Illinois football looking for a first half victory

By Charlotte Carroll

Head coach Tim Beckman was the first through airport security after the Washington loss. 

Instead of rushing through the gates, he stopped and asked each team member the score of the second half as they walked past him. This is the message he will try to carry over to Saturday as the Illinois football team takes on Texas State (1-1) at home after a tough 44-19 road loss. 

“To show them that we have to play four quarters — there’s no question about it — but we did come out of the locker room and play the way we can play (in the second half),” Beckman said. “Not everybody did realize that we won 7-6 in the second half. But a majority of our players realized that we did make strides. And they realize that if you take 21 points off that scoreboard — that’s a long touchdown pass and then the two turnovers — and it’s a 23-19 football game.”

Saturday will be a question of whether Illinois (2-1) can overcome the embarrassing national TV loss and pick up one more win before Big Ten play begins. More importantly, it will be a test to see if Illinois can start fast and keep playing that way to avoid falling behind early. 

Against Washington, Illinois gave up 464 total yards and 11 penalties that cost the Illini 110 yards. The Illini gave 38 of those points up in the first half. 

Quarterback Wes Lunt is looking to get back to his record-breaking game two weeks ago after struggling this past week against Washington: he had only 230 yards, recorded one interception and was sacked four times. 

“With him, I thought he was moving around a little too much,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “His pocket presence wasn’t as good, wasn’t as clean … didn’t handle it as well. I thought last year was the same way with Nate. Speed became so fast for us that we didn’t handle it well.”

But Cubit praised Lunt’s ability to gather the team after the loss.

“The great thing about him is that he owns up to it,” Cubit said. “He comes over and says ‘It’s my fault.’ He rallies the troops. In the locker room, he’s one of the first guys in there. He doesn’t hide, goes in says ‘I screwed up, I apologize and it won’t happen again.’ Got to love a leader like that.”

Illinois will look to its leader this Saturday against Texas State. According to Beckman and Cubit, the offense will focus on starting fast and putting points on the board early to avoid falling into a hole.

The Bobcats are coming off a 35-21 loss to Navy. Linebacker David Mayo leads the Texas State defense with 25 tackles, but has recorded 10 or more in four straight games, extending back to last season. He racked up a season-high 15 tackles against Navy. 

But it’s the dual threat of a running and passing game that will the concern the Illinois defense this weekend. Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing defense.

Running back Robert Lowe leads the Bobcats in rushing with 242 yards and 62 passing yards.

Quarterback Tyler Jones has 509 passing yards and 133 rushing yards, compared to Lunt’s -40 rushing yards. 

“The quarterback is pretty dynamic with the ball in his hand,” Banks said. “They run a lot of what we call ‘run adjust’ plays, where it looks like he’s running the draw but all of a sudden, he’ll pull that thing out and throw it. So I haven’t quite seen it the way they do it, but it’s going to present some challenges for us, but hopefully if we work on it enough this week, we’ll be up for that challenge.”

Texas State is under the direction of head coach Dennis Franchione, who is in his fifth year with the program. With 204 career wins, he is one of only four NCAA Division I FBS active coaches with 200 career victories. 

Illinois is hoping to keep that win total at 204 this week, and are looking to start the game with a strong first half.

“It’s getting back to where we need to be,” junior linebacker Mason Monheim said. 

“It’s a matter of few hours, maybe a day at most. You can’t dwell on the past, it’s moving forward and getting better.” 

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and @charlottecrrll.