A couple hours before Saturday’s kickoff at Soldier Field in Chicago, word came out that the University of Illinois administration had extended Bill Cubit, a three-month, emergency fill-in for Tim Beckman once the latter was dismissed a week before the season, another two seasons, thus eliminating any “interim” shroud of mystery concerning who is, and will be, the Illini’s head coach. For many, the move marks a commitment to stability, to keeping some sense of what has been going on intact. However, what exactly has been going on? Prior to the game, the Illini had lost five of their previous six games, with their offense averaging a barely pedestrian 17.8 points per game under the guidance of someone whose strength is reputed to be offensive Xs and Os. Of course, they couldn’t even match that output against Northwestern, and, in fact, needed a touchdown courtesy of the defense to even reach double figures. Unless the administration changes, or changes its mind, Orange & Blue fans can expect much of the same through 2017 as a byproduct of a never-ending series of three-and-outs capped by 1- to 3-yard passes to the sideline with the first-down marker exponentially further away.
2. Nothing like wasting Wes Lunt's arm
He can’t run, and he can’t adapt. Frankly, there are many limitations to what the Illini QB can do on the football field. One thing he can do, though, is throw. Long. Short. Accurate. With zip. With touch. You name it, he can throw it – and even make it look pretty while doing so. Without reading. Without reacting. OK, so then why in the HELL would you ever you limit an already limited QB by taking away just about all he does well, and instead force him to do dump-off passes or quick-strike outs that require him to read and react? That’s exactly what Cubit and right-hand man/son Ryan Cubit do with Lunt running the offense. You know who works well in that offense? Reilly O’Toole. Unfortunately, last year’s season-ending savior already has used up his eligibility and is currently an assistant coach. So, either scrap that offense and go with the pro-set one Lunt was born to play, or switch QBs, because the player and the system do NOT mesh. At all. Never have, never will, and with Lunt expected back next fall this is a critical decision to make – for both the program and the individual, who may opt to put his name in the NFL draft if he’s not going to start next season.
3. Mason Monheim makes a play
He never became the player he seemed destined to become after a breakout freshman season, which seems a very odd thing to say for a guy who amassed almost 400 career tackles (385), including 98 in 2015, and started for four seasons. Even looked the part. Stout, scruffy, muscled up, you kinda figured M2 would be a rock in the middle who would just mash opponents with the ball in their hands. But it never really happened. He wasn’t exactly an impact player, or a physical one – a role, oddly, filled more by FS Clayton Fejedelem, a former walk-on who was brilliant yet again with 16 tackles to complete a senior campaign with a team-leading 140, an average of 11.7 per game that placed him fifth in the country. If anything, Monheim was the king of “second on the scene,” always good for an assisted tackle, not necessarily a solo one, or the initial hitter on one. That being said, gotta say, it was kinda nice to see him intercept a Clayton Thorson pass late in the third quarter and return it 58 yards for a score (his second pick-six in the last 12 months against the Wildcats), pumping a little life into the Illini and maybe a push to get the forever-in-quicksand offense going. Alas, the latter of those two never materialized.
4. Ke'Shawn Vaughn is a keeper
It seemed to take until senior RB Josh Ferguson’s annual injury bug kicked in before Cubit realized the weapon he had in the freshman, who had been THE FIND of the latest recruiting class. Once that happened, Vaughn proved to be as reliable as he was potent. In his final six games of the regular season, the 5-10, 205-pounder averaged 13 carries for 66 yards and two catches for 16 yards per outing. He also scored four TDs in that stretch. Earth-shattering, no. But in an offense totally imbalanced in favor of the pass, he was a shining light for what could be in the future … if Cubit, or his ultimate replacement, opts to utilize Vaughn and his Big Ten-level talent. In this one he played a supporting role to the electric Ferguson, who led the Illini with 14 carries (40 yards) and everyone with seven catches for 100 yards, but he still was productive, averaging better than five yards per carry (12-62).
5. Bad result, but they looked good
So, soooo many things wrong with this season in general and this game in particular, which included a 19-yard TD reception by Northwestern’s Dan Vitale in which the Wildcats’ ultra-back CLEARLY stepped out of bounds at the 4 – right in front of an official – before diving into the end zone, but one thing ya gotta give the Illini … they dress sharp. For all the mixed reviews and half-hearted compliments given when Nike and Illinois revealed the school’s rebrand 20 months ago, the reality is they combined to make a pretty sweet look. The Illini, as the home team, went with something new for this one, going with an orange helmet, blue jersey and blue pants ensemble that, frankly, embarrassed Northwestern’s all-white, Storm Trooper silliness. Now, if they could just get their performance to match their appearance.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org