CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Wes Lunt will be back under center when Illinois faces Iowa on Saturday and his receivers will be glad to see him.
The Illinois offense is built on Lunt's arm. But after he broke the fibula in his left leg Oct. 4 against Purdue, the Illini (4-5, 1-4 Big Ten) transitioned into a more run-oriented team, and a limited one at that.
"Now that Wes is back, you can just feel a different vibe," said receiver Mike Dudek, Lunt's favorite target. "We all know what he's capable of doing."
"The guy's got a really good arm and he's really accurate," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit added. "If I'm a wide receiver, I'm going to feel a little bit better."
Lunt has averaged 313.8 yards a game over his five games, 66 yards more than the closest Big Ten quarterback, Michigan State's Connor Cook. Lunt's 13 touchdowns are still fourth in the Big Ten.
And he's a big part of the year Dudek and fellow receiver Geronimo Allison are having. Dudek has 45 catches 707 yards, a school record for a freshman, and three touchdowns. Allison has 33 catches for 504 yards and five scores.
Without Lunt, their production dropped, from more than five catches a game to about four for Dudek and from more than four a game to about two for Allison.
Without Lunt, Illinois' offense revolved around a running quarterback, usually Reilly O'Toole and sometimes Aaron Bailey.
It worked in the win against Minnesota, when the two combined for 123 yards on the ground and O'Toole put up another 240 through the air on just 12 completions. But against Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Illini just couldn't generate enough offense to keep up with the Buckeyes and Badgers.
Lunt's return is also welcome news for a coaching staff that's been under pressure all season.
With games against the Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-2), Penn State and Northwestern left, fans are speculating about whether two more wins and a bowl appearance would be enough to keep coach Tim Beckman and his staff in Champaign.
Lunt says that is part of the team's motivation and his.
"We want the staff here, and if a bowl game's going to make that happen, it's what we've got to do," he said.
Keeping Lunt upright likely gives the Illini a better chance. Illinois will need some semblance of a running game to prevent Iowa's defense from focusing solely on the quarterback, Cubit said.
"We can't just sit back there and throw it 60 times. That's not going to work," he said. "It's going to be a little more tailback-oriented, and we've got to produce yards."
Illinois' line will be trying to protect Lunt and open holes against the Hawkeyes without starting right guard Ted Karras. He injured his right knee against Ohio State and is out for the season, Beckman said. Starting center Joe Spencer has been practicing at guard with Alex Hill, an occasional starter at center and guard, moving to the center spot.
Lunt said his leg no longer hurts and he isn't anxious to get the first hit behind him. Instead, it's that first completion.
"Now that I'm comfortable with putting weight on it, it's no big deal," Lunt said. "That's football. I've been hurt multiple times. I know how to get back in the game."
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