To gain a little more insight into the Illinois Fighting Illini, we asked five questions of Bob Asmussen (Twitter: @BobAsmussen), who covers the team for the Champaign News-Gazette. He was kind enough to provide some answers.
1. In light of the 475 yards and 7 TDs the Huskies allowed to Vernon Adams and Eastern Washington last week, can you tell us a little about Illinois QB Wes Lunt, and what kind of threat he poses as a passer?
Asmussen: “The comparison you hear most often is to Jeff George because both have a quick release. It's weird, because Jeff George Jr. is on the team and will go on scholarship in the spring, competing with Lunt. Illinois hasn't had a classic drop-back quarterback for years. Lunt makes mostly good decisions, though he had a couple potential interceptions dropped the first two games. To his credit, after slow starts, he kept trying and got better as the game went on. He is very comfortable with Bill Cubit as his offensive coordinator. It is a great fit. He will complete passes. Maybe not 7 TDs. But some.”
2. What's the general mood around the Illinois program this year? Is considerable progress expected after last year's 1-7 Big Ten finish?
Asmussen: “Last week's game was important for Tim Beckman. Some thought the team would lose to Western Kentucky. When it won, the pressure seemed to lift off Beckman. If the team finishes 4-8 again, Beckman's career at Illinois will be in jeopardy. But the school doesn't want to make another change. So, if the team wins 5 or 6 games, Beckman will be fine. One more win than a year ago will be seen as progress. And with a bunch of players back next season, the administration hopes for another bump in 2015.”
3. What do you think the Illinois perception is of Washington after the Huskies' shaky first two games?
Asmussen: “They believe they have a chance. Had Washington drilled both Hawaii and Eastern Washington, they wouldn't have as much faith. Illinois has really struggled in recent years in games at Pac-12 schools. But that talk has quieted some because the Huskies aren't seen the same way as Oregon, USC or Stanford. It's a different feeling. And I also think they like that the game is in the afternoon. Night games on the West Coast for Illinois have not gone well.”
4. The Illini struggled quite a bit defensively last season. Have noticeable improvements been made on that side of the ball, or will a game like Saturday's be the first true test of that?
Asmussen: “Honestly, the defense couldn't be much worse than last year's unit, which was dreadful. Another year of experience has helped a lot. So has another year with the same coaches. Changing defensive coaches would have been a mistake and Tim Beckman was smart to keep the same guys in place. This group is making more big plays and more critical stops.”
5. Besides throwing the ball like they did against Western Kentucky, what are one or two things the Illini must do well on Saturday to have a chance to win?
Asmussen: “Two things: it must run the ball better than in the first two games. That has been a struggle. And it must win the turnover battle; When Illinois wins big games on the road (like at No. 1 Ohio State in 2007) it usually runs the ball well and creates turnovers. The Illinois offensive line has been banged up some, but might be getting healthy. That will be big if it happens.”