UFR: What's to second-guess?

Staff writer Jeff Huth's take on Saturday's contest

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

— Admittedly, it’s not a big sample size, considering that Tim Beckman now has won four games since becoming Illinois’ head football coach in 2012. Still, what happened Saturday clearly was the biggest victory of the Beckman era. Few, if any, observers gave the Illini much of a chance entering the game. Low fan expectations come with the territory when your team had lost 16 of its last 19 games, as the Illini had entering this season. But UI fans who had been clamoring for some sign — any sign — of progress got their wish Saturday.

— It’s a play — and a ruling — that surely will be discussed all week by Illini and Bearcats fans: the fourth-down goal-line run in the third quarter by Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux. Looking to cut into Illinois’ 21-10 lead and 1 yard from scoring, Cincinnati apparently did just that when a TD was signaled on Legaux’s surge toward the left corner of the end zone. Then, the play came under replay review. The replays that fans saw on the videoboard appeared to be inconclusive. Neither was Legaux’s fumble readily apparent, and that held the key to overturning the ruling on the field. It was the play of the day as Illinois dodged a major, potentially game-turning bullet.

— If that was the play of the day, what followed surely was the drive of the day. Completely reversing the momentum, Illinois methodically drove 99 yards in 21 plays for a touchdown. Good teams make opponents pay for squandered opportunities. Beckman’s guys did just that. Impressive.

Second guessing

— Hardly anything Illini-related to second-guess on this day, but we did have this quibble. Leading 28-17, Illinois had first and goal at the Bearcats’ 2. Three plays gained a combined 1 yard. Perhaps the UI’s own goal-line stand earlier influenced this decision, but the Illini decided to kick a field goal instead of going for a TD. That choice kept Cincinnati within two touchdowns.

— What must the fans at Purdue be thinking? One week after their Boilermakers were pummeled by Cincinnati 42-7, they now see what Illinois did to the same Bearcats team. Is the gap between Purdue and the Big Ten’s other teams really as cavernous as this Bearcats-centric comparison seems to suggest?

— Bearcats fans must be lamenting the lack of focus before the snap. Cincinnati was guilty of five false starts.

Third Degree

— One week after 10 different Illini caught passes, that number increased to 11 against Cincinnati. The Illini might not have a featured receiver the likes of Brandon Lloyd or A.J. Jenkins, but Illinois is getting the aerial job done by committee.

— There are more ways than passing to get the ball into a wide receiver’s hands, as Bill Cubit proved Saturday. The UI offensive coordinator called end-around plays four times and was rewarded with 70 yards. Ryan Lankford carried three times for 46 yards, including a 29-yard TD. Martize Barr turned his one rushing opportunity into a 24-yard gain. Something for future Illini opponents to chew on in game preparation.

— The name will be immediately familiar to anyone who lived through the Civil Rights Movement or who has studied it. Bearcats starting running back Ralph David Abernathy IV is indeed related to the late Ralph David Abernathy Sr. That’s his grandfather, who was a contemporary and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Fourth Estate

Mike Thomas’ background as Cincinnati athletic director was a topic of interest this week in that city, too.

The current Illini AD led the Bearcats’ athletic department for about six years before moving to the UI in August 2011.

“Obviously it’s been a bit of a storyline in Cincinnati this week,” said Tom Groeschen, who covers Cincinnati football for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The multitasking Groeschen, currently in his third different stint as a Bearcats football beat writer, says Thomas had a particularly positive impact on Cincinnati football with his head coaching hires of first Brian Kelly and then Butch Jones, both of whom moved on to more high-profile programs.

“I think it was pretty significant,” Groeschen said of Thomas’ coaching choices in that sport. “We all know how (Kelly) turned out. ... Cincinnati had really their peak years of all time in football, going to two BCS bowl games.”

Groeschen noted that Thomas’ selection of a successor to popular basketball coach Bob Huggins put the AD under the microscope with many Bearcats fans.

Thomas went with Mick Cronin instead of retaining interim coach Andy Kennedy.

“At the time, it wasn’t an unpopular hire, but ... a lot of fans liked (Kennedy) and wanted him to stay. ... And that’s panned out for them very well, too,” Groeschen said. “Mick Cronin has taken them to three consecutive NCAA tournaments.”
Groeschen recalled that the Cincinnati athletic department defunded some scholarships during Thomas’ tenure there.

“I think you were running into the recession (then) ... so in his defense I don’t think he had total control over some of those things,” he said. “But I think overall the people there would have to look back and say it was a positive hire for Cincinnati having Mike Thomas there.”

In the Stadium

— Gary Wieneke expected to miss most, if not all, of Saturday’s football game, but the former Illini men’s cross-country coach had an understandable excuse.

This Hall of Famer was busy coaching at a high school meet in Chrisman.

“There’s nothing like Saturday at the cross-country meet,” said Wieneke, now in his eighth season at the helm of the Unity High School girls’ team after serving 36 years at the UI. “That’s always been enjoyable and challenging, so it’s good.”

Aside from the football game and Friday’s round of golf at Stone Creek Golf Club, Wieneke planned to be on hand for the other reunion activities taking place in and around campus to mark the 100th anniversary season of Illini cross-country.

That included Friday’s late-afternoon Alumni Run at the UI Arboretum in Urbana.

“I’m going to show up in my shorts and see what happens,” the 75-year-old said with a laugh hours before the race. “I’m sure I can beat somebody in that run.”

Wieneke’s legacy in Illini cross-country, as well as track and field, is deep and enduring. When he retired after the 2003 track season, Wieneke’s coaching tenure was the second longest in any sport at the school. To put it another way, his imprint can be seen on more than one-third of the UI’s century of cross-country.

“I think that’s great that they’ve maintained it and there’s been a rich tradition there,” he said. “A lot of great athletes passed through the cross-country program from way back to today. It’s a fantastic sport.”

— The author of “Illini Legends, Lists & Lore” has a new outlet to express his enthusiasm for college athletics history.

Mike Pearson, the one-time Illini media relations director, took in Saturday’s game from the press box and was eager to spread the word about his Twitter account.

Visitors to @B1GLLL will find about 40 historical notes on Big Ten sports, with fresh content daily. For the recently retired Pearson, who spent much of his career in college sports media relations, it’s clearly a labor of love.

“The thing I love more to do than anything is game notes, and now I do game notes every day through Twitter,” he said.

As an example of his work, Pearson pointed out that Saturday was the birthday of Illini men’s basketball coach John Groce. Ditto for Ohio State football great John Brockington and Michigan State basketball favorite Mateen Cleaves.

Pearson, 62, started the Twitter account after retiring from Miami (Ohio) University on July 1. He has attracted about 400 followers.

“So I feel pretty good that the audience is there,” he said. “I’m just having a lot of fun with it.”

Pearson began his career at the UI in 1975 as an assistant sports information director before moving to Michigan State’s SID office in 1980. He returned to Illinois in 1989 as head SID, serving in that role until 1997. Then Pearson joined Champaign-based Sports Publishing LLC, which published multiple editions of his “Illini Legends, Lists & Lore” book. When economic forces caused a retrenchment in the publishing industry, Pearson returned to SID work in 2007 at Miami (Ohio).

Pearson says he has been approached by New York-based Skyhorse Publishing for an update of his Illini book.

“I’m not going to make any commitments at this point, but I’m just having so much fun doing my tweeting right now,” he said.

Pearson said he would be interested in developing a working relationship with the Big Ten in the role of a conference sports historian.

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