However, Lunt went down in the second half with a fractured leg and in stepped Reilly O'Toole. O'Toole, a more than capable leader, lacks the arm of Wes Lunt and the athleticism of Aaron Bailey, but his experience as a senior made him the incumbent when Lunt went down.
With Lunt out for 4-6 weeks, talk started to surface as to whether Bailey would have the redshirt removed and would see action against Wisconsin.
Illinois fans got their answer on Saturday.
O'Toole moved the ball well in the first quarter against the Badgers, but by late in the 2nd quarter and into the second half, the offense began to stall and Aaron Bailey was called upon to take over at quarterback, and though he faced a few struggles here and there, was able to spark the Illinois offense to at least make the final score respectable.
Bailey, who is known more for his running than his passing, displayed that rushing ability in Madison, running 12 times for 75 yards and a touchdown. With Bailey, you know you're taking a chance on a throwing motion that's still a work in progress, but his arm strength isn't really the question.
Bailey completed only 2 of his 5 passing attempts, with one of those five being an interception on a play which Bailey was pressured and took a big hit. Bailey's two completions netted him 39 yards.
But now, aside from Tim Beckman's future, the biggest question surrounding Illinois football is who will be under center when the Illini return home to host Minnesota in two weeks.
Lunt will presumably still be out, so someone else will need to prepare to be the starter. Lunt's absence is not only from the games, but practice as well, which means more reps will be available for both Bailey and O'Toole. But who should get them?
Here's my take:
Reilly O'Toole is a leader and a lot of the members of this team respect him a lot, but if Aaron Bailey gives you the best chance to win the game, the redshirt is already burned, so yeah, you play him.
It's really pretty simple at this point. Bailey may not be the most polished passer, but if you start giving him the reps with the ones in practice, that's that much more time he can work with his coaches and teammates on becoming a better player, especially with Lunt sidelined.
Bailey is a true dual-threat quarterback. He's an exceptional runner, and if he can begin making the proper reads and improve his accuracy over time, he could provide a spark.
Juice Williams was never the most polished passer on those mid-2000's teams, but he made plays. He used his feet to create when the pass wasn't there. He had a huge arm, but it took time to refine his touch and accuracy. Bailey is a more fluid athlete than Juice, but in principle, Bailey has the potential to have a Juice-type impact on an offense that desperately needs more playmakers.
And one of the biggest areas in which Illinois has struggled is time of possession. Throwing on third and short is far less of a requirement when the quarterback has the ability to pick up a third down with his feet and extend the drive.
Now does this mean that Bailey is the exclusive quarterback? No. However a more balanced two-quarterback system at a minimum should be used in Lunt's absence. The playbook gets bigger, you have another weapon at your disposal, and it's one more look and player that the opposing team now has to account for in preparation.
So when Illinois takes the field against Minnesota later this month, Will Bailey be the number one guy? Practice may determine that.
But let's be honest, there are bigger fish to fry right now.