CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Few if any teams have ever started a season quite like Illinois is about to.
With Kent State coming to town for a rare Friday-night opener, the Illini saw coach Tim Beckman fired last week after an investigation found evidence he interfered in medical decisions regarding player injuries. That followed months of turmoil over the accusations, all of which Beckman has denied.
After all that, the Illini say they’ll be relieved to just go play. And one of them thinks the circumstances might even give them a boost.
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”We’ve looked at this game kind of like we want to make a little statement, to our fans and to the community,” senior offensive lineman Teddy Karras said. ”We’ve got a good little buzz created, and it’ll amp up.”
Beckman’s firing has dominated the discussion about Illinois football since Friday, much more so than the game against Kent State, a Mid-American Conference team that went 2-9 last year. Also more than Illinois’ prospects after its 6-7 season.
Golden Flashes coach Paul Haynes thinks that any team that lined up against Illinois on Friday would face an unusual challenge – an opponent eager to make a point.
”I think any time you have adversity, it brings you closer together,” Haynes said. ”It’s going to be even more of a challenge for us.”
Things to watch for in the rare Friday-night matchup:
LUNT’S TARGETS: In Cubit’s fast-moving offense, the arm of quarterback Wes Lunt is the most potent weapon. But Lunt’s two most likely targets – receivers Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee – are both out with injuries. Dudek was last season’s top receiver for Illinois with 76 catches for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament and is expected to miss most of the season.
Friday will be the first look at who Lunt will have to throw to, including three starting receivers who have fewer career catches between them than Dudek had last fall.
Senior Geronimo Allison, junior Dionte Taylor and sophomore Malik Turner have caught 67 passes in their four combined seasons at Illinois. Most of those catches – 41 – belong to Allison.
Cubit has also said running back Josh Ferguson will be a key target.
PROTECTING LUNT: Lunt’s history of injuries and the fact that three freshmen are listed behind him on the depth chart make protecting the redshirt junior a priority for Illinois.
But the Golden Flashes look unlikely to put heavy pressure on Lunt.
Kent State was last in the MAC last season in sacks with nine.
CUBIT CHANGES?: Cubit said this week that he won’t change much. The Illini offense will still be the one he installed when he was hired as offensive coordinator two seasons ago. It’s based on precision passing and playing fast to maximize snaps.
The defense he said he’ll leave to co-coordinators Tim Banks and Mike Phair, but noted one thing he wants them to borrow form his offense.
”Defensively, I want you to play fast,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want the defense to overthink what it’s doing. ”Just let the kids go play.”
ON THE SIDELINE: Cubit’s elevation will mean a likely promotion for first-year assistant and former Illinois starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Cubit thinks the 24-year-old likely take over as running backs coach, Cubit’s position job.
But Lunt says having Scheelhaase, who was the starter before Lunt, and graduate assistant Reilly O’Toole, who split time as the starter last year with Lunt, on the staff has been a big help under the current circumstances.
”They know exactly what I’m going through, being the starting quarterback,” Lunt said. ”Just having them to vent to has been kind of nice.”
BALL CONTROL: Haynes said he hopes he can keep Cubit’s offense on the sideline as much as possible, relying on a ball-control strategy that many offensive coaches – Cubit among them – now place little emphasis on.
”We’ve got to control the clock. We’ve got to do a good job of moving the football, staying on the field,” he said.