BadgerNation: Considering all the turmoil that happened in Champaign right before the start of the season, how surprising is Illinois’ 4-2 start?
Jeremy Werner: Not all that surprising, honestly, and there are a few reasons. First, to Tim Beckman’s credit, he built a much deeper roster than he inherited. He took over a roster with about 10-15 upperclassmen who should actually play Big Ten football. Now, the Illini have about 24 upperclassmen who can contribute on defense alone. This is an older, stronger, very experienced team.
Second, Bill Cubit isn’t new to being a head coach. He was pretty solid in eight seasons at Western Michigan (36-27 in the MAC). He knows how to lead a program and already had the respect of this Illinois team. And to be honest, he was mostly responsible for the Illini’s successes the past two seasons when the defense was atrocious.
Now, how Illinois has gotten to 4-2 -- mostly on the strength of an improved defense -- is a bit surprising.
BN: How has interim head coach Bill Cubit put a stamp on the program in his brief tenure?
JW: Cubit has changed a few things about practice and how he addresses the team, but his biggest impact appears to be installing confidence in these players. Illinois produced a lot of NFL players from 2008 to 2012 but lost a lot of games. There’s always doubt at Illinois - a program that hasn’t sustained success for two decades. Cubit has really done a great job of installing a sense of belief that Illinois can beat the Nebraska’s (Illini won 14-13 with a touchdown with 0:10 remaining), Iowa’s (Illinois had the ball with 3:20 left, down six) and the Wisconsin’s. This team just doesn’t roll over like it did in 2012 or 2013.
BN: How did Illinois benefit from having the bye week last week and an extra week to prepare for Wisconsin?
JW: Illinois needed the bye week. The offense is really banged up. I’m not sure Geronimo Allison, who leads the Big Ten in receptions (40) and receiving yards (601), would have played last Saturday after suffering a concussion. He’s good to go now and the Illini need him because it doesn’t appear the off week was enough to heal starting running back Josh Ferguson and starting receiver Marchie Murdock. Cubit did say that the Illini started preparation for Wisconsin a few days early. This is a big game for the Illini (looking to take a step forward as a program) and Cubit, who is looking for another signature win to help his case for the long-term job.
BN: What’s the impact to Illinois’ offense not having receiver Mike Dudek and potentially Ferguson against Wisconsin?
JW: Freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn is pretty good and probably a better in-between-the-tackles runner than Ferguson, but Ferguson is one of the most versatile backs in the Big Ten. He’s equally as important in the receiving game (1,305 career yards) as he is in the run game (2,259 career yards). And he’s one of the Illini’s legit gamebreakers.
Quarterback Wes Lunt has really missed Dudek (who wouldn’t miss a receiver who totaled 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman?) because his receivers have dropped about 40 passes this season. That’s not hyperbole. Drops have really held back this offense (and Lunt’s numbers). Dudek is billed as a Wes Welker-type, and he is, but he’s also a great athlete (40-plus inch vertical) and has speed to burn. Without him, Allison has been great, but Lunt doesn’t really trust any of his other targets. But he’s still done a good job of spreading the ball around as best he can. One player coming on is 6-3 sophomore Malik Turner, who has 11 catches for 140 yards the last three games.
BN: Illinois has one of the better passing offenses in the country. Quarterback Wes Lunt obviously has a lot to do with that, but how have the Illini done most of their damage this season?
JW: This may sound biased, but I think Lunt is the best pocket passer in the Big Ten. Connor Cook is experienced and above average at most things, J.T. Barrett is the best gamebreaker, Cardale Jones has the best arm and Christian Hackenberg is, well, overhyped. Lunt is not mobile at all, but he can make all the throws, is very accurate (cut his drops in half and his completion rate would be about 66 percent), checks plays at the line of scrimmage, gets rid of the ball quickly and doesn’t turn it over very often. He’s also been extremely good in the fourth quarter.
The Illini are at their best when they run a high-tempo, allowing Lunt to get into a rhythm. But Cubit is wary to get into a fast tempo early so he doesn’t wear out his thin receiver corps. This has caused a lot of slow starts and forced the Illini to play from behind.
This has been a more dink-and-dunk offense because the run game hasn’t been effective. The offensive line isn’t that physical so defenses have really keyed on taking away the deep ball. But Lunt will make teams pay over-the-top if they do commit seven or eight in the box. The Illini offense moves well between the 20s but it really struggles in the red-zone due to its lack of a power run game.
BN: Illinois ranks in the top 50 nationally in the important defensive categories (scoring, total, pass and rush). What has stood out about this group through six games?
JW: The defensive line. The Illini were simply run over the last couple seasons. Now they’re getting up field - a priority for new Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair - and disrupting opposing offenses. The Illini are 15th in the country in tackles for loss. The front four has set the tone. The Illini aren’t an elite defense. They’ve given up some big plays in the pass game and can still give up some big runs, like it did against Iowa. They lack speed at linebacker and cornerback, but they’re much stronger and physical than the past two seasons. They look like a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten defense -- which is a huge improvement from past seasons.
BN: Illinois is 116th in the country in sacks. Why have the Illini struggling pressuring opposing quarterbacks?
JW: This is the part where numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Illini are struggling to get sacks, but their TFL numbers show that they are making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Illini put a lot of pressure on Tommy Armstrong and C.J. Beathard but struggled to bring them down at times. Junior LEO Dawuane Smoot is by far the group’s best pass rusher - he’s strong with sprinter speed off the edge - and could probably use another guy to help. Junior DT Jarrod 'Chunky' Clements is the next best out of the three technique. He’s constantly getting up field. DE Jihad Ward is a future pro, but more of a run stuffer and NT Robert Bain is strong but doesn’t have much burst. Backup LB Carroll Phillips has come on of late and will play on a lot of passing downs.
BN: Who is the x-factor for Illinois Saturday?
JW: Probably Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The freshman running back has played well (392 yards, 4.1 ypc) and even had a big receiving game vs. Iowa (four catches, 49 yards). But he coughed up a fumble on the first play of a key fourth quarter drive. It’s going to be difficult for Illinois to run on Wisconsin, but Vaughn needs to find a few holes when they’re there and exploit them. He also must step up in pass protection. He’s been OK there so far.
BN: What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Illinois trouble? Where do you think the Illini have the edge over the Badgers?
JW: Dave Aranda’s defense is elite and his blitz packages cause all kind of havoc. Lunt has been really good at recognizing blitzes and adjusting play calls accordingly, and the Illini have been really good in pass protection, especially tackles Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt. But Joe Schobert and company are a step up in competition.
It’s weird to say but the Illini may have an advantage against Wisconsin’s young offensive line (did I really just type that?). I think the Illini can disrupt the Badgers run game early (though they may wear down, so don’t quit running) and put pressure on Joel Stave, who didn’t respond well to Iowa’s pass rush.
BN: What is your prediction for Saturday?
JW: I’m really struggling with this one. This is the Illini’s best chance to beat Wisconsin since 2007, but they are without so many of their top playmakers. Wisconsin’s offense isn’t very good, but the defense is legit and the Illini offense has had its issues. I think this game will be a battle into the fourth quarter - and I just may change my mind later in the week - but for now I’m going with Wisconsin 24, Illinois 21. Wait, flip that. I mean, nah, go with it. Heck, I don’t know. It’s the Big Ten West!