Werner: Lunt shoulders the blame

The fifth-year Illinois senior signal caller knows another subpar performance in another big-time game has earned plenty of criticism

CHAMPAIGN - A B1G quarterback earns a B1G part of the accolades or a B1G part of the blame.

Wes Lunt knows that. And the fifth-year Illinois senior signal caller knows another subpar performance in another big-time game has earned plenty of criticism.

After he averaged just 3.6 yards per pass and fumbled three times (losing a big one) in a 48-23 loss to North Carolina in front of the Illini's first sell-out crowd in five years, Lunt took a B1G shoulder of the blame.

"That's fine," said Lunt, who went 17-for-35 for 127 yards and two touchdowns. "Put the blame on me. I know I did not play to the best of my abilities. We'll watch the film and get better.

"I'll take the blame, for sure. I did some things I normally don't do. But as a team, we have to get better."

At least he handles the fallout like a B1G boy.

Asked how he'd grade his performance in Saturday's big game, Lunt said, "Just my feeling right now, a D."

Asked if he was disappointed about how he played: "Absolutely, I know I can play better than that. I did some things I don't normally do. I can't explain why. It just kind of happened out there."

Here are the cold, objective truths:

- Lunt is now 2-11 as the Illini's main quarterback against power-five opponents, with his only power-five wins coming against Nebraska and Purdue last season.

- In 15 appearances with the Illini against power-five opponents, Lunt is 263-for-476 passing (55.3 percent) for 2,547 yards (5.4 yards per pass), 15 touchdowns and five interceptions.

- In games against non-power-five opponents, Lunt is 192-for-302 passing (63.6 percent) for 2,330 yards (7.7 yards per pass), 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also has a 7-0 record against non-power-five opponents.

Those objective stats mean Lunt hasn't yet earned the nickname of "Big Game Wes."

Of course, that power-five record isn't all on him.

That completion percentage isn't all on him (the receivers had 60 drops last season and several key drops on Saturday). That offensive inefficiency isn't all on him (Illinois finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last season).  Put him on a team with a stronger rushing attack and more game-breaking receivers (oh, how Wes misses thee, Mikey Dudek), and maybe Lunt could reach his ceiling.

But a fair share is on him.

Lunt coughed away the momentum-changing fumble inside the Illini's own 20-yard line. The 14-7 Illini lead with 1:30 left gave way to a 31-9 UNC onslaught the remainder of the game. The UNC pass rush made him skittish, a familiar look to last season when a depleted Illini offense that couldn't run against seven-man front had to rely on Lunt's arm to make pin-point throws into tight windows. On Saturday, his receivers couldn't get separation against the UNC cornerbacks. 

But Lunt also missed on several open throws, usually due to throwing off his back foot in the face of pressure -- rather than trying to forward- or side-step the pressure in the pocket.

"I think Wes performed the way all of us performed," Illini head coach Lovie Smith said. "I have to do a lot better job than that. To a man, we all have to. Wes was a part of that. He would like to have some passes back. Those turnovers really hurt us. We were just off a little bit, Wes and everyone else a little bit."

Senior center Joe Spencer said Lunt told his team the blame was on him as well, even if Lunt didn't commit all the penalties or give up all the yards (462 UNC total yards) on the other side of the ball.

"Never put the blame on him," Spencer said.

Spencer, who said Lunt made the proper checks at the line of scrimmage and that the Illini's "big runs were in direct correlation to Wes," went to bat for his quarterback in a way that was more believable than a team leader just defending his teammate to avoid controversy.

Like Spencer, Lunt was voted a team captain by his teammates and coaches. Even if he has doubters in the fan base and media, Spencer said he has support inside the locker room.

"The way he led us was phenomenal," Spencer said. "What he is doing on the line of scrimmage, if it wasn't the typical Wes Lunt day of throwing, I don't know. That's not my call. But we protect him. And he's going to win us ball games. I know that. He's a special player back there.

"Wes is a competitor and I think he is one of the top guys in the country at just wanting to better himself. You saw that with Coach Cubit when was here, and you see that with Coach McGee. Unless we're winning and the offense is going as fluidly as possible, Wes won't be happy and I won't be happy and none of the offense will be happy. I think that's a sentiment to his leadership. He's a great leader. He's going to take it on him. But we got to take it as a whole. It's a whole team thing. It's a whole offense thing."

Illini sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn also said the blame should be wide-spread.

"Really, just as a unit we failed," Vaughn said. "Penalties, missed assignments, everything else. It wasn't Wes' fault. We all messed up throughout the game."

Illinois isn't going to the backups, redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch or redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. The Illini coaching staff knows those options offer little upside, which is why Illinois will scour the graduate transfer market to find a bridge who better fits offensive coordinator Garrick McGee's preference for dual threats. The coach staff also knows that benching a senior captain could have a huge downside on his psyche.

Illinois' best chance to win is with Lunt. The Illini just haven't won many games with Lunt.

The Rochester, Ill., native arrived at Illinois as the prodigal son and future pro gunslinger who would rebirth the aerial attacks known so well in Illini football's modern history.

While he's on pace to become one of the program's top-six passers of all-time, Lunt hasn't endeared himself to Illini fans as much as Trudeau, Kittner, Scheelhaase, Juice, George or Eason.

Many associate him more closely to Beutjer -- a big-armed transfer who put up numbers but hasn't lived up to the big-arm hype.

Fair or not, some even see him as the guy who pushed Aaron Bailey -- a dual-threat quarterback now having great success at Northern Iowa and a weapon who may have better fit Illinois' personnel -- out the door.

The good news is Lunt has 10 games -- and if the Illini win enough of those, maybe one more -- to change that perception.

"We're 1-1. We lost a game tonight," Lunt said. "But it's a long season. We got a long road ahead of us."

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