1. Has anything further emerged from the Tim Beckman firing, either with the allegations that he was influencing medical decisions and pressuring athletes to play hurt, or his threats of legal action against the university?
We're still waiting for the details from the independent investigation from a Chicago law firm. We still don't know if there was a smoking gun or if the allegations we’ve heard from a few select players — most notably former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic — were enough to dismiss Tim Beckman. All we know is vague details from the preliminary findings released in August that alleged “efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries.” The athletic department wants the investigation done as soon as possible so that the program can move on from this ordeal. Beckman is probably waiting for the investigation to file a lawsuit. And the fallout of the full results may reach to athletic director Mike Thomas, who has little support around here due in part to two separate investigations into player abuse (women's basketball and football) and in large part due to a lack of winning from his hires.
2. Bill Cubit seems to have done a nice job of only holding things together. What are his strengths and weaknesses as the interim head coach?
There really were no worries that Bill Cubit would be up for the task. He was a head coach for eight relatively successful seasons at Western Michigan. He just couldn’t get the Broncos over the top in the MAC. Cubit has the respect of players, his staff, the university and the fans -— more so than Beckman. He’s a better public spokesman and a more proven football mind. Most of the Illini’s progress the last few seasons had been due to Cubit's providing a spark to the offense. Cubit tends to be aggressive and some of those play calls have backfired (going for it on forth and short and calling a wide receiver reverse pass that was intercepted on a key fourth-quarter drive at Iowa). He’s a good coach who would offer stability at Illinois. But is he the guy to improve recruiting (he's had three commits since he took over) to the point that Illinois can become one of the better teams in the West? If this team were healthy and Cubit were a bit younger (he just turned 62), he’d probably have a better chance at the full-time gig.
3. Why has the Illini defense shown significant improvement this year (outside of the North Carolina game)?
Strength and experience. The Illini defensive line is much improved. They don’t have a bunch of sacks but they're tied for 11th in the country in tackles for loss. New DL coach Mike Phair has prioritized burst off the ball and the front four has taken to his teachings. Junior edge rusher Dawuane Smoot and defensive tackle Chunky Clements always had the talent to be disruptors, but were leaned on as starters way too early in their careers. Scouts have told me both are NFL guys. Strongside defensive end Jihad Ward needed some time to adjust after transferring from a JUCO but has turned into a top run-stuffer and now looks like a future 3-4 NFL defensive end. Nose tackle Rob Bain is the strongest guy on the team. Though he isn't flashy, he's a load to move. That front four is the reason Illinois has gone from the Big Ten’s worst defense to a middle-of-the-pack defense. The Illini lack speed in the back seven but are very experienced. But the secondary is much better against the run than against the pass.
4. The Penn State defense has done some serious damage against stationary quarterbacks, even Ohio State’s Cardale Jones. With that in mind, what are the keys for Illinois when is comes to protecting QB Wes Lunt, who has two positive rushing yards on the season?
It's kind of ironic. The top concern for Illinois coming into the season was protecting Wes Lunt, who had missed significant time in each of his first two collegiate seasons with a myriad of injuries. Well, he's stayed healthy — which is good, because they’d be really bad without him — but most of his weapons are injured, including three of his top four running backs, three of his top five wide receivers and his top two tight ends. The Illini offensive line is a very good pass blocking group (but a bad run blocking crew), especially on the outside with quick-footed tackles Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt. But Cubit also has prioritized Lunt getting rid of the ball quickly, and Lunt has done a good job of that and throwing the ball away when the rush does come. Lunt is given a lot of responsibility in the offense, including checking into audibles and checking into protection. The weight of the Illini offense is on his shoulder pads.
5. How do you see this one going and what is your prediction for the game?
The Illinois path to victory has evolved — or devolved, depending on how you look at it — during the course of the offseason and season. This was supposed to be a high-powered offense that hopefully would have an improved enough defense to win six to eight games. Instead, the defense has improved enough for Cubit to run a ball-control offense that hopes to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Without Mikey Dudek and Josh Ferguson, the Illini offense has to piece together long drives and has struggled on third and short and in the red zone. There’s a lot of pressure on the defense and Lunt. But Lunt gives them a chance if he has a special game. Still, Penn State just has a few more offensive weapons and the PSU defense should limit a limited Illini offense. I'm going with Penn State 21, Illinois 16.