Werner: Illini staff sets foundation for Illini program, its case to stay

Signature win over Nebraska boosts Illini for future -- possibly under Bill Cubit

CHAMPAIGN - Senior guard Ted Karras led a few of his Illinois teammates into the student section to sing "Hail to the Orange."

Senior defensive end Jihad Ward stormed into the locker room repeating the phrase, "We never gave up on you." To whom? Not sure.

Senior wide receiver Geronimo Allison wiped tears from his eyes before his on-field interview with the Big Ten Network.

"I was all over the place," said Allison, who had the game-winning touchdown catch with 0:10 left. "I was so emotional."

Nancy Cubit, wife of Illini head coach Bill Cubit, jumped into senior safety Clayton Fejedelem's arms.

Fejedelem couldn't remember who he ran toward first.

"I was just seeing orange," Fejedelem said. "I remember Kwaaning (senior cornerback Davontay Kwaaning) was there."

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas embraced Cubit following the game and told the Illini interim coach, "I'm proud of you."

When asked where Saturday's 14-13 upset victory over Nebraska ranks in his career, Cubit said: "Personally? It might be the best. This team has faced so much adversity."

The Illini football had celebrated 13 wins at Memorial Stadium in three-plus seasons under recently dismissed head coach Tim Beckman's staff.

But none hit with as much weight as Saturday's comeback victory of tradition-rich Nebraska.

The Illini -- the team with an interim coach and the program that had just four Big Ten victories the previous three seasons -- actually beat Nebraska, the team that made a coaching change because its hot-tempered coach had too many nine-win seasons.

The signature victory sets up a foundation for the Illini's next permanent head coach to build upon -- and adds ammunition to Cubit's case for the job.

Start of something good?

Of course, this was just the start for the Illini staff -- which must not only win enough games but also be cleared by the imminent results of the independent investigation into abuse allegations, which resulted in Beckman's firing -- but it's a heck of a start.

"Everybody (talks about) 'your signature win' and when you don't do it, everybody deflates and everybody thinks that the sky is falling," Cubit said. "I think the alumni, fans, the students, our kids now see what hard work and grinding, what you can do if you just keep playing as a team. The fans are as big a part of this win as everybody else. To see the enthusiasm they had. They stuck around. They were enthusiastic. We made the big play (Malik Turner's late 40-yard catch), and the place went nuts.

"I want to go out and get people in those stands, so everybody feels good about the orange and blue. Tonight, guess what? There are people that are feeling good about the orange and blue."

The win over Nebraska gives the Illini a much-needed boost of confidence before back-to-back opportunities against two more Big Ten programs (Iowa and Wisconsin) that have looked down at Illinois in the Big Ten standings for decades

"We believe we're a high-caliber football team," Fejedelem said. "We know we are. We have the athletes. This is just going to be momentum."

And in a wide-open Big Ten West Division -- where Northwestern and Iowa may now be the favorites after recent division champs Nebraska and Wisconsin (as well as rising Minnesota) lost in their conference openers.

"All this means is we're 1-0 (in the Big Ten)," Cubit said. "But it's the first we're 1-0 in ... well, I know since I've been here."

Building up

And the good feelings might not just resonate with the current players and fans.

The Illini hosted an impressive list of visitors that included four-star receiver Donnie Corley, three-star offensive tackle Tre Johnson and several other top 2016 and 2017 targets. If this staff, which landed a commitment two days after Beckman's dismissal, can successfully sell to recruits with an interim tag, it's another bullet point in their case to DIA leadership.

"It just shows that we're taking one more step," said Ryan Cubit, the Illinois quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator. "We never doubted ourselves. That's what we're installing in this program right now. We believe we can win. It's not going out hoping anymore. We think we have the talent and can do it, even with young kids."

The Illini appear to have a defense -- which held Nebraska to season lows in yards (292) and points -- finally capable of competing against quality Big Ten opponents.

An offense relying on young playmakers isn't firing on all cylinders, but some of the youth -- including Turner (four catches, 70 yards), freshman receiver Desmond Cain (four catches, 40 yards) and freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (career-high 98 rushing yards) -- made big plays in the second half of the victory.

And remember, this team's head coach was fired a week before the season opener. That they've come together to start 4-1 and beat Nebraska -- no matter how poorly first-year Huskers headman Mike Riley coached -- proves this Illini program has some strong leadership.

"There's been a lot of noise going around this program, a lot of different things," Fejedelem said. "It just really goes back to the togetherness that Coach Cubit preaches. And we really do. I'm a firm believer that offense, defense, everybody on this team really plays for each other."

Visualizing success

Senior linebacker Mason Monheim searched for his family first. They'd been through a lot since Mason signed on to Beckman's first recruiting class: just one Big Ten win the first two seasons; too many butt-whoopings from programs, like Nebraska; and then, Beckman's firing.

"It's been a long time coming," Monheim said. "Not that we're done. It's still early in the season, but it's a great first step forward."

Coaches often talk about the process of "learning to win." For the Illini, it's been a long, painful process.

They lost every one of their Big Ten games in 2012 by an average of 23 points. They finally broke a 20-game Big Ten losing streak with an ugly 20-16 win at Purdue in 2013.

Last season, they were more competitive and won three of their final five Big Ten games to earn bowl eligibility.

Now, they're 1-0 in the Big Ten, sitting above Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota in the Big Ten West standings -- at least for one week.

Cubit asked his players to visualize success before Saturday's game.

"I told them to 'Close your eyes,'" he said, "'and envision what it's going to be like with 0:00 on the clock and when you walk off that field and the band's playing and those fans are cheering you on.'"

Those visions became reality on Saturday night.

"It's unbelievable that that's what happened," Cubit said.

The win allows Illinois fans -- Cubit wants to see more of them in three weeks for the Oct. 24 homecoming game against Wisconsin -- to envision a brighter future.

And it gives Cubit's staff the basis of a case that it should be given the opportunity to lead the Illini into that future.

"I think it shows how much faith we have in him (Cubit), and how we're behind him 100 percent," quarterback Wes Lunt said. "I think this win definitely helps if he stays or goes."


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