UFR: I'm cool with O'Toole
Paul Klee's take on Saturday's 44-0 shellacking of Charleston Southern
— Illinois has a gamer in Reilly O'Toole. Yes, this takes into account the level of opponent he faced Saturday in a 44-0 win against Charleston Southern, an FCS squad. But it takes a competitor to bounce back the way he did. O'Toole's first career start turned into an embarrassing loss to Arizona State on national TV. Seven days later, he set an Illinois passing record with an 83.9 completion percentage (26 of 31). He connected on his first 10 passes. Unfortunately, the 11th was a "Cutler" — a red-zone interception — but he added five TD passes. No one's done that at Illinois since Juice Williams against Missouri in 2008. The Nathan Scheelhaase-O'Toole-Miles Osei quarterbacking trio has its flaws. But it's a gritty group that we would want in our locker room.
— Saturday's crowd at Memorial Stadium equaled the turnout at Ohio State's Horseshoe — if every one of the Illini fans had brought a few friends. Announced attendance: 45,369. Real attendance: estimated about 35,000, or a few more thousand than the turnout for the season opener. This time there weren't hurricane remnants that scared people away — only a scary level of apathy toward Illinois football. One longtime observer — OK, it was Loren Tate — said there hasn't been this kind of indifference toward the program since the Jim Valek era of the late 1960s. Illinois football is in trouble right now, and it has little to do with the upcoming schedule or Scheelhaase's left ankle. It's a program coming off back-to-back bowl wins for the first time — with a new coach, which usually spikes fan interest — and the indifference is telling. Right now there are three main sporting seasons at Illinois: basketball, basketball recruiting and football.
— Guarantee games against overmatched opponents are a fact of college football life. The most egregious of these was Florida State's hosting of Savannah State last weekend. Savannah State was paid $860,000 to be a 70.5-point underdog and lose 55-0 at Florida State in a weather- and mercy-shortened mismatch. Nebraska's guarantee to Arkansas State on Saturday: $1 million. Here, Charleston Southern's 15th straight defeat came with a paycheck of $410,000. "It's really gone up the last few years," Illinois AD Mike Thomas said of guarantees. The small schools are winning this battle, if not the one on the field, because they hold the leverage, Thomas said. Budget-minded visitors can use the Nebraska-Arkansas State example and hold out for a bigger payday. "They can say, 'Well, look what LSU is paying so-and-so. That's what we want,' " Thomas said. "But remember — we don't have a 100,000-seat stadium (to offset the cost), either."
— The cost of guarantee games in basketball is increasing even more dramatically. John Groce's Illini usually will pay between $50,000 and $100,000 to schedule an overmatched opponent at the Assembly Hall, Thomas said. In hoops, guarantee-game candidates drive up the cost if a high-major opponent is in a time crunch and desperately needs to add a home game to finish a schedule. Those kinds of figures make it hard to second-guess the Colgates and Charleston Southerns that sign up for a blowout.
— Really, Tim Beckman deserves credit for motivating a team coming off a concerning defeat in the desert. But the two-point conversion attempt — with a 6-0 lead — had some observers scrunching their eyebrows. He explained the special-teams decision like this: "That's something we do. If you ever watched any of our Toledo games, that's what we did. We're going to get in multiple looks; people are going to have to prepare for it."
— You can take the coach out of the SEC, but you can't take the SEC out of the coach. Urban Meyer dived into his Tim Tebow playbook with Braxton Miller's jump-pass touchdown to Jake Stoneburner. That helped Ohio State escape Cal 35-28 in a game that was there for Cal's taking. Ohio State set itself up for early success in the Meyer era, playing all four nonconference games in the comforts of Ohio Stadium. How to beat the Buckeyes? Catch them on a day when Braxton Miller is bad Braxton Miller. When he's good Braxton Miller, Meyer's club is the best the Big Ten has to offer.
— Keep an eye on the injury to Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray, who left a 28-23 win against Western Michigan with an ankle injury. Gophers coach Jerry Kill, who is shy with injury information, said the playmaker would have an MRI exam to learn more. The Gophers led 10-7 when Gray was injured. That they were able to preserve a win without the starter is yet another positive sign for a Minnesota (3-0) program trending upward under Kill.
In the Stadium
— You could argue that, after Deron Williams, Stephen Bardo is the public figure most often associated with Illinois basketball right now. His face and voice reach millions through his ESPN platform. The casual fan — even some high school prospects — associates him with Illinois. So it's noteworthy that John Groce, early in his tenure, had the foresight to build a proper relationship with Bardo. He's respected as an analyst, and his opinion carries weight.
"What I like is that he's asked questions. He didn't come in here and think he knew everything right off the bat," Bardo said at Memorial Stadium. "He's talking to (former players) and reaching out for feedback. That's great to see. We want to be involved."
Bardo was one of the former Illini in town for the men's basketball reunion. The event included Friday's dinner at the Colonnades Club and a pregame social Saturday morning. The only downside was the poor turnout, which also is a product of the mid-September timing. Look for Groce in the future to move the annual reunion to August, a more convenient time for pros like Williams and Dee Brown.
"What I like is (Groce's) philosophy. He wants to play up-tempo, play fast," Bardo said. "That's what kids want to see."
Unfortunately, we won't see as much of the Flyin' Illini point guard this season — at least in Big Ten country. ESPN has assigned him to Big 12 and Atlantic 10 games next season. Somebody start a petition.
— J Leman was put to the test in the Illini hero's debut as a BTN analyst. First, he's a former linebacker. Naturally, his knowledge base comes from the defensive side — and three and out after three and out rarely allowed him time to go in-depth with the Illini's defense. Second, a blowout like Saturday's forces you through material at warp speed. The outcome was decided at roughly the time Charleston Southern won the coin flip.
"I approached it a lot like I was playing in a football game," said Leman, the former Central star. "Preparation makes you comfortable and confident. I think I got better and more comfortable with every quarter."
All in all, Leman felt good about his debut. He arrived early to study his notecards and cheat sheets. He left the orange tie at home, preferring to stay semi-neutral, even on BTN, with a red tie, hair flowing in the breeze.
Next up: Louisiana Tech at Illinois. Leman is back in the booth next weekend.
"You know, I had all these stories and things to talk about (during the 'cast), but I learned the game dictates what you talk about," he said. "With the tempo of the college game now, you make a five-second comment and the next play is already starting. The game is so much faster than it was 10 years ago.
"So I had all these stories that I didn't get to use. Now I'll use them next week."