Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Can Illini's slow-but-steady progress continue?

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Big Ten preview: Can Illini's slow-but-steady progress continue?

Improvement has not come quickly at Illinois, nor has it come dramatically. But make no mistake, it has come.

From two wins to four wins to six wins, the most basic measure of program building has headed in the right direction in back-to-back seasons in Champaign. For the first time last season, head coach Tim Beckman won a conference game at home (twice) and reached a bowl game.

Those achievements aren’t the kind that get a statue built outside the stadium, and they aren’t the kind that have Illini fans jumping for joy and feeling the positivity. If anything — mostly thanks to a turbulent offseason that’s featured a lengthy list of allegations painting Beckman as a bully of a football coach — fans are feeling as negative as ever.

But those fans would be ignoring the trend.

[MORE BIG TEN: Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season]

No one wants to beat their chest over a 6-7 season that ended in a loss to Conference USA’s Louisiana Tech in the anything-but-illustrious Heart of Dallas Bowl. But the year prior, the season’s highlight for Illinois was beating basement-dwelling Purdue. In 2014, there were some legitimate highlights thanks to big conference wins over Minnesota and Penn State in Champaign and a beatdown of rival Northwestern in Evanston — the first time the Illini had done that since 2002.

So what will 2015 bring?

Eight wins — the continuation of the pattern Beckman’s teams have created — does seem unlikely. The schedule isn’t easy with a tough Big Ten slate that should see home-field advantage wiped out by strong opponents Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska visiting Champaign. A home game was jettisoned in favor of a neutral-site (kind of) matchup against Northwestern at Soldier Field. And the lone Power 5 opponent on the non-conference schedule is, for the second straight season, a road game, this time at North Carolina.

On top of the schedule, the team’s best player — wideout Mike Dudek — will miss significant time recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during the spring. The defense has been among the conference’s worst over the past two seasons, and even though new co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair was brought in to help improve it, it’s unsure if he’ll be able to in his first season on campus.

Illinois’ chances likely hinge on Wes Lunt and whether the quarterback can avoid injury and play well if he does stay healthy. He played in just eight of the team’s 13 games last season, getting limited time against Big Ten foes.

[MORE BIG TEN: Return date unknown, Illini's Mike Dudek fighting through ACL recovery]

The projections aren’t kind to the Illini, with oddsmakers suggesting they’ll struggle to reach four wins. That would be a big step backward for Beckman, and regardless of win total, those offseason allegations alone will have the coach hearing plenty of talk regarding his employment as the season marches on. If the wins are in short supply, that talk will get considerably louder.

But Beckman has heard that talk from unimpressed fans and observers for several seasons now, and each time he’s turned in a win total bigger than the prior season’s. This year isn’t expected to go well for the orange and blue. But if Beckman’s teams have proven one thing, it’s that they’ve improved from season to season, even if that improvement has been difficult to see.

Last season, it was a bowl game, and now the Illini know what it takes to get there.

“They’ve tasted it,” Beckman said Sunday at the team’s media day in Champaign. “You know, 6-6 is average. Just be honest, 6-6 is average. These players experienced what it took to get to that so that they had another opportunity to play. And these seniors now, the 23 of them that we have, know the importance of unity as a team to strive and get the most out of your family or your team.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.