STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Bill Cubit really, really wanted the Illinois head coaching job. But even the Illinois interim football coach knows he's trying to win a brawl with his hands tied behind his back.
Winning the Illini job permanently always was going to be a difficult task for the interim coach. Cubit had to force Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas' hand. While the opportunity came under terrible circumstances (Tim Beckman was dismissed for alleged abuse of players), Cubit knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
At the beginning of the season, the Illini staff assumed it needed seven or eight wins for Cubit to have a shot at earning a long-term Big Ten head coaching title, even if they were promised nothing. Following Saturday's 39-0 loss at Penn State, Cubit's candidacy looks TKO'd.
The Illini staff hears only radio silence from the powers at be. Following their first embarassing Big Ten loss of the season -- the third straight defeat for the Illini (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) -- that silence sounds deafening.
Cubit, 62, is a veteran. He knew the challenge in front of him. But due to injuries and lack of program depth, he probably feels like he's been given one chance to compete in the Kentucky Derby only to have his longshot horse hobbled before the B1G race.
The Nittany Lions (7-2, 4-1) shut out the injury-ravaged Illini offense on Saturday, the first time Illinois has been shut out since a 45-0 loss at Michigan in 2012 -- before Cubit arrived. The last time Cubit was shut out as the primary offensive play caller occured on Oct. 30, 2004, in a loss at UCLA when he was the Stanford offensive coordinator.
"You saw what we saw," a dejected Cubit said. "We were dominated."
Cubit's crew likely would not have been shut out on Saturday -- and might not have lost three straight -- had half of his offensive weapons not been limited to cheerleader roles on Saturday.
On the sideline due to injuries were:
- Wide receiver Mikey Dudek, who had 76 catches for 1,038 yards last season
- Running back Josh Ferguson, who ranks fourth in career all-purpose yardage (3,945) at Illinois
- Wide receiver Justin Hardee, a likely senior starter who has 47 career catches
- Starting tight end Tyler White, one of the team's best blockers -- and H-back Tim Clary has only one usable hand
- Freshman running back Dre Brown, who won the No. 2 job during spring ball before suffering a torn ACL
- Freshman running back Reggie Corbin, who seemed to be solidifying a role as a scatback during the preseason
Granted, Cubit coaxed a 20-point effort out of the same group at Iowa (9-0, 5-0). But the Big Ten schedule eventually exploits your weaknesses. And with that long of an injury list, Illinois has too many holes for Cubit's play-calling to mask.
The running game is mostly nonexistant (96 yards on 64 carries) due to an Illini offensive line that lacks physicality and strength and a freshman running back who is missing too many of his limited opportunities.
That forces the Illini to rely on a passing game that in inefficient because the Illini receivers can't get open, or when they do, they drop too many passes.
That forces talented quarterback Wes Lunt to be near-perfect, which he hasn't been. And with limited mobility, he is a sitting duck as defenses try to tee off with blitzes -- knowing Lunt has to throw for the Illini offense to move.
With the Illini averageArmchair quarterbacks may have all the answers. "Call this," or "If only Cubit did this..." Maybe Cubit should pound his head against the wall even more and run it more. Maybe he should open up the bag of tricks more often. Or maybe when all else fails, he should just chuck it deep.
But Cubit has proven over the last few decades that he's a good coach.
This is the same coach who had top Big Ten passing offenses with little talent in both 2013 and 2014. This is the same coach who set most of the offensive records at Western Michigan. This is the same coach who had successful offenses at Stanford and Rutgers.
Cubit admits he has never had to work so hard to move the ball. Even great coaches can only build so much when there are so few working tools in the tool shed.
"You're just trying to get your kids in position to make plays," Cubit said. "I guess it's frustrating."
The next head coach's job will be a find a way to better work those tools or find shinier ones.
Any fight left?
When I asked if he feels like his hands are tied in trying to move this program forward in his way, Cubit paused for 10 long seconds, carefully choosing his words.
Then he said: "You know, you got a style. You got some things you really believe in. But you also got to take into account those players and doing the right thing, so there's not too much change there."
Cubit probably wanted to answer that question more honestly, but he refused to make it about him. He's a class act in that way.
He knows no one wants to hear excuses, even if some of them are valid. He's being paid to find the answers, even if the answers are unplayable and standing in street clothes on the sideline.
Even if Cubit's candidacy is all but dead, some of the Illini's season goals still have a pulse, and the schedule -- at Purdue, vs. Ohio State, at Minnesota and vs. Northwestern -- still gives the Illini chances to win a few more games and reach another bowl.
But following Saturday's results -- an Illini blowout loss, Purdue's win at Nebraska and Minnesota's tough loss to Michigan -- Illinois might not be favored in another game. And an Illini locker room that has been through so much the last few years and this season once again seems fragile.
That's another challenge: fighting the institutional negativity of a fan base and players who have experienced the snowball effect way too many times.
That overwhelmed weight of Illini-dom again seemed to weigh on the Illini players, at least the offense, on Saturday.
"They just look a little spent," Cubit said. "Because there's a lot of things going on."
The next head coach will surely face the same challenge, given the constant noise atop the university and the athletic department.
'That's my job'
Cubit hasn't looked so "spent" in his time at Illinois either. He said he's "probably about the lowest" he's felt this season. But he said he'll get to work on Sunday to try (maybe futily) to repair the Illini's holes, hoping the players come with the same attitude.
Will the Illini mirror their 2012 and 2013 selves -- when the team lost 15 of 16 Big Ten games -- or their 2014 selves, when they rallied from an 0-3 Big Ten start to win three of its last five and make a bowl?
"Just for the health of the program, it'd be great to see Coach Cubes step into the role," senior guard Ted Karras said. "But we got to go out and win at least three of these last four for that. Everyone's on the hot seat. I'm on the hot seat for how I'm going to leave here. I don't want to be the guy who didn't get to a bowl, didn't improve on every season we've had. We get a chance to win seven or eight, and that's what we want to go do."
Cubit sounds like a good coach -- one who should have another job quickly, if he wants to keep coaching -- who knows his hands are tied.
"We got great kids," Cubit said. "I got to make sure we go out there and do the best they can the last four games. That's my job. I can't get down. I can't get upset with them. I'm not going to do that. They'e been beat down way too much here. So I'm just going to keep plugging along and be positive, like we have been doing. It didn't work today. But it has worked. We played the 10th-ranked team in the country (Iowa) to six points with three minutes to go. We played Wisconsin, and we're in it. So I'm not going to let this game here destroy a lot of the good things we did."
While most observers will understably start to spend most of their focus on other coaching candidates, the current Illini interim head coach will continue fight for Illinois, especially its players, until he's told he's no longer the Illini head coach.
When that day comes -- likely at the end of next month -- Cubit should be given a hand for his strong-willed stewardship.