Pre-Season Rankings

Football season is a couple months away, but Zook’s rebuilding and the surprising run to the Rose Bowl are paying off. The AP Poll has Illinois ranked #20, the third Big Ten team on their list. The USA Today Poll puts the Illini at #18 — just ahead of Michigan. And Athlon Sports has them at #16.

Of course, they have to play to give meaning to these rankings, but it’s been a few years since Illini football has been on the radar before the season starts. And to be ranked near the top of the conference with Ohio State and Michigan — we’ll take it. I’m looking forward to summer, but already my excitement for football season is building…

Go Illini!

Notts built a 13-point lead at the top of Division One after a six-wicket win over Hampshire at the Rose Bowl.

They began the final day needing a further 134 with nine wickets intact.

Dimitri Mascarenhas struck twice in two balls for Hants before Mark Wagh reached fifty from 57 balls, but with only 70 more needed rain intervened.

That prompted an early lunch and tea, but 40 overs were left as play resumed and though Wagh fell for 67, Samit Patel hit 11 fours in an unbeaten 65.

Hampshire’s faint hopes of victory were not helped by an injury to paceman Nantie Hayward, that prevented the South African taking the field.

But Mascarenhas induced Will Jefferson to edge a simple catch to Michael Lumb at slip for 21 and when Adam Voges gave a bat-pad catch to wicketkeeper Nic Pothas it was 74-3. and 114 were still required.

England pace bowler Chris Tremlett failed to find line and length, however, and conceded 27 from his first four overs.

Wagh and Patel put on 91 in 18 overs for the fourth wicket, but with only 23 more needed Wagh flashed at a wide delivery from James Tomlinson to give Pothas another catch.

Patel edged an outswinger from James Tomlinson but Sean Ervine put down a routine chance at second slip, and the burly Notts all-rounder struck the winning runs with a fluent stroke to the mid-wicket boundary.

Illinois starts spring with Rose repeat in sights

It was a rags-to-riches campaign in Champaign last season, but will the good times last? Though the majority of its starters return, Illinois must replace three All-Big Ten players, including star tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Although capable tailbacks remain and good ones are coming in, the emphasis this spring figures to be on upgrading the passing offense, which ranked 109th in the nation a year ago. Here’s a look at the Illini as they prepare to begin spring practice.

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The presence of Benn, a huge big-play threat, gives wide receiver some muscle. Three-fourths of the starting defensive line return, as well as solid backups who have starting potential. The Illini have three defensive ends who started at least seven games last season. Davis and Hicks are returning starters at cornerback, and Davis was an all-Big Ten selection.

HELP IS NEEDED

Three-year starters Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison completed their eligibility, and the Illini likely will have two sophomores starting at safety. All-American middle linebacker J Leman is gone. Miller likely moves from the outside to try to replace Leman, but could that weaken two positions?

KEEP AN EYE ON

G Jack Cornell Jr.: A former three-star prospect, this redshirt freshman could step in to replace departed All-American guard Martin O’Donnell.

DT Reggie Ellis: A four-star prospect who enrolled early, Ellis reportedly already has added about 20 pounds of muscle and is expected to challenge for a starting role. Getting into the rotation at tackle shouldn’t be a problem.

CB Marcus Thomas: He’s a sophomore who could threaten to take Hicks’ starting role. He came on strong at the end of 2007 and had a key interception in an upset of Ohio State and fared well against USC in the Rose Bowl.

HIS TIME IS NOW

Three years ago, wide receiver Jeff Cumberland arrived in Champaign as a four-star prospect, but he hasn’t been that productive. He has 28 receptions through his first two seasons, but did get 11 of those in the last four games of ’07. He needs to show some consistency.

THE BUZZ

Shoring up the safety spots and finding a big-play guy to replace departed tailback Rashard Mendenhall are vital. But just as important is for someone to take over the leadership roles previously held by Leman, O’Donnell and others who had fought through the lean years. Oh, yeah: Williams improving his passing accuracy would be huge, too.

Rose Bowl the dream of Illini radio voice

The Rose Bowl is personal for Brian Barnhart.

The play-by-play voice of Illinois football and basketball was raised just down the road from Memorial Stadium in Tolono. He was an Illini fan almost from Day One.

Barnhart grew up listening to previous Illinois voices: Larry Stewart, Dick Martin and Jim Turpin. Now he is following in their footsteps by calling Illinois’ biggest football game in 24 years when the Illini face USC in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday. In the Chicago area, Barnhart and former Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner will have the call on WIND-AM 560.

“This is a dream for any kid from the Midwest,” Barnhart said. “To be the voice of the Illini for this game is a big deal. To me, it is personal. I’m not just working for them. This is my team doing it.”

It took Illinois a long time to get to this point, and Barnhart didn’t exactly take the direct route either. After graduating from Liberty University, he pursued his goal of becoming a major-league baseball announcer. A tour of the minors for more than a decade eventually led to him hooking up with the Anaheim Angels in 1998.

Barnhart spent two years there and then thought he was headed to Montreal to take a position with the Expos. However, it never materialized.

Barnhart decided to move his family back to central Illinois. He worked Illini pregame and postgame for a couple of years.

Then when Turpin decided to retire, athletic director Ron Guenther asked Barnhart if he would be interested in assuming the duties in 2002.

“I never dreamed I’d have this job,” Barnhart said.

The football part of the job hardly was a dream. The Illini went from winning the Big Ten in 2001 to a three-year stretch in which they won only two of 32 conference games. Barnhart suffered through many bleak Saturdays.

Anybody can make a good team sound exciting. It is eminently more difficult with a bad team. Barnhart thinks he was up to the challenge.

“Some of the biggest compliments I received is that people said I still made the games sound enjoyable,” Barnhart said. “I take the same approach regardless of the record. I’m trying to paint a picture, to make the game come alive. Even when they were losing, I knew there were people out there who cared about the Illini.”

It wasn’t all bleak for Barnhart. The basketball team has provided him with many memorable calls, none more so than Illinois’ incredible comeback to beat Arizona in overtime to advance to the Final Four in 2005.

“That game was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Barnhart said. “That whole year was amazing. I remember thinking before the final, ‘Here I am, a kid from Tolono, getting to do the championship game.’ ”

The football team ended his suffering this year, providing him with a highlight reel of exciting calls. Now in his sixth year as the voice of the Illini, Barnhart feels like he has a home, which turned out to be his home all along. He is looking forward to a long run in Champaign.

“In college sports, people tend to stay longer,” Barnhart said. “The fans get used to hearing their voices. There’s a familiarity on radio that grows over time. I like that.”

The Jan. 1 game won’t be the first one Barnhart has worked from the Rose Bowl. He called a highly forgettable Illini 6-3 loss to UCLA in 2003.

The return trip should be much better.

“There are certain things you want to do as a broadcaster,” Barnhart said. “The Final Four is one of them, and the Rose Bowl is another. Hopefully, another great experience lies ahead.”

•The last time the Illini played in the Rose Bowl, in 1984, the game aired on NBC with Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen on the call. They didn’t have much of a game, as UCLA tore apart the Illini 45-9.

This year, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will handle the duties for ABC. Hopefully, Illinois will give them a better game.

Thousands of Illini fans rush for Rose Bowl tickets

For Illini, the rush for Rose Bowl tickets is on.

The University of Illinois says it’s already received 12,000 requests for tickets to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where the Illini will play Southern California on New Year’s Day.

The surge comes a day after officials picked the Illini to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1984. It’ll be their first bowl for the U of I since 2002.

Illinois will have about 26,000 tickets to sell.

School donors and season-ticket holders will get first crack at them. They have until Friday to put in their requests. Student season-ticket holders have until Wednesday evening.

Any tickets still left go on sale to the public next week.

Read more at the www.bnd.com†


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Samuel Bradford (born November 8, 1987 in Oklahoma City , Oklahoma ) is a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners. Bradford is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is one-sixteenth Native American by way of his great-grandmother, Susie Walkingstick, who was a full-blooded Cherokee

How the Rams’ eyes spied Weil

What former Minooka football coach Mike Briscoe saw in high school, former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner nourished and then gave over to current Illinois coach Ron Zook in college. Now it’s time for the St. Louis Rams and perhaps the rest of the NFL to see what Minooka graduate Russ Weil can do on the gridiron.

After playing out his NCAA career for the Illini at the 2008 Rose Bowl, Weil was secretly being coveted by at least one NFL coach who thought he was special. Though with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their running backs/assistant head coach at the time, Art Valero, who now holds the same title with the Rams, recalls seeing Weil and thinking that he may have the stuff it takes to compete in the NFL.

“What’s incredible is that the college season is at the same time as ours and because of that, you only get glimpses of people during the course of the season while they are on television … I was watching this kid (Weil) and said that’s someone who’s interesting,” Valero said. “I knew he was someone who, once we got to the evaluation process, I needed to keep an eye on and look out for. That’s because not a lot of fullbacks are invited to the combine and you have to go out and find them. They just don’t run the fullback in college offenses anymore.”

Eventually, Valero’s interest in Weil and former Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) came together at one practice. Mendenhall was getting eyed up for his 1,681 yard, 17 TD running back season and Weil for the job he did in blocking for him.

“I have a couple of friends on the Illinois staff and had the chance to bounce some things off of them and talked about Russ. Then, when I went up to work out Mendenhall and Russ worked out as well,” Valero said. “He caught everything thrown to him, both good balls and bad balls, balls off the ground, balls over his head.”

Ohio State-USC is big, but Fresno State-Wisconsin is football life altering

It’s all you could ask of a Saturday night in September in California — two ranked teams playing in front of a packed house, on national television, with huge bowl implications and possibly a national title at stake.

No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC won’t be bad, either.

Wisconsin at Fresno State is going to get stomped on in terms of build-up, sweeping panoramic backdrops, TV analysts and breathless sideline reporter reports.

I’ve just seen Beanie Wells’ right foot and can confirm it’s still attached to his leg!

ABC1 has one game and ESPN2 has the other.

One is glitter; the other ground chuck.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about this: Which game, in terms of the big picture, is really more football life-altering?

People say college football is great because every week is like a playoff and that one loss — especially late in the season — knocks you out of the national title.

People say a lot of things.

It depends who you are.

If Saturday’s game is close, the USC vs. Ohio State outcome changes nothing. The teams could still meet in the national title game, or in the Rose Bowl.

USC could lose Saturday and not fall out of the top five, while Ohio State’s credibility is so sketchy after Ohio that a close loss to USC might enhance the Buckeyes’ reputation.

Win or lose, USC and Ohio State will campaign into November.

Don’t believe it?

Last year, Ohio State lost at home on Nov. 10 to Illinois, dropped from No. 1 to No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, only to climb back to No. 1 in less than a month.

USC, a 41-point favorite over Stanford, suffered one of the worst upset defeats in the history of college football. Yet, the Trojans would have advanced to the national title game had they defeated Oregon in Eugene.

Louisiana State won the national title — after losing its last regular-season game to Arkansas.

In 2001, Nebraska free-loaded into the BCS title game after losing its last regular-season game, 62-36, while in 2003 Oklahoma finished No. 1 in the BCS after getting run off the field by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game . . . on Dec. 6.

No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 21 Fresno State, by contrast, are working a BCS high-wire without a net.

A loss to Fresno State, a “non-BCS” school, probably knocks Wisconsin out of national title contention.

Berth in Rose Bowl paying off for Illini as far as recruiting

Rockhurst quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase lined up a Who’s Who in July. Sitting on a table, the hats representing Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois also served as the finalists for Scheelhaase, a four-star prospect and a top target in the Midwest.

After leading Rockhurst to the Missouri Class 6 state championship as a junior last season and becoming the first underclassman to win the Simone Award as the Kansas City area’s best football player, Scheelhaase did what’s becoming a growing trend: He grabbed the orange hat and verbally committed to the Illini.

By landing three top 100 national recruits in this year’s senior class before football season began, Illinois coach Ron Zook took advantage of the unexpected berth in the Rose Bowl last season to lay the foundation for a highly ranked class. In his fourth full recruiting season with the Illini, Zook is off to his best start.

“They’ve finished really strong in all the other years,” said national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “This is his best start. The Rose Bowl appearance gave them credibility in the eyes of the kids.”

“Illinois recruiting is going fantastic. They’re starting to land the blue-chip athletes on a consistent basis. Their recruiting each year progresses, and the classes keep getting better.”

Zook’s early efforts at Illinois included stars, such as wide receiver Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson, but the classes are getting better from top to bottom, Lemming said. He rated Illinois’ class as No. 13 nationally in 2007 and No. 15 last winter.

A dual-threat quarterback whose father, Nate Creer, played defensive back on Iowa’s Big Ten title team in 1985, Scheelhaase is ranked as the No. 87 recruit nationally in the senior class by Lemming. East St. Louis receivers Kraig Appleton (No. 82) and Terry Hawthorne (No. 97) committed to the Illini earlier this summer.

Rivals.com has Scheelhaase rated as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback nationwide. The website had Appleton at No. 11 and Hawthorne at No. 18 among receivers, respectively.

With the trip to Pasadena, the Illini have something more to sell than playing time, although a second consecutive berth in a major bowl would help Illinois go after a higher caliber of athlete.

“It would show people we’re becoming more consistent,” said recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell. “Recently, it’s been a roller coaster. If we can maintain a level of being competitive and going to bowl games, we’ll be able to hold our own and maybe recruit a different level of kid.”

At this point, Illinois remained a “friends and family” recruiter rather than a true national player. Illinois will rely upon contacts in areas where the recruiters have a history, such as offensive coordinator Mike Locksley in Washington, D.C., line coach Eric Wolford in Ohio, Dan Disch in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mitchell in the St. Louis area.

“The more we get on national TV, the more success we have, that will help us with name recognition,” Mitchell said.

Chicago Morgan Park defensive end Craig Drummond is the state’s top-rated player by Lemming and the only other top 100 recruit inside the state still uncommitted. Lemming has Drummond at No. 36 overall. After scoring a 22 on his ACT, Drummond’s marketability skyrocketed.

Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, Miami, Southern Cal and Tennessee are among the schools recruiting him. Drummond indicated there is no leader. Otherwise, the Illini might need to go outside the state, although Lemming also called the entire Midwest down.

NOTE: The Rockhurst-Blue Springs (Mo.) South game will be televised on ESPN at 11 a.m. on Aug. 31. The game pits the last two Missouri Class 6 state champs.

It’s Every Man For Himself Says Key

ENGLAND Lions captain Rob Key is happy for his players to play for themselves when they take on New Zealand over the next four days at the Rose Bowl.

At least half of what amounts to England’s reserve side no doubt believe they should be in the squad announced on Sunday morning for next week’s Lord’s Test.

A century or a five-wicket burst down on the south coast in front of the watching

selectors might just swing the issue for them, and Key says he can handle his players putting self-interests first.

“If I have 10 other guys desperate to get runs and wickets for themselves then that will make my life as captain easier,” said Key, himself pushing hard to add to his 15 Test caps after more than three years out of the reckoning.

“Personal agendas are not a bad thing as long as they are aiming for success. This match is a stage to stake your own claims but we can also do a little bit for England. They had a bit of a tough time this winter and this is a chance for the England set-up to stamp their authority on New Zealand.”

Foremost among those out to prove a point to the selectors will be Matthew Hoggard, who felt he had been harshly treated when he was dropped after one indifferent Test in New Zealand.

Penn State at USC

Finally, the Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl again. This isn’t 2008 (Illinois vs. USC), or even 2007 (Michigan vs. the Trojans). This is the Big Ten champion vs. the Pac-10 champion for the first time since 2004, and just the second matchup of the traditional conference champions since Washington beat Purdue in 2001. The Big Ten also has a legit shot at its first win in Pasadena since Wisconsin beat Stanford in the 2000 Rose Bowl.

—Penn State was a heartbeat away from playing for the national title, but lost to Iowa on a last-second field goal. Other than that hiccup, the Nittany Lions were dominant; they had the Big Ten’s best offense, defense and special teams. PSU blasted Oregon State 45-14 a few weeks before the Beavers beat USC, but the Lions’ key win came in a knockdown, drag-out 13-6 battle with Ohio State in Columbus.

—USC didn’t need to dig deep for its 35-3 win over the Buckeyes, but it lost its next game, 27-21, to Oregon State. In the end, that defeat kept the Trojans out of the national title picture. Helped by one of the most dominant defenses in Pac 10 history, the Trojans rolled through the rest of their schedule; only Arizona lost by fewer than two touchdowns. Penn State’s defense was amazing, too, giving up more than 17 points in just two games. USC might have led the nation in just about every defensive category, but Penn State wasn’t far behind. This won’t be a shootout, but that’s hardly a negative with these two teams.

Penn State: This team is the real deal. The offensive line is among the best in America, the defensive front is great at getting into the backfield, the special teams are explosive and consistent, and the offense is balanced and ruthlessly efficient. A slew of good, speedy runners have produced when needed, and the receiving corps — led by seniors Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood — might be the best in school history. The only question mark is quarterback Daryll Clark’s ability to step up in a big game. He has failed to produce in the fourth quarter with the game on the line; he was knocked out of the Ohio State win and threw a killer interception late in the loss to Iowa.

USC: Was the defense that good or was the Pac-10 that bad? Both. USC allowed seven points or fewer in eight games this year, gave up three or fewer in six games, and led the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. The Trojans never allowed more than 179 yards of total offense in any game this season. They gave up just 11 touchdowns total, and more than two touchdowns in only two games. With the linebackers, led by All-Americans Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, setting the tone, and hard-hitting safety Taylor Mays the sheriff in the secondary, this is arguably USC’s most intimidating defense ever. The offense has failed to follow suit. The numbers aren’t bad (452 yards and 40 points per game), but this is hardly a Matt Leinart-Reggie Bush-LenDale White type of attack. Coordinator Steve Sarkisian is splitting time between his Rose Bowl preparation and his new job as Washington’s head coach; that won’t help matters.

Ready to break out: USC fullback Stanley Havili. He may be the most versatile and athletic fullback in the country, but he doesn’t get many touches in an offense loaded with star tailbacks. When he does, however, he usually makes them count. He has been a reliable outlet in the passing game, catching 62 passes for 596 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons. He also is a tremendous lead blocker for those tailbacks. At just about any other school, Havili would warrant a dozen or so carries a game.

Last time you’ll see. . . USC linebacker Rey Maualuga. Part linebacker and part YouTube sensation, no player in college football can intimidate opponents the way he can with the prospect of his devastating hits. He returned to L.A. for his senior season to win a national championship, and while that won’t happen, he did enhance his legacy as one of the greatest linebackers to ever play for the Trojans.

Ready to break out: Penn State running running back Stephfon Green. Evan Royster got the majority of the touches this fall, but Green succeeded in laying a foundation for the future as a redshirt freshman. The 5-11, 194-pound burner has 521 yards and four TDs on 95 carries, and he has 201 yards on just 10 receptions (one TD). Royster remains the starter, but Green is a big-play option out of the backfield.

Last time you’ll see… Butler. He has set the bar for all future Lions walk-ons. The kid from Virginia with the questionable size and the burning desire to play in Happy Valley became a four-year starter. He has 175 catches for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns. His departure, along with that of Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood, will leave Penn State hurting at the position heading into 2009.

Number To Know: 10—Passing touchdowns allowed by the two teams combined. Penn State gave up six, with two coming against Illinois. Oregon State had two of the four passing TDs USC allowed. No other Division I-A team allowed fewer than eight touchdowns through the air.

Watchability: 5. This could be as entertaining a low-scoring game as the BCS has ever seen. The way these two teams play defense, it would be a shocker it it’s a blowout either way.

And the winner is. . . USC 20, Penn State 16