Kirk Wessler: Illini Homecoming event mostly a bust

Kirk Wessler

The World's Largest Basketball Practice wasn't much to look at. For that matter, neither was the football game that preceded it.

The Illinois football team on Saturday continued its history of messing up Homecoming Weekend, giving away a perfectly winnable game against a Minnesota outfit that didn't do much except take advantage of freebies. The final score was Gophers 27, Illini 20, and here's how the game was won - or lost, depending upon your point of view:

- Minnesota scored one touchdown on an 8-yard drive set up by Illini running back Daniel Dufrene's fumble on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.

- Minnesota's next TD came on a 46-yard run by DeLeon Eskridge that accounted for 40 percent of the Gophers' total rushing offense.

- The Gophers sealed the deal when linebacker Simoni Lawrence scooped up a fumble by sacked Illinois quarterback Juice Williams and ran it back 9 yards for another touchdown.

Oh, and don't forget this:

- In the third quarter, Illinois failed on consecutive plays to push the ball across the goal line from 12 inches away.

"How," Illini coach Ron Zook asked, "can we not get it in from the 1-inch line or the 1-foot line?"

Normally, one might credit Minnesota's defense. But Illinois pretty much had its way with the Gophers defenders all day. The Illini rang up 25 first downs and netted 550 yards of total offense, with Williams throwing for 462. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, they'll no doubt hail their boys for holding tough on the goal line. Honestly, though, the Illinois linemen attacked both plays as if the payoff were a cup of cold coffee instead of six points and a chance to win.

If you find any butts laying around with teethmarks in them, you might check to see who on the Illini team is missing theirs. That cannot have been a pleasant locker room. Nor does this figure to be a pleasant week as the Illini prepare to play Indiana next Saturday.

There were some eye-catching individual stats besides Williams' passing yardage. Notably, freshman wide receiver A.J. Jenkins caught three passes for 117 yards and scored two touchdowns, and Arrelious Benn snagged a dozen for 181 yards.

But punter Anthony Santella twice drilled short-yardage line drives into the end zone, rather than out of bounds, and kicker Michael Cklamovski shanked a kickoff OB left. Benn, for all his aplomb eluding defenders and catching passes, misplayed one kickoff return and gave two inadvertent fair-catch signals. One wiped out a punt return and the other saved him, negating a fumble on the return deep in his own territory. And that's just the stuff that was obvious. Wait till the coaches get all these guys in the video room.

Zook set what is believed to be a personal record for getting in and out of the postgame interview session. His chat was 5 minutes, 43 seconds of ticked off. Losing ugly on Homecoming Day - something the Illini now have managed 54 times in 98 tries - to fall to 3-3 at the midpoint of the season will do that.

Looks like time to bring on basketball season.

Right on cue, the Illini men and women hoops teams conducted a 30-minute show after the game. An orange court was set up behind the South goal posts, and the teams gathered there for brief warmups, a shooting contest and a defenseless scrimmage. Billed as the World's Largest Basketball Practice, it did not live up to the hype.

It did, however, spur controversy.

Illinois received permission from the NCAA to use 30 minutes of the two hours weekly that teams are allowed to gather with coaches on the court between Sept. 15 and the official start of practice on Oct. 17. Coach Bruce Weber's idea was to use the event to raise money for the Coaches vs. Cancer charity. (A U of I spokesperson said at least $20,000 was realized.) Of course, a little free pub on ESPN and the opportunity to show off the program for a dozen or so recruits in attendance never hurts, either.

Well, Kentucky got wind of Weber's idea and petitioned for its own special event. West Virginia and Marshall followed suit. Wailing about the unfairness of it all followed, and now the NCAA Division I Board of Directors will meet later this month to close the loophole in the rule.

After all, practice was meant to be practice. And, as practices go, this wasn't much - on the court or off. The claim to "World's Largest" was based on the crowd of 62,870 that sold out Memorial Stadium for the football game. But half of them were so disgusted by the Illini on the gridiron they left before the first dunk. Thirty minutes later, only a thousand were still scattered about the bleachers.


Tennis, anyone?

Kirk Wessler is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached, or 686-3216.