Column: California dreamin’

By Dan Barrigan

I took a sip of the orange Kool-Aid on Saturday night and started thinking that Illinois can beat California this week.

The win Saturday was a slam-dunk. When Pierre Thomas ran into the end zone in overtime against Rutgers, Illinois’ 2-0 start became a foregone conclusion.

With Illinois off to its best start in four years, can Ron Zook’s Band of Brothers surprise No. 16 Cal?

Definitely. This year’s team is different in its attitude, confidence and most importantly, its heart.

“A lot of it is our mindset; Coach Zook does a great job of bringing out the passion and emotion,” junior running back E.B. Halsey said. “With him, anything is possible.”

Along with a “never die” attitude, the Illini take their homegrown confidence to the road. But can they sustain the momentum?

If they start out slow like they have in the past two games, it could be long and demoralizing.

On Saturday it only took a series to get rolling, compared to a whole half last week. Halsey said he’ll get the team fired up from the start.

“Everybody knows that this is a big game for us and it means a lot to us,” he said. “I’ll definitely put it on myself and the rest of the leaders of this team to get those guys ready.”

While San Jose State isn’t the best measuring stick of how good this team is, the Illini showed a dominance it lacked in 2002.

There’s no doubt that Brasic improved in seven days. He showed that he can complete a pass both down field, completing a 43-yard bomb to freshman Kyle Hudson in the third quarter, and on the run, when he threw to Melvin Bryant in double coverage for 11 yards.

On defense, Illinois smothered everything San Jose threw at them. The Illini held San Jose State to 15 rushing yards, stuffed the Spartans on the goal line five times, and kept them from converting on third down 11 times.

Now I know that beating California is a Herculean task, but just because a team is ranked doesn’t make them invincible. (See Oklahoma, Iowa and Auburn)

The comeback against Rutgers showed the Fightin’ Illini can’t be counted out, and if Illinois continues catching breaks like the missed Rutgers field goals last week and the called back interception this week, they can come back to Champaign undefeated.

The Bears are another young team trying to find new stars, so they’ll be prone to miscues.

After finishing 10-2 last season, Cal lost one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Aaron Rodgers, its 2,000-yard rusher J.J. Arrington, its starting receivers, and eight defensive starters. Those players were the core of what took the program from 1-10 four years ago to top 25 today.

Any team would be hard-pressed to replace that talent pool. To make matters worse, the Bears have been hit by the injury bug.

Sophomore running back Marshawn Lynch has already rushed for 193 yards this season, but left early in Saturday’s game against Washington because of a broken finger. Two weeks ago, the Bears lost starting quarterback Nate Longshore as well, so now stepping in at quarterback is junior college standout Joseph Ayoob.

Even with a back-up running back and a back-up quarterback, the Bears destroyed Washington 56-17, but I think the Illini are better than the Huskies.

Nobody predicted Illinois to be 3-0, but nobody predicted it to be Sugar Bowl-bound in 2001 either.

Thoughts and Second Thoughts

Granted, San Jose is a bad Div. 1-A team, but when is the last time Illinois dominated a Div. 1-A team? Arkansas State in 2002.

Enjoy it while it lasts: Illinois has more wins than Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa this season.

Freshman Kyle Hudson might be just a 165-pound wide receiver, but Brasic has had no trouble finding him on the field. Hudson was instrumental in the comeback against Rutgers and caught two passes Saturday, including one for 43 yards.

Dan Berrigan is a senior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]