EVANSTON, IL- Even though the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) won’t be playing for a bowl game this year, they still had something to play for on Saturday. The Land of Lincoln Trophy was on the line as the Illini traveled upstate to take on the Northwestern Wildcats (6-6, 5-4 Big Ten). Even though the end result was a 42-21 Northwestern win, Illinois senior quarterback Wes Lunt did his best to keep his team in the game. In his final collegiate game, Lunt completed 28-of-54 passes for 377 yards and two touchdowns.
Getting sacked three times and throwing an interception didn’t help, and the six penalties made things worse. But two of the Illini’s three scoring drives consisted of 10 plays or more. Illinois also outgained Northwestern in total yards (434-399), and picked up more first downs (25-22). At one point NU’s lead was reduced to seven points. After the game, Lunt said that it was the best ball movement that the offense has had in quite some time.
“We got a good rhythm throughout the day. We were taking what the defense was giving us, taking those easy hitches up the field, letting guys work, and we were successful for the most part,” he said.
Saturday marked the first time that Illinois had reached the 20-point mark since beating Michigan State back on November 5th. And it was only the fifth time all season that the Illini had accomplished this feat.
“Whenever we could keep (Northwestern) in coverage is where you saw the success,” said Lunt about the offenses ability to move the ball.
Head coach Lovie Smith had nothing but praise for Lunt and the seniors after the game.
“Our Seniors fought hard on their last game,”Smith said. “It’s a process, you build a foundation first and start working from there.”
Come 2017 Smith will definitely have a foundation to build from as he starts to import his own players. He alluded to this by saying, “We’ll probably use all 25 of our available scholarships next year. We have to transition into recruiting.”
In the meantime however it’s about this years team and looking at the some of the positives that came out of 2016.
“We’re a three win team, we were able to get a couple of Big Ten wins, but we weren’t ready to compete at the highest level and we will be someday. We’ll have our day,” Smith said.
Whenever that day does come it will be with a new starting quarterback. But Lunt does have fond memories of his time in Champaign despite the program’s struggles.
“(Even with) all of the adversity we went through….. this team never gave up,” said Lunt when asked about what he’ll remember about adventures in an Illini uniform. Lunt finishes his career at Illinois with 6,631 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He could have had more passing opportunities had it not been for some unfortunate injuries.
When asked about a possible future in the National Football League he said, “I’m just going to take it all in today, and I’ll get back to all of that next week. I’m just focusing on the season.”
Whomever starts under center for Illinois next year (most likely Chayce Crouch or Jeff George Jr.), they’ll definitely have some shoes to fill.