Big Ten

Javon Pickett asks out of Letter of Intent, Illini lose second signed recruit in matter of days

Javon Pickett asks out of Letter of Intent, Illini lose second signed recruit in matter of days

Illinois' blockbuster recruiting class for 2017 has taken another major hit.

Javon Pickett, a three-star guard from Belleville, announced Saturday that he's asking to be released from his National Letter of Intent after the Illini replaced John Groce with Brad Underwood last month.

"Thank you to the University of Illinois for supporting my family and I during my recruitment. However, after the coaching change, I experienced a level of apprehension due to the relationship my family and I developed with coach Groce. After long thoughts and prayers, I have decided to ask for my release from my NLI," Pickett wrote in a Twitter post. "Coach Underwood has been highly supportive during this transition, however I need to ensure that as a student-athlete I am putting myself in the best possible situation to succeed both as a student and athlete.

"During this period, I would like to stress that all options remain open to include the University of Illinois. I want to thank the fans and staff of Illini Nation, your support has been tremendous from the very beginning."

Pickett's announcement follows that of Jeremiah Tilmon, a five-star center, who announced earlier this week that he was requesting his release from his Letter of Intent in the wake of the coaching change.

While both Tilmon and Pickett could still end up in orange and blue, it's hard to think that one would take the drastic step of asking for a release if one was leaning toward staying with the school they signed with.

Instead, it points to Illinois losing half of its highly touted recruiting class, leaving four-star guards Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams — who have confirmed their commitments to the Illini since Underwood's arrival — as the sole members of the incoming class.

Add that to a roster that will say goodbye to a lot of members of this year's team, and Underwood could be scrambling to put together a team for his first season in Champaign. Jaylon Tate, Tracy Abrams, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne Jr. are all departing this offseason, leaving just seven returning scholarship players plus the two incoming freshmen for a total of just nine scholarship players.

While both Underwood and athletics director Josh Whitman said during recent press conferences that they would reach out to keep the recruiting class intact, the decisions of Tilmon and Pickett are understandable ones. The recruits made their commitments to Groce and now face a situation in which they'd be playing for a totally different coach. Underwood retained assistant coach Jamall Walker, who has had recent recruiting success. But the recruits were set to get something different than they signed up for, and they shouldn't be blamed for taking the opportunity to reconsider their decisions.

But these decisions won't make Illinois basketball fans too happy, as it halves what was a top-15 recruiting class in the country, certainly the best one Groce assembled in his five seasons in Champaign.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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USA TODAY

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

Put it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.