UFR: Where were the students?
Staff writer Marcus Jackson was all over Memorial Stadium on Saturday for the UI's 50-14 beatdown of Miami (Ohio):
— Let’s be real. Miami is awful, one of the worst teams in the nation. But you can’t help but be encouraged with the way Illinois has played the first third of its season. All most fans and program-backers wanted to see this season was progress, and through the nonconference portion of the schedule, we’ve seen that. Now it’s just a matter of taking this momentum into the start of Big Ten play next week at Nebraska to begin a conference slate that doesn’t look as scary as it did in August.
— For the first time in Memorial Stadium history, Illinois has scored 40 or more points in three consecutive home games. We’re talking 90 years, folks. The impact Bill Cubit has had on this offense and Nathan Scheelhaase can’t be overstated. There’s a mix of creativity — double passes, reverses and two quarterbacks in at the same time — and execution. If nothing else, this team will at least be fun to watch the rest of the way. Think about this: In 12 games last year, Illinois scored 11 touchdowns via the forward pass. This season Scheelhaase has thrown 12 in four games. How good was the Illinois offense Saturday? Justin DuVernois didn’t play. The punter wasn’t needed. It was the first time since 2002 that Illinois didn’t need a punt.
— Holy Josh Ferguson! The third-year sophomore running back left more than a few jockstraps belonging to Miami defenders on the field after some of the flashy moves he put on them. He’s must-watch football when the ball is in his hands. It’s too bad EA Sports won’t produce an NCAA football game next year because No. 6 from Illinois would be so good. Ferguson is finally able to showcase his talent after dealing with injuries. Remember how exciting Reggie Bush was at USC? Ferguson isn’t Bush, but he’s got some of the same skills.
— The temperature was 76 degrees at kickoff, and the home team was 2-1 entering the contest. But for some reason, Illinois students had something better to do than attend the football game Saturday. The student section in the north end zone was less than half full at kickoff, and the turnout didn’t increase much once the game got going. It’s not easy being an Illinois football fan — I get that — but you have a fun group to watch that’s actually winning games. You need to be there to see it.
— I got a text message and an email during the game from folks upset that the Illinois offense featured too much trickery. Hold up, did you watch this team last year? It was boring and very ineffective. If Cubit & Co. want to put three quarterbacks in the game at the same time and run triple-reverse passes, I’m all for it. These trick plays aren’t resulting in turnovers and bring energy. Don’t complain about that, embrace the heck out of it. The one gripe might be that the Illini are showing too much against inferior competition. That’s possible, but maybe Cubit has an even deeper bag of tricks than we think. It’s forcing Big Ten defensive coordinators to prepare for all sorts of possibilities, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
— I was wrong earlier this season when questioning an officiating crew. Apparently, for some strange reason, you’re allowed to stick out a leg to trip a ball carrier. Who knew? Let’s pick on the officials again today. Miami’s first touchdown Saturday came on what looked to be a blatant broken-up pass in the back of the end zone. Officials ruled it a touchdown, and after review, referee Todd Geerlings announced the call was “confirmed” — meaning there was no doubt the correct call was made. In his heart of hearts, Miami’s Rokeem Williams knows he didn’t hang on to that ball. If Calvin Johnson’s catch against the Bears on opening day a few years ago wasn’t a touchdown, that “catch” Saturday at Memorial Stadium wasn’t one, either.
— Purdue is really bad, huh? The Boilermakers were embarrassed at home 55-24 by Northern Illinois. Darrell Hazell has some serious work to do across the state line. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller was asked Saturday what needs to be done to get back to a Rose Bowl: “Recruit some good players.” Think about what Jimmy Garoppolo and Eastern Illinois would have done to the Boilers. EIU dropped a 43-39 thriller to Northern Illinois last week in DeKalb. I might regret saying this, but go ahead and pencil in that Nov. 23 game at Ross-Ade as a win for Tim Beckman’s squad.
— Next week’s Illinois opponent — Nebraska — had the week off to prepare for the Big Ten opener. Somehow Bo Pelini managed to avoid insulting any former Cornhuskers greats and the fans with all his free time. The feelings toward the coach aren’t good in Lincoln, and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects the team the rest of the season.
— When Wes Lunt left Oklahoma State, there was a segment of Cowboy fandom who felt their team might be better off without the Rochester product. Well, against the first real competition this season Saturday at West Virginia, Pokes QB J.W. Walsh struggled. He completed 43 percent of his passes and didn’t display the arm strength or the accuracy necessary to effectively run Mike Gundy’s offense. Oklahoma State fans might wish they had Illinois’ scout-team quarterback back on their side.
— Surely, Ron Zook’s alma mater isn’t as bad as people are making it out to be, right?
“Yes, unfortunately, they are,” said play-by-play voice Tom Downey, who works with WMSR, the Miami student radio station. “The defense is getting better; the offense is not.”
There’s a lot of negativity surrounding the program, which has lost eight straight games. Fans are calling for coach Don Treadwell’s job. Treadwell is 8-20 since taking over for Mike Haywood, who led the program to a MAC title and a bowl game in 2010.
“The players are doing the best they can. The fans are very disgruntled at this point,” Downey said.
Fan support, particularly student support, is low at the Oxford campus.
“It’s not that great. The students are generally apathetic. They don’t win and people don’t want to come out, it’s that simple,” Downey said. “If it’s nice out, they’ll say, ‘Let’s day-drink instead of going to the game.’ The (Cincinnati) game was actually pretty well-attended, but once UC scored late in the fourth, everyone started to leave.”
The basketball program is struggling, too. So, is Miami a football school or a basketball school?
“It’s a hockey school, it’s not even close,” Downey said. “Hockey is very popular.”
— Kansas State opened practice Friday night in Manhattan, and shortly after, coach Bruce Weber was on a plane to Champaign. On Saturday, the former Illinois coach was on the sideline in an Illinois T-shirt along with a dozen other dads performing on the Memorial Stadium turf with their cheerleading daughters.
Weber’s youngest daughter Emily is a senior cheerleader at Illinois, and he joined her on the field for Dad’s Day festivities. Kansas State had the day off, so Weber used the opportunity to spend the day with his daughter for her final Dad’s Day as a UI student.
— Representatives from the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns were on hand Saturday to get an up-close look at some of the UI draft-eligible players, most notably linebacker Jonathan Brown, who led the way with nine tackles against the RedHawks.
— The “B” word might be taboo at this point, but it was unavoidable Saturday. Representatives from the Capital One Bowl were in the press box to get a look at the Illini. The Capital One Bowl is one of eight bowl games with Big Ten ties. It generally goes to the top Big Ten team not playing in the Rose Bowl. Long way to go before Illinois can even dream about that one.
— A few big-time 2015 recruiting targets took in Saturday’s game from the stands, including Providence Catholic receiver Miles Boykin, Benet Academy quarterback Jack Beneventi and Benet kicker Jon Duvic. Duvic kicked field goals of 40, 53, 54 and 32 yards in Friday’s win against Marian Catholic. Maroa-Forsyth 2014 quarterback Jack Hockaday, being recruited as an athlete, was also in attendance.
— Members of Illinois’ 1953 Big Ten championship team were introduced during a first-quarter timeout alongside members of the 1963 Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs. The 1953 team tied Michigan State for the Big Ten title with a 5-1 record, but the Spartans went to the Rose Bowl.
— Illinois great Jim Grabowski, the MVP of the Rose Bowl with the 1963 team, was honored along with former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther during a timeout with the Varsity “I” Award. The Varsity “I” Award is the highest honor bestowed upon former letter winners.