Illini seniors carry more weight into finale

Illini playing to prolong seniors' career, coaching staff's stay in Champaign

For Josh Ferguson, games at Illinois haven't just carried the usual weight of wins and losses. In each of his five years at Illinois, the Illini running back and his teammates have shouldered the burden of trying to save their coaches' jobs.

Every. Single. Season.

That trend continues for those seniors even as the Illinis (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) enter this week's season finale against Northwestern (9-2, 5-2).

“I’ll be completely honest with you, it’s been rough," Ferguson said. "It’s hard on a lot of people. These seniors have handled it very well, especially the fifth years. We’ve seen it all. With those guys, it’s helped out the younger guys. But there’s no doubt about it that it’s hard, especially on the younger guys. But I’m very proud of this team and how they’ve handled the adversity that we’ve had from way back when we lost our coach."

During Ferguson's first season at Illinois (in which he played three games before earning a medical hardship waiver due to injuries) -- and the first season of fellow fifth-year seniors Chris Boles, Pat FlavinTed KarrasKenny NelsonChris O'ConnorEaton Spence and Taylor Zalewski -- the Illini started off the season 6-0. But their coach, Ron Zook, was on the hot seat regardless due to a new athletic director, Mike Thomas.

Back-to-back losses quickly turned into a four-game losing streak. Without Thomas giving vocal, public backing of Zook, the Illini crumbled under the weight of trying to save their staff, losing the final six games of the regular season.

The residual effects were felt the next season as a big segment of Zook's recruits didn't buy in to new coach Tim Beckman. The subsequent 2-10 season, including an 0-8 conference record, immediately put Beckman under the hot seat -- for each of the next three seasons. During the 2014 season, the Illini players showed improved resolve, winning three of their last five games to save Beckman for another year -- or so they thought.

Thomas dismissed Beckman a week before this season's opener for player abuse and medical misconduct. Illinois then fired Thomas earlier this month on the same day the full independent investigation into Beckman's abuses was released.

The weight of all that adversity is heavy enough. But the Illini players also are playing to help give interim head coach Bill Cubit his best chance at his dream: a long-term contract as a power-five conference head coach.

But after losing five of their last six, the Illini need to win Saturday against Northwestern at Soldier Field to earn bowl eligibility and give Cubit even the slimmest chance of keeping the job long-term.

But Cubit -- who has openly discussed wanting the job and openly campaigned for why he thinks he should get the job -- was focused on the players following Saturday's loss.

“I told them they got one more shot," Cubit said. "Everything that you’ve put into this thing -- we’ve faced so much adversity -- this is just one more. It’s just another in a long list. I think they’ll come out ready to play.”

The positive for the Illini: they've done this before. During last season's regular-season finale between two 5-6 teams fighting for a bowl berth, the Illini beat Northwestern 47-33 in Evanston to earn a bid to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The negatives for Illinois: Northwestern is much improved this season, and Illinois is reeling following a 33-24 loss at Minnesota, a game it had so many opportunities to win.

“Probably the worst feeling I’ve had as an Illini that I can remember," Karras said following Saturday's loss. "It’s almost like we’re addicted to being the close but-no-cigar guys. But now we find ourselves in the fight for our lives again on Thanksgiving weekend.”

Twenty two Illini seniors may play in their last collegiate game on Saturday. The non-seniors will be playing to give them another game and another month in the program -- and give the coaches more seasons.

“I just want to do it for these seniors and these coaches," Illinois junior quarterback Wes Lunt said. "These seniors have been so good and so positive for everything that’s happened. Coach Cubit and this coaching staff, along with them, have been really positive. They’ve done a good job leading this group. I just think a bowl game would help them stay around, and I think that’s really what everyone is fighting for.”

Illinois players are unsure if Cubit is playing for the job.

“I think everyone’s playing and coaching for it every week," Karras said. "Who knows what’s going to happen? I’m not going to sit here and speculate on all the administrative dealings. Obviously, I want to win for this staff. I love these guys."

Added Lunt: “I’m optimistic about it. I’d like for them to be back because I came in here with these guys and all these players love the coaches to death. I hope so. I’m not sure.”

Would a win give Cubit a better chance at the job?

“I don’t know," Lunt said. "But I think that would obviously help. But the biggest thing is for these seniors. They deserve another game.”

Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, who is the person currently in place to make the imminent decision on Cubit's future, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Cubit is still a candidate but that he is also preparing as if he'll lead a coaching search in a crodded marketplace that already includes more than 13 FBS openings.

“You’ve got to have contingency plans,” Kowalczyk told the Sun-Times. “You’ve got to be thinking about all the alternatives out there. … Timing is extremely important when you enter into the marketplace.”

After five seasons of turmoil, Ferguson is accustomed to heavy situations. It seems fitting that his final game is as equally pressure-filled on multiple fronts.

“It’s do or die," Ferguson said. "Plan and simple. Just like last year. I think we play well with that type of pressure, so I’m excited.”

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