CHAMPAIGN — So far, so good.
A beleaguered Illini Nation will learn much more next week, when Illinois hits Tobacco Road to play North Carolina.
But everyone around the program was encouraged after another feel-good win, 44-0 over Western Illinois on Saturday.
In two games under interim coach Bill Cubit, Illinois has outscored its opponents 96-3. And the Illini (2-0) haven’t allowed a touchdown in back-to-back games for the first time since victories over Purdue and Wisconsin in 1988.
“Anytime you win 44-0, you’re excited about it,” Cubit said. “Giving up three points in two weeks, I don’t care whom you’re playing. We still have a lot of improvement. We got sloppy at certain points. But when you have four turnovers and still win 44-0, there’s a lot of good things.”
The optimism starts with a defense that smothered the Leathernecks (1-1), holding them to 141 yards while the Illini piled up 500. Western Illinois had only five first downs, including one in the first half.
It extends to 6-5, 225-pound junior quarterback Wes Lunt, the Springfield native who completed 33 of 46 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception. In 10 games at Illinois, the Oklahoma State transfer has thrown for 19 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
“We’ve worked really hard; it shows,” Lunt said. “Coach Cubit has done a good job of molding us together after that [Tim Beckman firing] incident. We just want to win really bad, to bring victories and change the persona of Illinois football. It’s been down lately. We want to do all we can to get people excited about Illinois football again.”
Far from being giddy, the Illini insist they aren’t surprising themselves.
“I don’t think so,” said junior strong safety Taylor Barton, who had two interceptions. “We work hard. We know we can be good. We just have to keep getting better every week and show people what we can do.”
The defense, which gave Illinois its first shutout since a 44-0 victory over Charleston Southern in 2012, starts five seniors and five juniors who have learned on the job — and they intend to keep learning.
“We’re not the ’85 Bears yet, but the guys are working hard,” co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “They’re playing with great confidence right now. But they understand that we’ve done nothing. We know we have our work cut out for us.”
Lunt is taking some chances that could be hazardous against stiffer competition. And with three lost fumbles on top of Lunt’s interception, Illinois lost the turnover battle 4-2.
But Cubit said the Illini will cut down those mistakes.
And Lunt and his favorite target, senior receiver Geronimo Allison (eight catches, 124 yards), will continue to be calculated risk-takers.
“Keep being aggressive,” Allison said. “Why dial it back? It’s working. It’s just holding up my end of the bargain to make those plays. If [Lunt] sees it and I see it, and we’re on the same page, it’s just making plays.”
On Aug. 28, when Beckman was fired, the Illini seemed to face an uncertain future. A win at North Carolina on Saturday would change the spin on this program dramatically.
It also will be a big challenge.
“When you go on the road, it’s different,” Cubit said. “We’re going to see how we’ve grown.”
Don’t be surprised if the Illini keep up the surprises.