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The Illinois Q&A With Jim Vainisi Of The Champaign Room

We asked our Fighting Illini site about what the Beckman-less folks have. It's an interesting tale.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

In about 30 hours, your Nebraska Cornhuskers head east to the Land of Lincoln to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini in a Big Ten Conference matchup. That game, even though it will start a half hour later of it's normal time slot, will be televised by the Conference's flagship station.

What's to make of the Illini, with a 3-1 record but a big loss against North Carolina, it's only Power 5 opponent? We asked the manager of our SBNation brethren at The Champaign Room for their opinion, and the Editor-In-Chief, Jim Vainisi, helped us out.

We did a Q&A for him this week as well, and you can read it here. We thank Jim for his insight, and offer to check out their site before and after the game as well for reactions.


1. Illinois hasn’t had too bad of a start, with 3-1 probably being the most ideal. That being said, the North Carolina loss and narrow win vs. Middle Tennessee has happened in the teams last 2 games.  What’s the mood of the team as they open B1G play this week?

Fan anticipation for the North Carolina game was off the charts compared to just about every other matchup of the Beckman/Cubit era. The Illini were coming off two dominating victories over Kent State and Western Illinois and it seemed like the team had finally turned a corner. But a huge blowout loss against the Tar Heels brought everyone back down to Earth; last week’s two-point escape against Middle Tennessee didn’t do much for public opinion, either.

So, basically, most fans are still in ‘wait-and-see’ mode because winning non-conference games hasn’t been the problem for this team over the past several seasons. The issue has been staying competitive against quality opponents. Hopefully we see some progress on Saturday.

2. Wes Lunt has to be foaming at the mouth to take on the worst Passing D in FBS right now. What are his strengths and weaknesses?

Lunt has an NFL arm. He can make just about every throw in the book and he’s very accurate when on the same page with his receivers. You probably won’t see Lunt throw the ball downfield much (playcalling), but he can pick a defense apart with short-intermediate passes all day long.

Lunt’s biggest weakness may be his lack of mobility. He’s got good pocket awareness, but you’re not going to see him make many defenders miss and he’s absolutely not going to make a play with his legs. He also makes some pretty poor decisions at times, but it’s nothing unique to him. That’s kinda just how college quarterbacks are programmed these days.

All-in-all, Lunt is probably the best quarterback in the Big Ten West.

3. Josh Ferguson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn have been the 2 main ball carriers for the Illini. How do you see them working out against statistically one of the better Rush D’s in College Football?

It’s probably going to be a pretty long day for Illinois’ ground attack. I’ll go to my grave saying that Josh Ferguson is the most underrated back in the country, but he needs space to operate -- space that the offensive line won’t be able to create against Nebraska. My guess is that you’ll see Ferguson utilized in the passing game quite a bit on Saturday with screens, dump-offs, etc. in order to get him in the open field. If/when that happens, good luck trying to bring him down with the first defender.

As for Ke’Shawn Vaughn, look for him to be used between the tackles along with Henry Enyenihi. Vaughn is a talented freshman (who’s coming off a really good game), but it’ll probably take him a few games to adjust to the Big Ten.

4. Geronimo Allison has looked like the go-to receiver for whoever is throwing the ball. Talk about the WR corps and who could stand out this Saturday?

With Mikey Dudek out of the lineup, Allison is definitely Lunt’s go-to target. He actually just got added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list on Monday after starting the year with 360 yards and a touchdown through the first four games.

But, in general, the receiving corps has been bad for Illinois. The Illini are missing two starters in Dudek (ACL) and Justin Hardee (Foot), but the backups have been dropping so many passes. It’s unfortunate because this offense has the potential to great, but the receivers are kinda ruining it, to put it bluntly.

Sophomore Marchie Murdock has been a bit of surprise, though. He’s second on the team in targets (20.1%) and has come up with some catches in third down situations. You’re also going to see freshman Desmond Cain involved in the passing game; he’s very elusive on the outside and has often been used for screens.

5. Defensively, this team started fairly quickly with only 3 points given up, but have since then let Carolina put up 48 and MTSU had the lead till the final 2 minutes of the game. With the way Nebraska’s Offense has been through the first 4 games, what gives you hope and worries you about the Illini D?

The Illini defense has been a pleasant surprise so far. The 48 points to North Carolina is a bit misleading because a lot of those came from offensive turnovers/special teams. As for MTSU, they came into Week 4 with one of the best offenses in the nation so the 25 points allowed was a very good effort.

One of the major differences from a year ago is the ability to create turnovers. Illinois has been abysmal in that area for the past decade; over that time frame the Illini were dead last at the FBS level in interceptions. But it’s been a completely different story this year. Combined, the unit has already logged 6 interceptions, including 3 from safety Taylor Barton.

However, the Illini are still somewhat susceptible to the big play. The run defense has improved so I don’t think you’ll see anything similar to what Ameer Abdullah did in Lincoln last year. But the secondary has experienced a few lapses in coverage already and they’ve been burned two or three times.

6. With the firing of Tim Beckman, it honestly looks like the team is doing fairly well under the guidance of Bill Cubit. Can you explain how Cubit has helped this team out since the Beckman dismissal right before the season?

Overall, I think you were going to see a better team regardless of who the coach was, but it just seems like a huge weight was taken off of everyone’s shoulders. Beckman’s job status was looming overhead for a few years and now everyone is just able to focus on actual football.

Illinois was lucky to have someone like Cubit already on staff. He has previous head coaching experience and success at Western Michigan so he knows what it takes to get the job done. But it definitely seems like he’s been a sort of calming presence for the players, and that’s huge in this time of transition.

7. Going along with the question above, what will it take for Cubit to keep the job? Or, is there anyone you want to take the job come December/January?

Under normal circumstances, Cubit would probably have to win seven or eight games to truly be considered a candidate for the full-time job (he’ll get a ‘look’ regardless). But the current situation at Illinois may end up playing a role in the hiring process. A lot of fans want AD Mike Thomas gone and he doesn’t have much job security at the moment. On top of that, former Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise just stepped down and the university is looking for a replacement. That doesn’t seem like an appealing situation for a prospective coach, right? So it wouldn’t be out of the question for Cubit to get a two-three year deal while the administration figures everything out.

We’ve been following potential candidates’ teams pretty closely over at TCR. At the moment, I’d personally like Illinois to hire Justin Fuente (Memphis) this offseason, but I’d also be 100% fine with Dino Babers (Bowling Green) or P.J. Fleck (Western Michigan).

8. We’ve seen the pictures of the lack of people in the seats at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Given what Nebraska does to the Northwestern attendance numbers when the Huskers visit Evanston, how much Scarlet do you expect in the stands Saturday?

There’s going to be a lot of Scarlet in the stands. I’ve actually heard from a #source that some Nebraska fans have even joined Illinois’ ‘I-Fund’ in order to get better seats for the game.

I think it’ll end up being about 65/35 in favor of Illinois fans.

9. Can you talk about anyone else that’s going to be a difference maker in the game that we haven’t already discussed above?

Keep an eye out for senior CB/PR/KR/RB/WR V’Angelo Bentley. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball and Nebraska will want to stay away from him on special teams. He’s been used almost exclusively as a cornerback (he’ll probably be on Westerkamp), but Bill Cubit has occasionally inserted him on offense to get him a few more touches.

Other than him, I think we’ve covered just about everything important. I’m sure you’ve already referenced it this week, here’s a link to Illinois’ advanced statistical profile on Football Study Hall. There’s a lot of good information there in case readers are looking for more.

10. Alright, it’s prediction time. How do you see the game going, and who’s gonna win this one?

This is Illinois’ most winnable Big Ten home game of the season (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State). Despite how the last few weeks have gone for the Illini, I still think they’ll put up a good fight at home.

But Illinois has a knack for making early mistakes in games like this and I see that being the case again on Saturday. I think Nebraska will get out to an early lead before things get a bit closer in the second half. A late Cornhusker touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp will seal the deal in the fourth quarter and Nebraska will leave Champaign at 3-2.

Nebraska - 37
Illinois - 28