With starting QB Jon Buetjer sitting out at Michigan on Saturday due to a bad back, Illinois Head Coach Ron Turner has an important decision to make. Turner must choose if he wants to start senior Dustin Ward, who has started big games in hostile territory for the Illini before, or redshirt freshman Chris Pazan, who is the future of the program and has looked strong in relief duty for Illinois against Purdue and Michigan State.
After the debacle at Purdue, I was firmly in the camp that stated that Pazan needed to start all the games that remained in the 2003 season. The reserve QB came in against the Boilermakers and pushed the offense downfield until one of his teammates fumbled the ball away. I reasoned that this season was already over and it was time to start looking toward the 2004 season and a favorable schedule that includes seven home games.
Pazan once again relieved a struggling Buetjer in the Illinois loss to Michigan State. The redshirt freshman completed 7 of 11 attempts for 67 yards against a Spartan defense that was still bringing the heat against Illinois' backup offense. I was still of the belief that Coach Turner needed to bring in the hot hand and do anything possible to spark his football team.
On Sunday, news broke that Buetjer was suffering from a sore back and was held out of practice on Sunday and would rest again on Monday. However, Buetjer was still projected to start against the Wolverines on Saturday morning. Things changed on Tuesday afternoon when Buetjer was declared out of Saturday's contest.
Right around when I heard this news, my thinking changed. I questioned if Pazan would be ready to stare down the Wolverines and 110,000 plus fans dressed in maize and blue. I began to wonder if starting the experienced Ward might be the best idea for Coach Turner. I rationalized it by saying that Pazan could get hurt against a hungry Michigan team that is trying to claw it's way back into the Big Ten title hunt. Why risk the future of Illinois football for the next 3 seasons on a meaningless game against Michigan?
I then crafted the plan to start Ward or Buetjer against Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa, and then bring in Pazan to start the games against Indiana and Northwestern. This sounded like an ingenious plan. This way you can ease Pazan into the transition against teams that are a little bit closer to the skill level of the Illini. No need to get Pazan hurt against teams that are fighting for bowl eligibility, right?
But then my competitive nature took over. Did I consider a game against Michigan meaningless? What true orange and blue fan would do that? Every game against Michigan is a chance to beat Michigan. I just don't feel that we have a chance to beat anybody with Dustin Ward at the helm. He hasn't played at all this year and he is most likely pretty rusty. If Chris Pazan really is the future of Illinois football, the future is now!
In the fall of 2006, when Chris Pazan is a senior and 3-½ year starter, he will be used to going into places like Ann Arbor and taking the abuse of the crowd. Starting at quarterback now is the only way to get him ready for next year and beyond. Kurt Kittner started for nearly 3-1/2 years and Illinois fans seemed to enjoy that ride.