CHAMPAIGN - The weight on Wes Lunt’s shoulder pads must feel suffocating.
“He’s got to be great,” Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit said of the Illini junior quarterback. “He’s got to be great every single game.”
If Lunt isn’t great on any given Saturday this season, the Illini (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) likely lose that game. That again was the case for the Illini’s 24-13 homecoming loss to Wisconsin (6-2, 2-1 Big Ten) on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Illini quarterback completed 22 of 43 passes for 278 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Not terrible. But far from perfect -- and Lunt has to play nearly perfect for an injury-ravaged Illini offense to beat great defenses and good teams, like Wisconsin.
“(Quarterbacks coach) Ryan Cubit came up to me after the game and told me, ‘We’re expecting perfection’ out of me,” Lunt said. “That’s hard to do, but that’s a role I’m going to take and look forward to. We just have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who are beat up and not playing. I’m going to try to do my best and focus on one play at a time and try to move this offense the best I can.”
Lunt -- a talented player that likely will get an even closer look from NFL scouts next season -- was unfairly dubbed by some as a “savior” when he decided to transfer from Oklahoma State after starting several games as a true freshman. Lunt knew that his supporting pieces at Illinois wouldn’t be great, and if he wants to be an NFL quarterback he'll have to shine through such adversity. After all, Wisconsin won with its backup quarterback, Bart Houston, and without its best offensive weapon, running back Corey Clement.
But even the top NFL draft prospects could sympathize for the Illini quarterback’s current plight.
The top storyline of the offseason was whether Lunt, who missed eight games over his first two collegiate seasons due to a myriad of injuries, could stay healthy for an entire season. While Lunt has avoided the injury bug -- thanks in large part to great protection from his offensive line (eight sacks in seven games) -- it has infected his best weapons.
Three of his top five wide receivers are injured and two likely starters, Mikey Dudek (a Scout.com freshman All-American last season) and Justin Hardee, haven’t played yet this season, and Dudek will redshirt. In their place, Geronimo Allison’s heroics -- he leads the Big Ten in receptions (48) and receiving yards (700) -- have not been enough to overcome the young group’s drop total, which is inching closer to 50 through seven games.
“When we have the chance to make a big play, we have to make it,” Bill Cubit said. “We can’t have foul balls and those things there.”
Three of Lunt’s top four running backs -- senior starter Josh Ferguson and freshmen Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin -- were padless on the sidelines on Saturday due to differing injuries (only Ferguson may return this season). That forced freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who scored the Illini’s lone touchdown on Saturday, to play every snap because the dropoff to the backups is so great.
Lunt’s starting tight end, Tyler White, left Saturday’s game with a serious knee injury, and the Illini’s best lead blocker, Tim Clary, has a big club on his injured hand -- further limiting the Illini's punch up front. The JUCO transfers, Andrew Davis and Ainslie Johnson, have been non-factors so far this season.
Given all the injuries, it’s no surprise the Illini are last in the Big Ten in rushing and red-zone offense.
“When they (Wisconsin) needed to run it, they ran it,” Cubit said. “Sometimes when we need to run it, we didn’t run it real well, and we need to get better at that.”
Those inefficiencies place a huge burden on Lunt’s arm and mind.
“I know I can never play perfect,” Lunt said. “That’s football. But I know I can get us in the right plays and try to do my best play in and play out and just have a positive attitude.
Said Bill Cubit: “He’s handling it great. He takes full responsibility.”
Said senior guard and team captain Ted Karras: “He’s got to be the guy, and he can be the guy. He’s proven he can be the guy.”
The lack of playmakers and game-breakers also places even more pressure on the Cubits to call a more perfect plan.
Cubit’s aerial attack kept Illinois was supposed to hit its high point this season with Lunt, Allison, Dudek, Ferguson and a stable of depth at the skill positions. Plans quickly changed.
The Illini now must rely on its improved but not-dominant defense to keep them in games and allow a piece-by-piece, ball-control offense to try to score just enough points to win.
“You got to scheme and you have to be almost perfect at times,” Cubit said. “That’s why you got to rely on your defense. You have to make them low-scoring games because we’re not going to be an explosive group. It’s just right now, we’re banged up. We’re not going to get a lot of those guys back, so you have to play smart. You have to play old-school football. I know everybody likes the high-flying thing, but we just can’t do it right now.”
The Illini offense ‘s task doesn’t get much easier. Penn State’s defense entered the week with a top-20 scoring defense. Ohio State has several draft picks on its defense, including a few first-round talents, and Northwestern’s defense has been inconsistent but shut down Stanford and Duke.
For Illinois to reach its goals (bowl game, seven or eight wins), it likely needs Lunt to have many more moments, and games, of greatness -- which comes with a ton of responsibility on his shoulders.
“I think any quarterback wants a lot of pressure knowing that you can make a play at any time,” Lunt said. “I try to look at it as a positive. That’s my job. Whether I like it or not, that’s my job. I’m going to go at it and work as hard as I can.”