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End-of-season QB battle not what Illinois envisioned

CHAMPAIGN — When Wes Lunt called Tim Beckman two summers ago and gave him the good news that he was heading to Illinois, the understanding shared by those two and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was clear and, frankly, obvious.

Lunt — a terrific arm talent who’d been good enough to win the starting job at Oklahoma State as a true freshman — would sit out a year, in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, and then he’d be given every chance to be the man.

No one was surprised back in training camp when Lunt emerged from a three-way competition with senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey as the starter for 2014. It was seen as the dawn of a three-season run with a potential star under center — just the sort of boost Beckman’s program needed.

So now here we are, with the 5-6 Illini facing a must-win regular-season finale against their biggest rival, Northwestern. Lunt was brought here for this very situation — to turn the tables on the Wildcats and others in the Big Ten and get the program to a bowl for the first time under Beckman.

And yet if it’s Lunt who runs onto the field for the first series Saturday in Evanston, it’ll be a pretty big surprise. Lunt has started every game this season except for the three he missed due to an injury, but he did almost nothing good the last two weeks against Iowa and Penn State. He was pulled in the second quarter of a 16-14 victory over the Nittany Lions, with O’Toole leading the Illini to all of their points.

O’Toole completed both of his pass attempts, covering 42 yards, on the final drive for the winning field goal with 8 seconds left to play. For the game, he was 18-of-25 for 157 yards and a touchdown, with no turnovers.

Beckman said either quarterback could start and that both might play.

“Reilly came in and had a heck of a football game,” he said. “We know Wes’ capabilities, too. So we’ll make that decision Thursday after practice.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg