Cubit, Illini football can start to defy history by beating Huskers

By Peter Bailey-Wells, Sports editor

One of the coolest lines in “The Dark Knight,” one of the cooler movies of recent times, is when the Joker is anticipating a bomb blast and says, “Here, we, go!”

Then nothing blows up. His plan goes all to shreds.

That’s how Big Ten football play feels. We think one thing, and then something else pops up and changes our whole worldview.

Illinois faces Nebraska Saturday. That much is clear. How well the Illini will play against one of college football’s traditional powerhouses is much less clear. Will they rise to the challenge? Will they founder?

Today, the front of our sports section has a piece on the Illini’s margin of victory or defeat in Big Ten games since Bill Cubit arrived. Safe to say, those numbers don’t bode well for Cubit and the Illini. Big Ten play, including Saturday’s contest, is a scary sight for Illinois.

But let’s delve a little bit deeper — are the historical odds really so against Cubit? Or are they in his favor?

I’ll save you the suspense: They’re not in his favor. Illinois head coaches have mostly been bad in their first seasons in the Big Ten.

Lou Tepper went 5-2-1 in the conference in 1992. That was the last time an Illinois coach had a winning season in the Big Ten in his first season. In fact, the three coaches between Tepper and Cubit — Turner, Zook and Beckman — all went 0-8 in the Big Ten in their first seasons.

Even the great Bob Zuppke, whose name graces the field at Memorial Stadium, barely managed to go .500 in his first season in the conference — he went 2-2-1.

Discounting interims — for all intents and purposes, Cubit isn’t an interim, because he started at the beginning of the season rather than in the middle — only six Illinois coaches have had a winning conference record in their first season. There have been 23 who have coached a full Big Ten season.

Notable names to flop while facing the Big Ten for the first time include George Huff (0-2-1), Pete Elliot (2-4) and Mike White (3-5). Two of those coaches led the Illini to the Rose Bowl, and the other is Huff.

So it seems like history really isn’t on Cubit’s side. But, as he reminded the media during his Monday press conference this week, you play games because the favored team isn’t automatically going to win every one.

And this season, more than any in recent memory, the Big Ten is like a giant blender. Throw in all the teams and see what comes out when it’s all mixed together.

This Nebraska squad that Illinois faces Saturday isn’t as good as the team that squashed the Illini 45-14 in Lincoln last season. The Huskers are 2-2 and no longer have Ameer Abdullah, Illinois’ main scourge in 2014’s beatdown. They’re more vulnerable than they’ve been in a while.

Nevertheless, Nebraska is favored by a touchdown. That might be the touchdown that Geronimo Allison dropped against North Carolina or the touchdown that Wes Lunt turned over on downs against Middle Tennessee State.

For the Illini to help their coach battle history, they need to make those plays. Talk is all well and good, but Saturday is when that Big Ten bomb is scheduled to go off. We’ll assess the damage afterward, like usual, and who knows what we’ll find.

Peter is a junior in Media.

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