CHAMPAIGN — There were breakdowns in the offensive red zone, an array of bumbles on special teams — enough missed opportunities, anyway, that Illinois’ players and coaches might look at one another in days to come and say, “You know what? We’d have put a scare into Ohio State if we hadn’t been so busy beating ourselves.”
And maybe they’d be right. The Illini’s 28-3 loss to the third-ranked Buckeyes could’ve — should’ve — been closer on the scoreboard.
But what’re you gonna do? The Buckeyes (10-0) are great. They’ve won seven straight, and 10 of 11, over Illinois and haven’t been beaten here since 1991. More important, they now enter a critical stretch against Michigan State and Michigan with their College Football Playoff chances still looking very strong.
The Illini (5-5) are, what, so-so? At best. They’ve been dealt endless injuries throughout the season. Even at full strength, they were still playing catch-up against much of the Big Ten, let alone big, bad OSU. They’ll have to win at Minnesota or against Northwestern at Soldier Field to become eligible for a bowl game.
And now — eyes up, class — we’re done talking about Saturday’s game, or even the remainder of the season. Only one subject really matters around here, and that’s what the school is going to do about its football coaching position. To remind you, an interim athletic director, Paul Kowalczyk, may or may not get to decide the fate of interim coach Bill Cubit and his staff.
Understand this: Cubit, a 62-year-old with real offensive chops and interpersonal skills Tim Beckman could only dream of, wants the “interim” tag lifted tomorrow, if not yesterday. In the worst way, he wants to stay as head coach. He’d talk about it without choking up with emotion if he could.
“I don’t think they’re going to find another guy who loves this place like me,” he said.
Cubit decided the time was right to speak his mind about it, and why shouldn’t he? His playbook can be complicated, but his personality isn’t; it’s an open book. Cubit legitimately cares for his players — more than the phony Beckman ever did — and it’s not a stretch to say they want to see him around for the long haul.
“It’s time to pop the interim tag off,” senior guard Teddy Karras declared.
Running back Josh Ferguson said Cubit is “what the program needs.” Receiver Desmond Cain called Cubit a “genius” and confirmed the atmosphere around the program is far more positive post-Beckman. Cubit’s heart, Cain said, is the biggest reason for that.
Right now, with a staggering number of job openings projected around college football — and with an interim AD and an interim Chancellor riding the storm out at this school — could Illinois really say no to such a positive presence?
“Do I think I’m the guy? You bet I do,” Cubit said. “If [his bosses] can’t see it, there’s not much I can do.”
If they can’t see it, it can only be because they think they have a better plan. But Cubit — who doesn’t want to think about the possibility Saturday was his last game at Memorial Stadium — would be a lot to give up.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg