Loren Tate: Dramatic improvement needed soon
If, as early odds indicate, Cincinnati is a mere 10-point favorite at Illinois, the next venture into the midday sun sounds like more of a tossup than we might have expected.
We should be encouraged because underdogs like Illinois have been flexing their muscles all over the greensward, starting with North Dakota State at Kansas State and including Eastern Illinois at San Diego State.
But face it, Illinois faces a taller order than the spread indicates. The Bearcats hammered Purdue unmercifully, finishing 28-0 in the second half of a 42-7 rout that saw them complete 68 percent of their passes, average 4.7 yards per rush and hold Purdue to 65 yards on the ground.
It was a whoopin, along the same lines as Washington’s 592-yard explosion in annihilating Boise State 38-6.
So, yes, Tim Beckman’s club needs dramatic improvement to survive against quality foes the next two weekends. Aside from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s aerial performance, which gained him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors — 402 yards in three quarters was an Illini record — film evaluations of the 42-34 defeat of SIU uncovered frightful shortcomings.
— No up-front blockers attained an acceptable threshold, Beckman stating: “No offensive lineman graded out ... they didn’t play well enough. And when we had holes, our ball carriers didn’t take them.”
— V’Angelo Bentley returned a kickoff 100 yards but was subpar at corner. In fact, Eaton Spence was the only secondary member to reach a standard of satisfactory. Nor did linebacker Jonathan Brown, now fully healthy, reach that standard.
“Other people saw the game, and they’ll attack us on the things we didn’t do well,” Beckman said. “Five sacks means we must protect better. We have to find a better pass rush, and we gave up too many long passes. We didn’t punt well in some crucial situations.”
That about covers it ... miles of ground to make up on short notice but it’s clear: shape up or get trampled.
Illinoisans should ask: “What happened to ‘lack of institutional control’ in NCAA rulings?”
When investigators couldn’t find major infractions in the case involving Deon Thomas and Jimmy Collins — but still believed something improper had occurred — they caught the UI off guard by falling back on the institutional-control gimmick.
Now, in a case where it is obvious Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel took money for multiple signings of more than 4,000 photos, footballs and other items, the NCAA found itself paralyzed. The half-game suspension of Johnny Football is so laughable I strained three ribs. Manziel beat the system.
This is what happens when (1) the investigators lack subpoena power, (2) SEC commissioner Mike Slive wields his incredible influence, (3) the dealers zip their lips because admissions would mean big trouble for them, (4) the school blindly backs Manziel and (5) rival lawyers take charge in secret negotiations. There were so many people “taking the fifth” that everybody just threw up their hands.
OK, we’re supposed to believe that Manziel spent four days in various cities to sign in prearranged deals ... and didn’t receive anything for it. Sure.
And through it all, A&M Chancellor John Sharp said, “I know he’s innocent,” and offered the ludicrous statement that there’s nothing wrong with players receiving money for autographs. Sharp even mentioned the Aggie Code of Conduct along the way.
Hey, John, are you blind or just gullible? If the rule doesn’t make sense, then change it. But until it is changed, everybody is obliged to follow it. And, by the way, if college athletes are allowed to receive unlimited amounts for their signatures, imagine the firestorm that would create. You might as well pay them bonuses depending on their value, which is probably what the SEC prefers in the first place.
P.S. Like a hundred others, Illini sophomore running back Dami Ayoola was suspended for the first game for less egregious misdeeds than Manziel. But Dami is a third-stringer.
Moving on up
Illini basketball took a step forward Sunday.
Leron Black, a 6-foot-7 rim rattler from Memphis, Tenn., hooked on with coach John Groce. And the Big Ten’s sleeping giant, which shows two NCAA wins in seven years of mostly bad luck, lifted some eyebrows in the world of college basketball.
But patience remains, for now, the order of the day. Groce goes into his second season without four graduated assets and with serious questions at power forward.
With Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin gone and sophomores Myke Henry and Mike Shaw transferring, the 4 slot in 2013-14 likely will fall between slender freshman Austin Colbert and Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey. Colbert played just half of his senior season, and Ekey saw slippage in his Redbird minutes (1,022 to 755), points (9.0 to 6.4) and three-point percentage (40.7 to 30.1). Rebounding is a likely winter weakness.
It’s ironic that, a year from now, the situation will reverse itself. And Groce will tackle the tricky task of developing flexibility from a quartet of rangy athletes with essentially power forward skills: Black, Colbert, Western Michigan transfer Darius Paul and freshman Michael Finke. Black, in particular, is setting about the task of improving his perimeter skills while carrying strikingly diverse opinions as to his ranking: No. 22 by Rivals, No. 36 by ESPN and No. 46 by Scout.
Groce still faces long-range necessities at the hardest positions to recruit: center and point guard. But he’ll also take the best players he can find, and on Sunday he latched onto a talent who will alert other prospects and awaken rivals to the growing presence of the slumbering basketball behemoth.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.