UW defense bracing for Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt has passed for 741 yards in his first two starts for the Illini, who face Washington in Husky Stadium on Saturday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Illinois football fans have been waiting for a quarterback to resurrect the Fighting Illini since Jeff George left and was taken No. 1 in the NFL draft in 1990.
Kurt Kittner guided Illinois to a 10-2 finish in 2001 — the last time the Illini had double-digit wins — and Juice Williams led Illinois to the Rose Bowl following the 2007 season.
But their success was short-lived, and the Illini have fallen on hard times recently — they’re 30-46 the past seven seasons — due largely to the inability to find a star quarterback.
Enter Wes Lunt.
The redshirt sophomore, who leads Illinois (2-0) against Washington (2-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium, has Illini fans dreaming of a bowl for the first time since 2011.
It’s early in the season, but he’s orchestrated two fourth-quarter comeback victories and rewritten the school record books with an passing game that ranks among the best in the country.
“He was a good player in high school, and he’s a pretty good player now,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “I think when it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the top quarterbacks in college football. He’s a sophomore, and he’s got a lot of football ahead of him. The way he can throw it and his arm strength and all of those things, it looks really good.”
It’s all good right now for Lunt, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound homegrown product from Rochester, Ill., who won two high-school state championships. He broke the hearts of Illini fans when he chose Oklahoma State and started five games as a true freshman in 2012 before injuries derailed his season.
Lunt, who transferred to Illinois and sat out last season, won the starting job in fall camp and quickly became a fan favorite.
He had the best quarterback debut in Illinois history after tallying 285 yards and four touchdown passes in a season-opening 28-17 win over Youngstown State, which had been ranked No. 16 in the lower-division Football Championship Subdivision.
Last week, he was even better while completing 35 of 50 passes for a career-high 456 yards and three touchdown passes in a 42-34 win over Western Kentucky. It was the fourth-best passing performance for an Illinois quarterback, trailing Dave Wilson (621), Tony Eason (479) and Williams (462).
In his first two starts, Lunt has 741 yards, which shatters the previous record set by Eason, who had 498 yards in 1981.
“We’re just kind of hitting our stride a little bit,” Lunt said. “We need to pick it up. Just from the receivers, everyone is getting more comfortable, which is good to see. The running game, we really haven’t tested that out yet, but I’m sure we will.”
Lunt figures to give Washington fits after the Huskies surrendered 475 yards and seven touchdown passes during a 59-52 win over lower-division Eastern Washington last week.
Illinois ranks eighth in passing yards among Division I-A schools while averaging 370.5 yards per game. The Illini have 10 passing plays that have gone over 40 yards.
“You do see some similar things that we do,” Illinois coach Tim Beckham said when asked about Eastern Washington. “But it comes down to execution and making sure that we do what we’re capable of doing.”
Making matters worse for Washington, junior cornerback Marcus Peters will miss Saturday’s game while serving a one-game suspension stemming from a sideline outburst last week. Without the second-team all-conference defensive back, UW counters Illinois’ pass-happy attack with a secondary that’ll include at least three underclassmen and possibly senior cornerback Travell Dixon, the Alabama transfer who saw action in four games last season.
“They gave up some big plays, but they rushed the passer pretty well,” Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said about Washington, which had six sacks against Eastern. “They got some guys coming off the edge. The linebackers are really good.
“Of course, I think the secondary is really good. We’re going to have our work cut out for us. It’s going to be hard to generate a lot of offense against those guys.”
Lunt anticipates another shootout with Washington, which beat Illinois 34-24 last year at Soldier Field.
“You know every drive is going to count,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to have to do Saturday.”
Unlike Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams Jr., who hurt the Huskies with his scrambling — he carried 11 times for 43 yards not including the sacks — Lunt is far less mobile. He has four carries this season.
“He’s kind of a pro-style, big, tall guy with a strong arm,” Petersen said. “He hangs in the pocket. He can move, but their offense is set up around him being a pocket passer.”
Despite instability along the offensive line, which includes starting lineup changes at left guard, center and right tackle between the first and second game, Illinois has surrendered just two sacks.
Meanwhile, Lunt has spread defenses thin connecting with nine different receivers, including five with at least one touchdown grab.
“We’ll see it all,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “You’ve got to prepare for everything, but the way it’s going I think we’ll see our fair share of passing.”