Big Ten Country has always seen Notre Dame football as a first couisin to the family and included them in this blog's coverage. Today, they join Illinois in the season recaps.
Life at this basketball school was turned upside down over the past year. Basketball took a tumble, while the football team scaled unexpected heights.
When the Illini lost the football opener to Missouri, no one could have guessed they'd just lost to a team who would be within one game of playing for a national title, or that they themselves would be playing Southern Cal in January. But Illinois took advantage of a schedule that was lined up for them, going 2-1 in home games against Wisconsin, Penn State & Michigan. And the one disappointment--a loss to the Wolverines--was more then made up for when Ron Zook took his team to Columbus and knocked off top-ranked Ohio State. When a series of late-season events still got the Buckeyes into the national title game, the Illini performance was persuasive enough to the Rose Bowl committee to get them a bid.
The Rose Bowl itself didn't go as Illinois fans hoped, though few observers were surprised. In the end, they had achieved more then enough just by being there. The program produced the conference MVP in running back Rashard Mendenhall, and with Zook recruiting very well, it looks like the good times might be just starting in Champaign.
Three years ago, Bruce Weber's basketball team came within a bucket of a perfect regular season and played for the national championship. Those days seemed light years ago, as Illinois struggled through a 14-18 regular season and won just five conference games. The lone highlight of the regular season was an 84-60 road pounding of Minnesota at a time the Gophers still harbored outside NCAA aspirations. As highlights go, that's not much.
But March was kinder to Weber. Illinois found their footing in the conference tournament and won three games, including triumphs over Indiana and Purdue. They lost to Wisconsin in the final and the overall record wasn't good enough to get them a postseason invite, but Illini fans can hope the fighting spirit their team showed will carry over into next year.
Unless you've been hidden in a cave somewhere, you've surely heard that the past football season won't go down in the annals of Notre Dame football history. And with Illinois rising, the Fighting Irish have a potential threat for the loyalties of Chicago. Well, that might be an exaggeration. ND's chances of losing the loyalty of Chicago are on a par with the Democrats' chances of losing Massachusetts. But the Irish started the year 0-5, finished it 3-9 and were embarrassed several times along the way. They lost to every Big Ten team they played.
On the plus side, they beat two Pac-10 teams on the road. One of them was Stanford--the same Cardinal who stunned USC, and Notre Dame also beat UCLA. But Notre Dame Nation is desperately hoping that Charlie Weis' recruiting classes are as good as advertised. Now entering his fourth season, Weis expended a lot of the goodwill his back-to-back BCS runs of 2005-06 built up with last autumn's wipeout.