CHAMPAIGN - Illinois didn't have the luxury of emptying its bench last season.
In 2014, the Illini needed fourth-quarter comebacks and late heroics from quarterback Wes Lunt to win each of its three games against non-power five conference opponents (Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State).
So Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit was thrilled to start benching some of his starters after the first series of the second half during Saturday's 52-3 season-opening rout of Kent State.
"Last year, boy it was a fight to the end for three of them," Cubit said. "You never got your young guys established. Plus, that's more hits (on the starters). I think (running back Josh Ferguson) got 12 carries in the run game. Well, that was a good day for him. He had 77 yards and a couple passes, and he got out. So that was good. He's not taking those additional hits that he would take otherwise."
Cubit said 73 players played Saturday, including several walk-ons. Also, 28 made tackles, 10 caught passes (six caught touchdown passes) and five different running backs registered carries.
"So a lot of guys got a lot of good work in," Cubit said.
Many of the second-stringers played most of the second half, while some third-stringers even got some fourth-quarter play. Several players were able to get their first taste of college football.
And the staff now has tape on most of the players they plan to have active this season.
Cubit mentioned freshman defensive tackle Jamal Milan, freshman receiver Sam Mays (two catches, 37 yards, 1 TD), junior linebacker LaKeith Walls (team-high seven tackles), redshirt freshman offensive lineman Nick Allegretti and junior guard Connor Brennan as young players who stood out in their extended playing time.
"We got some young players in who are going to understand after seeing the tape what it takes to play major college football," Cubit said.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Chayce Crouch also received his first bit of college experience -- in that ever important backup role to the injury-prone Lunt -- playing all but one series in the second half. He struggled a bit (3-for-9, 46 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) but Cubit expected it.
"I told him, 'Don't go out there and try to win the Heisman today, please,'" Cubit said. "He goes out there and was just trying to do everyhing. Just settle down. His last series, I thought he played really well, played a lot better than he did before."
Experience will help the backups. But the young players will receive more experience this week. The team had two weeks to prepare for Kent State. The players have just one week to get ready for Western Illinois.
"I think some of the younger guys are going to be a little shocked on the speed of the implementation of the offenses and defenses," Cubit said. "They're going to have to catch up. Then with school starting, it's really going to be an educational process with our young guys. But they'll adjust."
"Even on Saturday, I remember three little kids were sprinting just to get to the spot where they could go in there (and meet the players on the Illini Walk). We just got to keep on being positive and keep on attracting a new fan base and recover the old fan base. If we can do that, we'll be back to where everybody wants it to be."
- Bill Cubit, Illinois interim head coach
Cubit said the team suffered no injuries during the game.
Sophomore STAR James Crawford experienced cramps due to the heat, but that was the only health issue.
Cubit was happy to be able to rest starters, especially stars like Wes Lunt, Josh Ferguson, Geronimo Allison and Jihad Ward for most of the second half. Cubit said Ward had no setbacks in his first start since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago.
Depth chart adjustments
The Illini depth chart looks almost identitical to the previous week.
The one starter adjustment from last week is that sophmoore wideout Marchie Murdock is listed as the starting WR-T, or slot receiver. Murdock caught two passes for 42 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown. He replaces junior Dionte Taylor, listed as the WR-T starter last week, at the position. Taylor, who had one catch for nine yards, is listed as the second-string WR-Z behind sophomore Malik Turner.
Illinois hosts Western Illinois at 11 a.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on BTN with Matt Devlin (play-by-play), former Illini J Leman (color analyst) and Rebecca Haarlow (sidelines) on the call.
The Leathernecks (1-0) routed No. 25 Eastern Illinois (0-1), ranked No. 25 in the FCS rankings last week, 33-5 on Saturday. WIU receiver Lance Lenoir Jr. was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Player of the Week after accuulated 280 all-purpose yards (156 on returns) last week. Cubit mentioned that the Leatherneck defensive line is better than most FCS opponents and that the WIU linebackers are athletic.
"They got a lot going for them," Cubit said. "They beat an Eastern Illinois team pretty well. We got our work cut out for us."
Illinois is 14-0 all-time against FCS opponents and 14-0 all-time vs. opponents from public university opponents from the state of Illinois: 4-0 vs. Northern Illinois, 4-0 vs. Southern Illinois, 3-0 vs. Illinois State, 2-0 against Eastern Illinois and 1-0 against Western Illinois.
- Senior defensive tackle Joe Fotu and junior safety Caleb Day will sit out Saturday's game, Cubit said. Both were suspended indefinitely on Aug. 26 for violations of team policy. Cubit did not set a specific timetable for their return.
- Cubit mentioned wide receiver drops and pre-snap penalties as the major things to "rectify at practice" this week.
- Illinois plans to redshirt true freshmen quarterbacks Jimmy Fitzgerald and Jeff George Jr., Cubit said. "If we can, great," Cubit said. "If we can't, we'll continue to keep evaluating the process."
- Cubit said he doesn't listen to co-defensive coordinators Tim Banks and Mike Phair during the game. He said he consults with Banks at times just to make sure he feels good about certain situations and to give some input. "There's not really a whole lot of communication going on," said Cubit, who scripts the offense. "There never is, unless you're a micro-manager coach who wants to talk to everybody. That's not my style. They got a job to do, and I thought they did a pretty good job."
- Running backs coach Nathan Scheelhaase and graduate assistant Reilly O'Toole -- both former Illini quarterbacks -- helped coach the wide receivers on Saturday as WRs coach Mike Bellamy served a one-game suspension for an NCAA violation. Bellamy returns to the sideline this Saturday.