Charles Dickens) 

Jam wrote on September 04, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Whatever happens win or lose life will go on.  Football Saturdays are fun and that is what people want to have.  It is not even important to win all of your games, but a teams must win its home games.  People will tolerate a road loss.  Winning at home when mom and dad are in town, or after a long drive from Chicago, St.Louis, the or the Quad cities is a must happen deal.  This is entertainment so everyone wants to have some fun watching their favorite team.

ptevonian wrote on September 04, 2012 at 1:09 pm

All those seniors and NFL-prospects on the defensive side means two things:
1) A great defense this season and the likelihood that we'll be "in" most games we play
2) We'll be horrible next year, when they are ALL gone

Next season is when Zook's last couple of recruiting classes come home to roost.  Beckman will try to rotate in the young guys when he can this season, to get them experience, but with a relatively anemic offense, and the need to win games to bring in recruits for the future, we'll end up with a young and inexperienced defense next season, while the rest of the Big Ten keeps humming along.

And then, per the great Illini tradition, we'll start hearing the calls for Beckman to be fired.

nick wrote on September 04, 2012 at 2:09 pm

There is another factor worth consideration regarding football ticket sales in the semi-professional world of college sports.The market value of Illinois football is not strong.Mr.Tate brought up a serious situation in his identification of two divisions in the Big Ten based on attendance. Many people have correctly explained the reasons for this great difference in interest and attendance. I believe almost everyone who has an interest in college sports knows the reasons why college sports is a system of unofficial divisions. This system of the powerful, and their lesser opponents, will not change.Too much money and influence exists on the side of the elite semi-professional colleges to ever allow fundamental change. If Illinois fans can allow themselves to accept a truly honest assessment of Illinois football and basketball there would certainly be less anger and concern.Any one of the intelligent observors of Illinois football and basketball can provide a comprehensive and accurate list of all of the resources that must be in place to operate an elite college sports business.Illinois does not have the resources,the commitment,or the interest to pursue that path. I don't believe that fact reveals anything bad about the school,the community,or the state.

Brudogs wrote on September 06, 2012 at 4:09 pm

My 2 cents.  The advent of Hi-Definition television maybe affecting attendance.  It certainly deterred me from getting season tickets to Arizona Cardinals.   1 hour plus drive across town (east to west), 2 tickets @ $50 each * 10 games- the cheap seats, parking, drinks and food, etc.  and compare this to watching in comforts of own home with large HD screen.  No contest.  

I still hit a few ASU games in late October and November when weather is great and tickets are cheap.  If I lived in Champaign, I most certainly would have season tickets.  However, if traveling from Chicago or St. Louis and with HD TV today,  I would certainly think twice.