Illinois football is much more competitive this season, but can interim coach Bill Cubit get this team to seven wins? I think that's the goal for him if he wants to make athletic directr Mike Thomas' job either easy or difficult, depending on whether you think Thomas wants to make or change or would rather not have to fire another coach -- assuming, of course, that Thomas makes the decision (but it looks that way).
ESPN's FPI projects the Illini to win road games at Purdue and Minnesota. Those look like the most winnable of the five remaining games, of course. No. 1 Ohio State looks like the unwinnable game, while Penn State and Northwestern are games Illinois will enter as a slight underdog. Assuming the Illini must beat Purdue and Minnesota -- two of the three worst scoring offenses in the Big Ten -- to get to seven wins, does Penn State or Northwestern provide a more winnable opportunity?
The crowd at Soldier Field favors the Illini and Northwestern's defensive line is not nearly as good as Penn State's. But Northwestern has a much better secondary and a better running game. Penn State has the more experienced quarterback with NFL potential, but Christian Hackenberg is a bit skiddish behind a bad offensive line. And Josh Ferguson may be healthy against Northwestern. I'd side slightly with Northwestern as the more winnable game.
The issue for Cubit is that due to injuries his team is now reliant on an improved defense and a ball-control offense. The team strategy now is to keep the scores low -- with an improved defense and a grind-it-out, low-turnover offense -- and give Lunt a chance to win the game late. Four of the five remaining games likely will be close late in the game -- a good thing that Illinois will have a chance but a bad thing for Illinois in that other teams will have a chance to win. Illinois has a chance to win all four of the non-Ohio State games, but it has a chance to lose all of them too.
The Wisconsin loss was more competitive than previous games against the Badgers, but it was discouraging in that Illinois missed its best opportunity to beat Wisconsin in a decade.
"We're staying in the games, that's the thing," Cubit said. "I don't think we're killing ourselves like we were (in previous seasons). I think our kids are playing with a lot more passion. They're not flinching when bad things happen. There's a lot of good things happening. You just got to take that next step. You got to get some wins. That Nebraska win was a big step. But the last two teams we played were record-wise they're the top two teams in the West. And we're right there. We just got to get over that just a little bit better."
Illinois is almost forced to run exclusively four wide receiver sets right now because they have no trustworthy tight ends who can catch a pass and only one trustworthy running back. Junior tight end Tyler White was to get an MRI on his injured knee on Monday. Illini interim coach Bill Cubit does not sound optimistic about the prognosis. Senior H-Back Tim Clary returned against Wisconsin, but a club over his injured hand means he is no threat to catch passes -- unless he developed Odell Beckham Jr. one-hand reception skills. Injuries to the tight ends severly limit Illinois in two of its worst areas on offense: short-yardage runs and red-zone (Illinois ranks 119th among 127 FBS teams in red-zone offense). Cubit said the team even used an offensive tackle as a tight end on a play on Saturday.
Bill Cubit doesn't trust his JUCO transfers on offense. Tight end Andrew Davis barely played against Wisconsin, and running back Henry Enyenihi did not even seen the field. Cubit said Enyenihi's lack of touches is due to freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn being a much more reliable pass blocker. Davis hasn't earned trust during practice, and Cubit said he doesn't believe that players who don't practice well can just flip a switch during games. You wonder if Cubit gets to a point where he just puts them in for a snaps to see what they got -- because at least they're healthy bodies.
Illinois also is searching desperately for some gamebreakers. Its two best are standing on the sideline: Josh Ferguson (shoulder) and Mikey Dudek (ACL). That's why Caleb Day (two catches for 18 yards) was partially moved to offense. But he can't block like a running back and is not accustomed to the route tree nor the checks. The Illini perimeter receivers, Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner, have the size and athleticism to beat smaller defenders. But they mostly lack the top-end speed to stretch the field.
Freshman wide receiver Desmond Cain's last four games: 20 catches for 158 yards. He's the Illini's best slot receiver right now, and basically the second running back in that screen passes are the de-facto Illini run game. Junior Dionte Taylor also has five catches for 63 yards over the last two games. The Illini need one of these two receivers, who can make defenders miss in space, to break a long one at some point.
Bill Cubit said Monday that the team is up to 40 dropped passes on the season. By my count, the number is closer to 45.
Josh Ferguson is running at practice. Cubit said they will monitor how the senior running back feels this week and make a decision on whether he will be ready for Penn State. Expect Ferguson (AC sprain) to sit at least one more week.
Expect Justin Hardee to redshirt. The senior wideout orginally was only expected to miss a few games with a fractured foot suffered in July, but the break did not heal quickly or correctly. Cubit met with the senior recently and it sounds like Hardee has decided to redshirt and pursue graduate school rather than use his final season of eligibility on a few games.
Kudos to the Illini marketing staff for encouraging a relatively big homecoming crowd and to the students for showing up. The DIA has worked really hard to set up a great fan atmosphere, and Grange Grove was a home-run. The Illini also are doing more outreach than ever to students, including foreign students, and it paid off on Saturday with a sell-out student section. Now, of course, the team must win to keep drawing fans. But at least the DIA has set the foundation for the infrastructure to a great gameday atmosphere.
Cubit had a great answer for if he's nervous that the Wisconsin loss will dissuade students from showing up for the final home game at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 14. "Worried?" Cubit said. "No because I feel real confident that we're going to give them something to look forward to."
The NBA season tips off tonight. My picks:
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Clippers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavs over Heat
NBA Finals projection: Cavs over Warriors
Surprise East playoff team: Orlando Magic
Surprise West playoff team: Sacramento Kings
Regular-season MVP: Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Rookie of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, 76ers
Comeback Player of the Year: Paul George, Pacers