Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Who will step up for Illini in Mike Dudek's absence?


Big Ten preview: Who will step up for Illini in Mike Dudek's absence?

Though recent football seasons in Champaign have been short on bright sides, Mike Dudek was undoubtedly one for the Illini last year.

As a true freshman, Dudek emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top pass catchers, hauling in 76 passes for 1,038 yards, just the eighth Illini receiver ever to go for 1,000 receiving yards in a single season.

But as he prepared for a season that would have seen him enter as one of the Big Ten’s most hyped receivers and one of the Illini’s top players, he tore his ACL during spring practice.

Somewhat surprisingly, head coach Tim Beckman announced after the injury happened that Dudek could return by October, certainly nowhere near the usual timeline for such an injury. Dudek was less clear on his return date — and said it’s a possibility he won’t be back this season — at the team’s media day Sunday in Champaign. But if in fact Dudek does get back on the field by the time Big Ten play rolls around or shortly after it starts, that would be a huge boost for the Illini. In the meantime, though, how will they function without their No. 1 target?

“It’ll be a bit different, but we’ll adjust,” running back Josh Ferguson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing about football: You can always lose someone just like that. Just got to prepare the guys that are behind him. Maybe I’ll help out a little bit in the receiver corps. Just move on, and we’ll adjust until he comes back.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Does Wes Lunt still have something to prove for Illini?]

Quarterback Wes Lunt saw limited action last season, doing well during non-conference play against mostly mediocre competition before sitting out against Nebraska, getting injured against Purdue and appearing in just two additional Big Ten games. Getting to team up with an established receiver like Dudek would’ve been great for a quarterback still looking to acquire some more experience, particularly against conference foes.

Instead, Lunt will have to rely on a cavalcade of other pass catchers, some who have been around and some who haven’t.

Most notable in that group is Geronimo Allison, who Lunt established a pretty nice connection with at times early last season. Particularly in a loss to Washington, Lunt and Allison had it going. In that game, Allison caught six passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Though Lunt didn’t play, Allison had another big game against Nebraska, making five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. Though his yardage decreased in following weeks, he reached the end zone against Purdue and Wisconsin, as well, before falling off the map. In the Illini’s final five regular-season games he made just seven catches. This as Dudek emerged as the go-to receiver.

Getting Lunt and Allison back in sync could be the biggest key to getting the Illini offense humming early on this season. With no Dudek and a run game that’s been mighty inconsistent over the past two seasons, Allison could prove Lunt’s most effective option.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Illini's slow-but-steady progress continue?]

Thankfully, the two still have that same solid connection.

“It’s very strong. Being a senior, being more mature, he leaves a lot of stuff up to me, and I leave stuff up to him. And we just communicate with each other,” Allison said. “Sometimes he calls a specific play. Sometimes I say, ‘Wes, I see this. Let’s work this.’ It’s very ying and yang, no push and pull, and we work well with each other.”

After Dudek and Allison, the next two leading returning receivers are Malik Turner and Justin Hardee. Both have been battling injuries this offseason, though it was Hardee who topped one of the receiver spots — as did Allison — on the team’s post-spring depth chart. Hardee, though, didn’t have impressive numbers in 2014, catching just 19 passes for 240 yards.

Hardee remains sidelined, and while Dionte Taylor was the third receiver topping a spot on that depth chart, the talk of media day was a pair of true freshmen: Sam Mays and Desmond Cain. Both quick, coaches and teammates raved about the young guys and their ability to pick up the offense in a hurry. Dudek was a star as a true freshman last season, and it sounds as if the Illini might have a couple more impact first-year receivers on their hands.

[MORE BIG TEN: Comfort breeding confidence as Illini prep for 2015 season]

“It’s early, but they have definitely caught our eyes,” Beckman said. “With the depth that we have at wide receiver with Mikey and Justin out right now, I could see one of the wide receivers or two of them possibly playing this year.

“Their speed, the way that they’re catching the football. They’re playing a little bit older, not like an 18-year-old that just gets on your campus. I’m impressed with what they’re doing. … I think they’re ahead of the normal freshman that comes in.”

With Dudek out of commission, the Illinois receiving corps is a bit of a crowded cast of could-bes. Allison seems the most likely to get in a rhythm with Lunt, but any of these guys could emerge, it’s just a matter of who will.

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


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?