Know the foe: Illinois

We ask IlliniInquirer.com Publisher Jeremy Werner to give us some insight on the Fighting Illini.

1.) Wes Lunt has solid numbers, but I expected more from the junior. What have you thought of his play so far and where have you seen growth? 

"It's interesting. There already are some naysayers with Lunt, who has all the physical tools of a pro prospect. But Reilly O'Toole's success (leading the Illini to three wins in their last five games) in relief of an injured Lunt last year and a so-so start by the Illini offense this season has created some skeptics. But I don't think Lunt is the problem at all. I think Lunt is a lot like Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, a really talented pocket passer who is limited by the player's around him. The Illini wide receivers have 26 drops this season and you could probably add 10 more incompletions due to receivers running the wrong routes. Cut just half the drops and Lunt's completion percentage would be close to 70 percent and he'd have closer to 10 touchdowns. The Illini lost two starters to injury -- Mikey Dudek (76 catches last season) and Justin Hardee, who may not return this season -- so young guys like sophomores Marchie Murdock and Malik Turner and freshmen Desmond Cain and Sam Mays have been forced into early playing time. They're struggling and if they don't bounce back, it threatens to derail a potentially dangerous passing offense."

2.) Are there any playmakers on offense or defense that Nebraska should be aware of that they haven't seen in their last two match-ups with Illinois?

"Nebraska fans should know about running back Josh Ferguson, who is one of the more versatile running backs in the conference. He's as dangerous in the passing game as he is in the run game, though he's been a more physical runner this season and his catching rate has gone down. Though, I think he could be used more on the perimeter due to the emergence of freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn. The four-star prospect probably is a better in-between-the-tackles runner and ran for 80 yards in the second half against Middle Tennessee. The only receiver Wes Lunt trusts right now is 6-foot-4 senior Geronimo Allison, who is third in the Big Ten in receiving yards (362). He and Lunt are a dangerous combo at times because Lunt can throw it in spots where only Allison's long wingspan can get it."

3.) Bill Cubit was really thrown into a fire. Has this team rallied around him and is anything different in the style of play then you expected with him at the helm?

Despite unprecedented circumstances, not a lot has changed with this team. That might say something about Tim Beckman, but it says more about Bill Cubit, who has helped make the transition smoother due to his head coaching experience at Western Michigan. He's changed certain things about practice but the style of play hasn't changed much. Cubit basically was the head coach of the offense the past two seasons (Beckman had little input) and he remains in that role. Cubit allows co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks to run his 4-2-5 defense, along with new co-defensive coordinator and D-Line coach Mike Phair, and only gives a little input on that side of the ball. The team really rallied in the first two weeks, but didn't react well to adversity at North Carolina. They gritted one out against Middle Tennessee. But I still wonder how they'll respond when a Big Ten team takes a multiple score lead on them. This team has been through a lot but seems to have a solid group of leaders.

4.) At 3-1 heading into conference play, what is the goal for this team?

For Cubit's staff, it's win eight games to try and get the job permanently, but I think that will be difficult. Honestly, given the circumstances, injuries and the schedule (the home games are against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and neutral site game against Northwestern), a second straight bowl bid would be huge for this program. To Beckman's credit, he's leaving a much-deeper roster than he inherited. A bowl bid could make this job more attractive to candidates this offseason (assuming Cubit doesn't keep the job).

5.) Your keys and score prediction for this week?

First, the receivers have to catch the ball. They'll have their opportunities against Nebraska's suspect pass defense and have to take advantage of them. Most of the Illini's fears are on defense, though. The Illini are improved on defense but have really struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks like Tommy Armstrong Jr. I think Nebraska will be able to run on the Illini and if that softens the secondary, Nebraska can take advantage of the Illini's lack of speed in the back half. I think Illinois will need to force about three turnovers to pull of the upset at home. I think this will actually feel like a competitive game, unlike the last two seasons, but ultimately, Nebraska wins 35-24.


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