Same old struggles haunt Cubit and Illini football against Penn State

Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, right, sacks Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. Abby Drey, Tribune News Service

By Peter Bailey-Wells, Sports editor

On ESPN2 Saturday, the term “one-sided” played out in high definition for all the world to see.

The Illini got knocked around against the Nittany Lions in their 39-0 loss in State College, Pennsylvania. For those who didn’t watch, to put it in context, Illinois’ highlight of the day was blocking a pair of Penn State extra points.

The Illini offense couldn’t muster up more than 167 yards of total offense and Penn State nearly doubled Illinois’ first down total — 23 to 12.

Wes Lunt looked helpless in the face of a stout Penn State pass rush and the guys around him continued to make the mistakes that have hounded the Illini all year. His receivers dropped passes, his line couldn’t run block for Ke’Shawn Vaughn and the defense missed tackles. Penn State stuck two defenders on Geronimo Allison all game and challenged someone else to make plays.

The missed tackles thing is the biggest issue — its defense kept Illinois in games against Iowa and Wisconsin when the offense was struggling. Up to this point, the defense has been the thing bracing the team against the press of mediocrity, the one thing that might have allowed Bill Cubit to shake off the “interim” moniker.

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Doesn’t look that way anymore. Maybe they’re tired. Yet again, the Illini trailed their opponent in time-of-possession. The Nittany Lions held the ball for nearly eight minutes more than the Illini. That wears out a defense. Last week, Wisconsin had the ball for 40 minutes and 9 seconds. That’s 2/3 of the game and that wears out a defense.

But regardless of the reason — and, to their credit, this is a team that hasn’t made excuses about its performance — Cubit and Co. simply can’t afford to get tired. His job is on the line. One precious year of eligibility is on the line for most of the Illini and for some of them, their football careers will end on Nov. 28 against Northwestern if this team doesn’t make a bowl game.

As far as the receivers go, maybe when Josh Ferguson comes back, he’ll help right the offensive ship a bit. Vaughn hasn’t been bad, he’s simply been a freshman back in a pass-first offense who is being asked to play 90 percent of the downs. That’s a tough transition.

Mike Dudek isn’t walking through that door and neither is Justin Hardee. There’s no silver bullet left for Cubit to plug into his lineup. Once Ferguson returns, the offense will be as complete as it’s going to get this season.

So, now it’s onto Purdue, who just punched Nebraska in the mouth this weekend and who are riding a one-game winning streak against the Illini — yeah, wrap your head around that one.

Nov. 7 against the Boilermakers will be Cubit’s day of reckoning. He’s likable and seems to inspire his players, but lose to Purdue, and all thought of him walking around on the quad after this fall vanishes — unless something in the finalized investigation report prompts his dismissal earlier.

The Illini were able to put their 49-14 loss to North Carolina behind them pretty well. Now they need to do the same with Penn State, or it’s curtains for Cubit.

Peter is a junior in Media.

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