Lunt has slow start in Illini win

Illinois’ Wes Lunt (12) attempts to pass the ball during the game against Youngstown State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. The Illini won 28-17.

By Sean Neumann

Wes Lunt’s Illinois debut didn’t start as planned.

The offense went three-and-out on four of their seven first half drives, turned the ball over on another and nearly threw an interception in the first quarter. 

“I was nervous, but I was doing some things I haven’t been doing,” Lunt said. “I’m not setting my feet and trying to do too much, putting a lot on my plate. As the game went on, I got more and more comfortable.”

But the sophomore was able to pick up momentum late in the game and lead Illinois to a 28-17 win over Youngstown State, throwing for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and finishing the day with 285 passing yards.

“He got better all the way through the game,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “Early, he was a little jittery.”

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It took until 1:45 into the second quarter for Lunt to throw his first touchdown — an 8-yard pass to tight end Jon Davis. 

Lunt’s arm got the Illini out of tough third down situations throughout the game — something the sophomore said he’s hoping the offense can work on avoiding in the future. 

Lunt threw for two third down conversions in a late-game touchdown drive that sealed the team’s win — a third-and-18 conversion to Malik Turner to keep the drive alive and another third-and-29 pass to Martize Barr for the touchdown. 

“As the game progressed, he got better and better,” Illini head coach Tim Beckman said. “He shows his arm strength. He’s got some great arm strength.”

Lunt completed 11 passes that went for more than a 10-yard gain, including two passes over 40 yards and two more over 20 yards in the team’s final drive.

Illinois passed the ball 38 times out of its 60 offensive plays, while Youngstown State’s offense focused heavily on the run — the Penguins had 203 yards and the ground on 59 rushes.

Lunt said he agreed with Cubit’s pass-centric play calling.

“We had what we wanted, we just didn’t execute very well,” Lunt said.

The defensive side wasn’t great either for the Illini. Youngstown State held the ball for more than 21 minutes in the first half, gaining 169 yards of total offense, while 20 more yards came on Illinois penalties.

“There are some things we obviously wish we could coach better and play better,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “At the end of the day, I’m just ecstatic for these kids to be out and get a win. We’re satisfied in that regard, but we also understand there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Beckman said the team will be looking to make adjustments heading into next week’s matchup with Western Kentucky.

Beckman said every Illini mistake was fixable and cited “stupid penalties” on defense and special teams as things to adjust as the season continues.

“You can’t kick the ball out of bounds twice,” Beckman said of the Illini special teams. “That’s just dumb.”

Illinois had to come from behind twice in a 28-17 win in order to escaping the upset, but the “W” word is the most important thing the Illini were able to take from the game.

“They all knew it was going to be a four quarter football game,” Beckman said. “It was a ‘W.’ It wasn’t a pretty ‘W’ — something we can definitely learn from — but it’s a ‘W’.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected].