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.

Ayo Dosunmu commitment changes the outlook of Illinois basketball

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SB NATION

Ayo Dosunmu commitment changes the outlook of Illinois basketball

Morgan Park senior Ayo Dosunmu helped change the outlook of Illinois basketball on Thursday as the 6-foot-4 guard committed to the Illini and new head coach Brad Underwood.

Deciding between his two finalists of Illinois and Wake Forest on the darkened second floor of the Jordan Brand Store on State Street, Dosunmu kept fans of both teams in suspense throughout the entire week. With his inner circle changing all of their Twitter avatars to black and Dosunmu wearing all black clothing to school on Thursday, there were no leaks from Dosunmu's camp on where he might end up.

But after a brief introduction video played, displaying Dosunmu's #whynotme catchphrase at the end, the lanky senior emerged from a back hallway. Ditching the blackout theme from earlier in the day, Dosunmu slowly walked into the light of his press conference, in front of teammates, family and friends, revealing a crisp white polo with a bright orange Block I.

Without saying a word, Dosunmu's presence in the white Illinois polo changed everything for the future of Illinois basketball. 

"I just want to bring good days back for basketball at Illinois and I want to be one of the cornerstones to start it off," Dosunmu said.

The frontrunner to win Mr. Basketball in the state this season, Dosunmu is a colossal catch for Underwood as it means the Illini could have back-to-back Mr. Basketball winners as their future backcourt. After landing Edwardsville guard and Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith last spring, considering that Underwood has yet to even coach a game at Illinois, he is already doing a superb job of keeping in-state talent at home.

Although Underwood had to play catch up on Dosunmu once he took the job coming from Oklahoma State this spring, he made an intelligent hire in assistant coach and Chicago native Ronald "Chin" Coleman to help bridge the gap. A former coach at Whitney Young and with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program, Coleman has recruited Chicago kids at multiple Division I stops before landing with Illinois this spring.

Coleman had an advantage when it came to recruiting Dosunmu. Not only was Coleman a former coach with Dosunmu's AAU program, but he also gave Dosunmu his first scholarship offer while he was an assistant coach at UIC. Even though national programs like Kansas and USC came calling, Dosunmu opted to stay close to home as loyalty is important to him.

"Me and Coach Coleman have a great relationship. He offered me my first scholarship. So, as a teenager, you never forget that," Dosunmu said.

With Coleman opening the door, Underwood and the rest of Illinois recruited Dosunmu as hard as possible. Underwood sold his fast-paced offense, promising to put the ball in Dosunmu's hands right away in a young backcourt that would also feature Smith, freshman Trent Frazier and sophomore Te'Jon Lucas as a solid perimeter core to build around.

""They like to play fast, I like to play fast," Dosunmu said.

"[Underwood] told me I could have the ball right away. He told me that I can be one of the freshmen playing the most minutes coming out so we sat there and talked about a lot of things."

Once Dosunmu took an official visit to Champaign to see campus last weekend he was sold after spending time with his future teammates. During one particular conversation, Dosunmu was playing NBA 2K18 with Smith as the two discussed what it might be like playing together.

"He said we can be the best backcourt and that if I have his back he has my back," Dosunmu said. 

"I think it can be scary."

Illinois hasn't had the kind of talent to produce a "scary" backcourt in the last few years but now with Smith, Frazier, Lucas and Dosunmu the Illini should have more than enough firepower to help run Underwood's high-octane offense.

It might take some time for such a young backcourt to gel, but all four of those pieces have a chance to be a major part of Illinois rebuilding into a perennial NCAA tournament contender.

Underwood still has to finish out the Class of 2018 and find more interior players to compete in the rugged Big Ten, but for the first time in years, there is reason to be very optimistic about the outlook of Illinois basketball. 

New quarterback but similar result as Illini get walloped by Iowa

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USA TODAY

New quarterback but similar result as Illini get walloped by Iowa

Illinois had a new quarterback at the helm of its offense Saturday, but the result was all too similar for Lovie Smith's team.

Jeff George Jr. got the start and had some flashes early on, but the Iowa Hawkeyes dominated the Illini for a 45-16 runaway win in Iowa City.

Illinois actually hung with Iowa for an entire half, holding a second-quarter lead and trailing at halftime by only four. George led a game-tying, 85-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, and the Illini took the lead after intercepting Nathan Stanley and turning that giveaway into a field goal. But an Akrum Wadley touchdown run in the final seconds before halftime brought an end to Illinois' last lead of the day.

George had the Illini in a position to retake the lead midway through the third quarter, but an 89-yard Iowa pick six pretty much sealed the deal, swinging the momentum entirely in the Hawkeyes' favor. They poured it on in the fourth quarter, scoring four touchdowns to turn an eight-point game into a 29-point rout.

Illinois matched Iowa in many respects, both teams going over 440 total yards. But George's three interceptions proved to be difference, especially when one of those turnovers was taken back for a back-breaking touchdown. George and Stanley threw for a nearly identical number of yards, but Stanley had just one pick to George's three and also threw a trio of touchdown passes.

After making the quarterback change after last weekend's loss to Nebraska, Smith saw an offense that moved much better than it had in previous weeks under Chayce Crouch's leadership. But the Illini still turned the ball over at critical moments and failed to produce many points. This time, though, the defense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain, either, especially late as the score snowballed.

Illinois dropped to 2-3 with the loss and is 0-2 in its two conference games. Iowa stopped the bleeding after losing back-to-back games to Penn State and Michigan State.