Illinois Fighting Illini

Illini gone awry: Illinois streaking in the wrong direction

08 OCT 2016: Illinois head football coach Lovie Smith looks at the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter during a Big Ten Conference football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Purdue won in overtime 34-31. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)
Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

Illinois basketball practice is in full swing. The Illini are expected to rise up the Big Ten ladder and reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Fans are grasping onto the hype already. Thinking of their football team makes them queasy.

They knew it would take some time under new coach Lovie Smith. And at least they had Purdue to keep them from the bottom of the Big Ten. So much for that.

The Boilermakers left Champaign last week with a 34-31 overtime victory. They had won two Big Ten games in the last three years combined.

It represented Illinois’ fourth loss in a row. The lone triumph came in Week 1 against Murray State of the FCS.

The Illini attempt to turn things around Saturday at Rutgers (11 a.m. CT, ESPN News). Fourth-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor follows.

“One and four isn’t good enough, let’s just start off with that,” Smith told reporters at the outset of this week’s press conference. “We’ve had a couple winnable games, the last couple, where we have played better but we haven’t been able to finish it off. Whether it’s sixty minutes or sixty plus, we need to take another step with that.”

Illinois could end up trying to spoil the Scarlet Knights’ homecoming with a quarterback making his first college start. No. 1 Wes Lunt’s status is up in the air after he was knocked out of the game against Purdue.

Smith doesn’t like revealing his injuries, saying it’s not like the NFL, where it’s required. We may not know of Lunt’s status until game time. It forces Rutgers to prepare for more than one guy.

Chayce Crouch replaced Lunt against Purdue. The sophomore sparked the offense outside of a few critical errors. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and fumbled away the Illini hopes in overtime.

Despite the mistakes, Crouch contributed 279 yards of total offense. His 137 rushing yards ranked as the fourth most in a single game by an Illinois signal caller.

While Lunt does his work in the pocket, Crouch (6-4, 225) keeps opponents off balance with his dual-threat ability. The Newark (Ohio) Catholic product can run around and over people.

“Chayce Crouch came in and gave us a boost,” Smith said. “I thought, you know, outstanding football. I understand how he finished, of course you can’t get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, you’ve got to hold on to the ball in overtime but his overall play, running the ball, breaking tackles, passing the football; I thought was outstanding,” Smith said.

Crouch’s performance had fans and media members calling for him to replace Lunt, healthy or not. Smith did not agree.

“We’re very confident in what we can do with Chayce running offense. We got a chance to see it in living color. As I said, I really like what he was able to do. If Wes can’t go, of course, the backup plan is pretty good. Wes is our starter; Chayce is our backup right now. We feel really good about both of them. Wes was playing good football before he got hurt.”

That’s up for debate.

Lunt, a fifth-year senior, was expected to help Smith’s transition of the program. Through five games, he rated ninth among Big Ten quarterback in pass efficiency (129). He’s thrown for 840 yards and six touchdowns with a pick. Three of those scores came in the Week 1 rout of Murray State.

The performance of Lunt or Crouch may not matter if Illinois can’t figure things out defensively. It’s allowing 30 points a game, which ranks 12th in the league. It’s yielding 389.2 yards a contest.

“Defensively, we’ve given up too many points. Two big plays really hurt us, the screen and the long run, we have to eliminate those. There were other plays that we’re not proud of but those big plays we have to eliminate,” Smith said.

Purdue scored on a 32-yard run and a 45-yard pass. Maryland held the Boilermakers to seven points a week earlier.

The Illini are favored against a Rutgers team that lost 58-0 to Ohio State two weeks ago and 78-0 to Michigan last Saturday. A loss in New Jersey could make an already long season feel like an eternity and cement their place in the Big Ten basement.

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