CHAMPAIGN - “Bowl game” is a dirty phrase in some college football facilities this time of year.
Former Illinois coach Ron Zook famously (infamously?) ranted about bowl-game talk and efforted to dissuade his players from focusing late in the season on reaching bowl eligibility.
But the current Illinois (5-5, 2-4) players have openly talked about their bowl goals for most of the season.
“I mean, if we don’t get to a bowl, it’s kind of like a failed season almost in a sense,” senior guard Ted Karras said on Monday. “But yeah, that’s definitely our goal. We want to get to a bowl game.”
Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit doesn’t mind. He is more lax, and realistic, with his bowl-talk approach as his Illini enter their final two games needing one win to earn bowl eligibility for the second straight season.
“You hear the kids, they want to finish it off right,” Cubit said. “I think I heard Teddy where he wants to win eight. Fine, if that’s what you want to do. I don’t have a problem with that. You want to get to a bowl game? Great. I don’t talk about it, and I don’t mind them talking about that.”
CBS Sports currently does not project the Illini to make a bowl. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach projects the Illini to play Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit, Dec. 28), and ESPN’s Brett McMurphy projects Illinois to play Tennessee in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Nashville, Dec. 30).
Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt said a bowl would be an extra-special prize in this adversity-filled season. Illinois dismissed head coach Tim Beckman a week before the season opener (without pay) for abuse and medical misconduct. Illinois then dismissed athletic director Mike Thomas last week (with pay) due to what interim chancellor Barbara Wilson called the "distractions" of multiple investigations into Illinois athletics for abuse allegations.
Vegas lists Illinois as a 4.5-point underdog this Saturday at Minnesota. The Gophers (4-6, 1-5) have lost four straight but have been competitive against three of the Big Ten’s best, losing to No. 15 Michigan by three points, No. 3 Ohio State by 14 points and No. 5 Iowa by five points.
“I mean, this is a big game,” Lunt said. “I think two really equal opponents. They got a really good defense, and I know their offense puts up quite a bit of points lately. It’s just a big game because it’s kind of crunch time. I mean, we have only two more guaranteed opportunities to extend our season.”
Illinois faced a similar must-win situation last season. Actually, it needed to win both of its final two games to earn bowl eligibility, including a season finale at Northwestern. Illinois closes the season again against Northwestern, this time on a neutral site at Soldier Field.
“It’s kind of the playoffs for us,” Karras said. “It’s kind of double-elimination for us. We got to go get a win.”
Cubit doesn’t mind that kind of talk.
“I’m not going to knock down their dreams,” Cubit said. “Now, when we get into practice, all we’re going to talk about is winning this game here. I hear coaches talk about, ‘No, I don’t want to hear that.’ Well, guess what? When they’re in their dorms or they’re with their families and everyone else, they’re talking about it. Let’s not kid each other.”
Cubit applauds continuity under Claeys
Cubit is 2-4 against Jerry Kill’s staff. He went 1-3 against Kill’s staff at Western Michigan State (1-2 vs. Kill at Northern Illinois and 0-1 with Kill at Minnesota). Cubit is 1-1 against Kill’s staff as an assistant at Illinois with the Illini topping Minnesota 28-24 last season.
Saturday’s game will mark Cubit’s first game against Kill’s staff sans Kill, who resigned on Oct. 28 due to ongoing health issues. Tracy Claeys, who had served as Kill’s defensive coordinator for 21 years, was promoted to interim head coach and last week signed a three-year contract extension as the long-term head coach.
Cubit, an interim coach who has voiced his desire to stay at Illinois, applauded the move.
“The whole thing to me is consistency,” Cubit said. “The kids know what to expect. I think what people don’t understand when you keep on changing for these players … you keep on changing bosses, you don’t know what to expect. There’s no continuity. There’s no consistency. Well, there it is. They’re going to do the exact same thing. They felt that it was right thing to do. Tracy’s a good man and a good person and also a good football coach. They had someone there that they trusted, and in my mind, rightfully so. They’re good people. ...They’re just good, honest people. I think for the players’ sake and Minnesota, it is, it’s a good move.”
Ke’Shawn Vaughn is going through concussion protocol this week after leaving during the first half of Saturday's 28-3 loss to Ohio State. Cubit said the Illinois freshman running back was scheduled to run at practice on Monday and hoped Vaughn could go through non-contact drills on Tuesday.
“I feel somewhat optimistic there,” Cubit said of Vaughn’s availability this weekend.
Cubit said Vaughn’s availability would greatly help senior Josh Ferguson, who Cubit said suffered from overuse late in the Ohio State game.
“In today’s world, you got to have two (running backs),” Cubit said. “And it really helps to have three. That way you keep those guys fresh.”
Junior running back Henry Enyenihi will likely sit out a third straight week with a knee sprain, Cubit said, but could return to play against Northwestern.
Cubit said defensive tackle Jihad Ward likely will be available against Minnesota. The defensive lineman is suffering from a minor ankle injury that has “kind of been lingering for about three weeks,” Cubit said. “But I think he’s going to be OK.”