Big Ten

Big Ten preview: In his final season, Wes Lunt looks to lead Illini through more change

Big Ten preview: In his final season, Wes Lunt looks to lead Illini through more change

For better or worse, Wes Lunt’s journey ends here.

The Illinois quarterback has been through an awful lot in his five years as a college football player. He started as a true freshman at Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring to Illinois and sitting out the 2013 season. In 2014, he edged Reilly O’Toole for the starting job only to get injured to the extent where he was swapped out for O’Toole late in the season. Last year, the players around Lunt suffered so many injuries, it seemed the Illini couldn’t do a thing on offense.

And just in the past year, Lunt has experienced the firing of one coach, the hiring and firing of another and the hiring of a third. And there have been just as many offensive coordinators.

But Lovie Smith’s arrival in Champaign has seemed to bring stability. Is it true that things have settled down?

“I think so, and that’s a great feeling, a feeling we haven’t had in a while as players,” Lunt said during Big Ten Media Days. “For Illinois football moving forward, I think it’ll be that way for a while, and we’re excited.”

Despite some solid numbers for Lunt — he was fifth in the Big Ten with 2,761 passing yards last season — the Illinois offense has not fared well in his two years as starter. Last season, the Illini were 12th in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense. A lot of the offense’s potential was wiped away due to injuries to wide receiver Mike Dudek and running back Josh Ferguson.

Smith brought in Garrick McGee to serve as his offensive coordinator. McGee most recently worked at Louisville, and it’s his task to work with Lunt to get the Illini offense turned around.

“Anytime you get a new offensive coordinator, it’s a way to learn new things, and I think that’s been the biggest thing out of all these changes is I’ve got to learn from a lot of really smart and intelligent people from a football aspect and just life,” Lunt said. “And I think coach McGee’s another example of that. He’s a great coach, great person, and I love picking his brain about football.”

But much like last season, the Illini’s fortunes will depend less on Lunt stepping up more than he already has and more on the players surrounding him.

Unfortunately, that’ll be hard with Dudek again sidelined. The team’s top wideout — who turned in one of the program’s best-ever receiving seasons in 2014 — improbably suffered another torn ACL this spring, and he’ll miss his second straight season. It’s a terrible blow for a promising young player and a terrible blow for an offense that needed him desperately.

It means the young receivers thrust into action last season will once more be tested. This time, they have the benefit of experience, but their production will still need to improve if the offense’s results are going to be different than they were last season.

“Malik Turner, Justin Hardee, Des Cain, Sam Mays are the guys that pop out at me,” Lunt said. “Maybe a couple freshmen might help us out. We’re not extremely deep at that position, but from last year we’ve got a lot more experience and excited moving forward.

“I think the senior leaders in that room … I think those guys will hold all those young guys accountable. They all got a little taste of experience last year, but relatively speaking, we haven’t had a lot of experience and I think the older guys will help them out in that aspect.”

The Illini have high hopes for running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who could prove to be Lunt’s most effective partner on the offensive side of the ball after he rushed for a team-high 723 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman last season.

But, as the quarterback, Lunt will be the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s his last year, so he knows the importance this season holds.

“My mental toughness has gotten stronger and stronger every year just going through what you have to go through as a quarterback,” Lunt said. “You’re never going to play a perfect game, and that’s why we all play the game is to play that perfect game, just to keep coming back day in and day out and performing.

“I think I just have to be myself, learn the offense coach McGee wants. Just be myself, I think that’s the most important thing. Got to be a leader for these guys. We’ve got some young guys in some new spots, going to have to help them out, just be a vocal leader.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?