Final Word: Illini skip walkthrough after delay
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Beaver Stadium sat empty Friday evening, with no sight of the Illinois football team.
The team’s equipment truck had made the journey east while the sun was still out, but the team had not. A hitch in travel plans was the reason.
The team charter flight was delayed nearly 90 minutes at Willard Airport in Savoy and did not land in State College until about 6:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, according to team spokesman Derek Neal. The brief scheduled walkthrough Illinois was supposed to have at the stadium was canceled.
“There was a change in the actual plane, which wasn’t a big deal,” Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said. “However, an FAA official wasn’t present during the entire screening process, so the entire group had to deplane and be screened a second time to abide by federal law before we could depart.”
A walkthrough on the road for Illinois is different than a typical one at Memorial Stadium. On the road, players and coaches are still in their suits and ties when they get off the team bus from the airport, so the walkthrough is used more to familiarize themselves with their surroundings than run through any plays.
There was no delay once Illinois landed in State College. The team arrived at the Ramada Conference Center in State College about 7 p.m. EDT.
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Captains for Illinois today are Houston Bates, Corey Lewis, Nathan Scheelhaase and Taylor Zalewski. The team votes on the captains each Thursday. This is the fourth time this season Scheelhaase and Lewis will serve as captains, while Bates and Zalewski will serve for the first time this season.
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Illinois will go with a new look today. One it has not unveiled this season and hasn’t since the new navy blue matte helmets were introduced last season.
Illinois will wear its customary road white jerseys but will switch it up with the navy blue helmets and navy blue pants.
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Tim Beckman was optimistic cornerback/kick returner V’Angelo Bentley would play at the start of the week. It appears Bentley will be a game-time decision because he was listed as questionable on the team’s injury report this week.
Backup kicker Ryan Frain is out as well, along with wide receiver Ryan Lankford (shoulder), linebacker Henry Dickinson (leg), defensive tackle Bryce Douglas (neck) and center Tony Durkin (shoulder).
Lankford underwent surgery Wednesday after dislocating his left shoulder against Michigan State, and he did not make the trip to Penn State.
“It was really tough for me,” Lankford said after realizing the severity of the injury. “I came in, and I’m not going to lie, cried. I knew this was not looking good, but lately I’ve thought about the bigger picture and that it happened for a reason. I’m a firm believer in my faith, and this happened to someone that can go through it. I definitely feel like I’m a guy that can go through it. Of course, you don’t want it to happen, but you’ve got to accept it.”
Lankford said he expects to have full mobility back in his shoulder in four or five months, and he’s aiming to be fully healthy for next spring’s pro day at Illinois.
“You can’t give up on your dreams until your dreams aren’t there,” Lankford said. “That dream is not leaving any time soon. The goal now is to just rehab, get healthy and get smarter about the game.”
Wide receiver Miles Osei was bummed for his teammate.
“Right there is just a reminder of this game is such a blessing to play,” Osei said. “It can be taken away at any time.”
“That’s a reality check,” Scheelhaase said. “As seniors, you think about it at times how the clock is ticking and how you’re counting down the practices and counting down the games you have left. Lank’s a guy that’s never missed a game and has been out there ever since I’ve been out there. It could have been any of us, and it can be any of us. As seniors, we have to take advantage of the moments we have together.”
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The three-game losing streak Illinois is on has opened the door for criticism to filter in.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he understands why fans are unhappy.
Cubit said when he was the head coach at Western Michigan he would sometimes email or call people back after they would leave unpleasant messages.
“I had one person where (I called them and) they stuttered for about the first five minutes,” Cubit said with a laugh. “I understand. I’m a Philly fan. I feel for them. I really do, but I really feel for our kids. When I fill out my timesheet and you get up to 82 hours a week, you wonder, ‘Did I put in enough? Maybe it needs to be 83 or 84.’ ”
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks said he tries to distance himself from the negativity.
“I don’t read the papers, and I don’t read that stuff,” Banks said. “You’re never as smart as you think you are, and you’re never as dumb as they think you are. You just go about your business. You work as hard as you can. As long as you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you’ve worked to the best of your abilities ... that’s just kind of what you go with. It’s the profession we’re in. Our kids love to play the game of football as much as we love to coach the game of football. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they’re having a great experience with that.”
Lewis, the right tackle, understands that’s the nature of high-profile sports. He finds himself criticizing his favorite NFL team, the New York Giants, much like some Illinois fans are doing with this current team.
“It’s just, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” Lewis said. “I’m hoping this week we can remind them what we were doing in September. All it’s going to take is a win.”
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Lewis was not a Penn State fan growing up. One of two Pennsylvania natives on the Illinois roster — linebacker T.J. Neal is the other — Lewis didn’t move to Cresco, Pa., until his junior year of high school. The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., finished his prep career at East Stroudsburg South High School before picking Illinois just before Signing Day in 2008. This is Illinois’ fourth trip to Beaver Stadium since Lewis arrived at Illinois, but it’s first time he’ll play after knee injuries derailed his career.
“I’ll have a lot of family at this game,” Lewis said. “I’m trying to get as many tickets as I possibly can for this game.”
Beckman is glad the sixth-year senior has made it through the first seven games intact.
“I could talk about Corey Lewis forever,” Beckman said. “The story of Corey Lewis is college football, it’s college athletics. He could have easily said before the football season or at the end of last year, ‘No, I’m done.’ He’s excited about going to Happy Valley, of course, (from) being from that neck of the woods.”
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Joey Galloway will help Beth Mowins out with the call of today’s game on ESPN. The former Ohio State wide receiver who went on to have a 16-year NFL career still keeps a close eye on what his Buckeyes — who visit Champaign on Nov. 16 — are up to. Even though Urban Meyer has Ohio State undefeated going into today’s game at Purdue, the Buckeyes are fourth in the BCS standings. Galloway said any hope of having the Big Ten school play in the final BCS national championship game depends on if Alabama, Oregon or Florida State loses.
“They’re going to need one of those teams ahead of them to lose,” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough firepower on the remainder of their schedule to jump one of those teams even if they stay unbeaten.”
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Illinois won’t have another chance for recruits to visit campus during a home game until Ohio State travels to Champaign in two weeks. Despite the three-game losing streak Illinois is on, recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh is still confident with the recruiting efforts Illinois is making this season.
“There’s some negativity out there, but I think the kids, the parents and the coaches that get around our staff know what’s going on and know what we’re trying to build,” Golesh said. “We’ve had a lot of success in recruiting, and I think we’re going to have a lot of success in recruiting over the next month and a half. Kids see and parents see and coaches see the real happening of what’s going on. They see we’re playing with, at times, four freshmen or sophomores in the secondary. They see the progress we’ve made on offense. We obviously preach it and sell it. We’ve got really good, genuine people.”
Golesh said the pitch to offensive recruits is the new system Illinois is running with Cubit calling the plays. Defensively, the selling point is the chance to come in and contribute early on in their career.
“We graduate a bunch of skill guys on offense and a year from now graduate a bunch of offensive linemen,” Golesh said. “We sell the pro-style, pass-happy system. You look at the linemen that are getting drafted, they’re coming from pro-style offenses. You look at the receivers that are getting drafted, they’re coming from pro-style offenses. More than anything we’re selling this university, the academics and our staff. Not every place is this approachable. You talk to any of our kids, we care about our kids. Parents want to send their kids where they’re going to get a good education and where they’re going to get looked after.”