WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - College football is a fickle game.
Teams can feel the lowest of lows one week -- say, after a 39-0 embarrassing loss at Penn State -- and the highest of highs next week (oh, maybe after a 48-14 win at Purdue).
Interim coach Bill Cubit's team certainly had a whirlwind week.
"I think it just validates a lot of things that we always talk about," Cubit said aftter his Illini (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) had a no-doubt rout of the Boilermakers (2-7, 1-4). "You just got to keep fighting, you know? You can't let things affect you. I'm old enough to understand that you can be at the bottom of the barrel one minute and at the top the next. You just can't let your emotions just rule what you do. That's what I keep telling them. I think that's what they see. They're waiting to see how I react and I'm not being negative. I'm going to be positive the whole way through. It's just kind of my nature, and that's what I'm going to do. I think it feeds over to those guys there."
Illinois showed resolve similar to last season's team that started 4-6, only to win its final two games to earn a bowl bid. Illinois will have three more chances to earn a bowl eligibility-clinching win
"After watching the (Penn State) film, that just wasn't us," Illini quarterback Wes Lunt said. "We just shook it off really quick and focused on Purdue the next day just to try to get over it. It showed with all the preparation we've been doing.
"I think it just gives us a chance. A bowl game is our goal. Winning today just gave us a chance."
Following the Penn State drubbing, fan and media focus turned even more to the long-term Illinois future -- and possible, maybe likely, head coaching search. That specter has been looming ever since Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas dismissed head coach Tim Beckman a week before the season for preliminary findings from an independent investigation into abuse allegations.
Those investigation results still have not been made public. Thomas has kept pretty quiet about the coaching future -- just like he has in the past while there is still season left to be played -- though he did answer a few questions on WDWS-AM on Saturday morning, including a question about how he handles the looming coaching decision.
"You need to look at it on a parallel track," Thomas said. "You've got an interim coach in Coach Cubit. He obviously has some experience as a head coach. I think he's done a really good job as our offensive coordinator during his tenure at Illinois. But at the same time as I mentioned to Bill when he moved over one seat to the head coaching position that we were going to pay attention to how the season played out for sure and his leadership of the program. But on a parallel track, we also needed to pay attention to the national landscape and what was going on. We've been very open and very transparent with Bill once he moved into that position, but also even publicly that that's how it would play out.
"Really we look at it in a parallel way. There's a lot of jobs open right now. In many of them, the interim coach isn't a viable candidate. ...For our situation, we're just looking at things on parallel tracks. You can't not pay attention to what's going on around you, especially as we're well-aware, I don't think I've ever seen this many openings two-thirds of the way through a football season."
Knowing that the Illinois AD is paying attention to what's going on around college football and his program, what's that say about the coaches and players that they were able to focus despite all the noise surrounding the future?
"Character, a lot of character," Cubit said. "I keep saying that. That's all we talk about with our kids. If you just keep on doing the right things, you keep on plugging, you're eventually going to knock it through. Consistency in what we're teaching. That's what I see. They know what we're expecting. They know what we're asking them to do. You know what? They're going to keep on plugging, plugging and plugging."
Illinois made a subtle change to its defensive depth chart on Saturday, moving Jihad Ward inside from defensive end to defensive tackle (replacing Chunky Clements) and starting Carroll Phillips at defensive end.
Illinois had shown the look before, especially when it needed more of a pass rush presence on third downs. But the quicker, more disruptive front was the Illini's main look in a dominating defensive performance (263 total yards allowed) over Purdue that likely will be overshadowed by the Illini offense's 595 total yards.
“We’ve done it all year, but just being able to start it we felt this was the week," Illini co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "They were in a lot of 11 personnel (single running back), not a lot of two backs as we’ve been seeing. So we wanted to get, as much as Jihad, it was more about getting Caroll Phillips going a little bit. He brings a lot to the table in terms of his athleticism. We thought we could take advantage that way.”
The front four made its presence made immediately. Ward knocked down David Blough's passon the first play from scrimmage, almost intercepting it, and Carroll Phillips did the same two drives later.
The Illini flustered Blough, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, for most of the game. Blough (29-for-47 for 174 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) averaged just 3.7 yards per pass attempt and lost three yards in the run game (he was sacked three times), one week after rushing for 82.
Linebacker T.J. Neal had a career high 3.0 TFLs (including a sack) and safety Clayton Fejdelem (13 tackles) upped his season tackle total to 100, second most in the Big Ten.
"I thought they put some pressure on him and I thought they took away some of the easy throws, that was the idea going in," Cubit said. "Don't let him get on a roll. I think that's what happened against the Wisconsin guy (Bart Houston). We let too many easy throws for him. We took that away (against Blough) and make it work for it, make him stay in the pocket a little more and hold the ball a little bit more."
Ward said the move insideisn't a big transition.
"I treat it simple," Ward said. "I treat the guard like it's the tackle and the tackle sometimes is going to be like a tight end. It's very simple for me. As long as I read my keys and be responsible."
Clements, tied for second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss this season, played a much smaller role on Saturday. But Banks said Phillips' rise to the starting lineup on Saturday just means that he now has faith that he can "roll with" five guys up front.
“As I’ve said since I’ve been here, as they go -- we go," Banks said. "They played well today. They set the tone. ...To me, we blitzed early and got the quarterback uncomfortable. That changed the dimension of the game.”
Lunt 'embarrassing' cramp
Given the Illini's injury issues this season, a fear went through the Illini sideline when Lunt jogged to the locker room right before the opening kickoff.
But it was nothing a chug of a Gatorade bottle couldn't fix.
Lunt suffered a cramp in his right thumb, his throwing hand, and missed the opening series of the second half before returning to the game.
"It was weird," Lunt said. "I was just warming up about ready to go in. Every time I'd throw and follow through, my thumb and the whole finger would just cramp. I couldn't open my hand. It was weird. I have no idea where it came from. It was a little embarrassing."
In Lunt's place, backup Chayce Crouch led the Illini on a 10-play, 51-yard drive that ended in a Taylor Zalewski missed 42-yard field goal. Crouch (2-for-4 for 44 yards; 45 rushing yards on 7 attempts), who re-entered the game in the fourth quarter, ran for a 17-yard gain on his first play and also completed a career-long 25-yard pass to freshman Desmond Cain.