Illinois has won 15 Big Ten football championships but none since 2001 under Ron Turner. The Illini fired Turner in 2004 and have had five head coaches since then attempt to revive the program. The result has been three winning seasons and four bowl game appearances.
Former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is the latest in that line of coaches. Smith is in his first season in Champaign, where Michigan State travels to Saturday attempting to end its six-game losing streak. Both teams are 2-6 this season but while Michigan State is 0-5 in the Big Ten, Illinois does own a 24-7 win at Rutgers.
Michigan State has won 12 of the last 13 games it has played against Illinois, including 42-3 in the most recent meeting in 2013.
Bob Asmussen has covered the Illini since 1996 for the Champaign News-Gazette. He votes in the AP Top 25 poll and has seen the good and bad of the program over the years. Asmussen took some time this week to speak with Landof10.com about Saturday’s game.
Q: Illinois hired Lovie Smith to get the football program back on track. There was a report from ESPN saying he’s “miserable.” What are his prospects of getting the job done?
Asmussen: Whether he is miserable or not, he’s got a lot of work to do. It will start with recruiting. And end with recruiting. Nothing else really matters. When he was brought to Illinois, the assumption was that his name and NFL background would carry a lot of weight with prospects. If that is true, then Illinois will have a chance to improve over the long haul.
Lovie Smith addressed the “miserable” question on Monday and said his plan is to win a bunch of games at Illinois. He has a six-year contract and nobody believes it will be a quick fix. I was never around Lovie Smith before he got hired at Illinois, so I don’t know what miserable would look like for him. He doesn’t like to lose, which I think is a good thing. To me, Illinois football has long been an underachiever. I have always felt that the right coach could turn it into a consistent winner. Illinois had that with John Mackovic, but he left for Texas. Lovie Smith might be the guy, but I think it is too early to make that call.
Q: Senior QB Wes Lunt has missed the last three games due to injury. What is his status for this week? If he’s not able to start, who does?
Asmussen: From what I understand, Wes Lunt might still be a couple of weeks away from being able to play. All Lovie Smith will say about it is that he is getting better. In practice, Lunt is throwing the ball and looks more active, but Jeff George Jr. is clearly the guy. He will start on Saturday and play most of the way. My guess is that Lunt plays only in an emergency situation and maybe not even then. It has been a disappointing final season for Lunt, who came into the year with many career landmarks within his reach.
This has happened to a lot of quarterbacks at Illinois going back to Johnny Johnson and Juice Williams. A change at either offensive coordinator or head coach disrupts their final season. It is a shame. Lunt is a very good kid from a great family. This is not the way he wanted to go out.
Q: What has been the biggest issue facing this team?
Asmussen: Injuries is the best place to start. The team is on its third quarterback. If it has to go to No. 4, it will be either a converted receiver or a walk-on. But the injuries have hit other spots, too. The receivers have been devastated. Mikey Dudek, a star in 2014, is out for his second season in a row with a torn ACL. Malik Turner, the team’s leading receiver this season, got knocked out against Minnesota with a helmet-to-helmet hit. I’m not sure if he will play Saturday. Dom Thieman, a freshman who was starting to make an impact, is out for the year too. The team was short of depth to start with and the endless injuries have made it much worse.
Q: One thing Michigan State and Illinois have in common is all of the freshmen playing. Who have been a couple of those first-year players who have stood out? How have they stood out?
Asmussen: Lovie Smith wasn’t happy with the work of his defense, especially at the back end. So, he put in freshman safeties Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson. They have both made a ton of tackles. Of course, being younger players, they have also made their share of mistakes. But it gives Illinois some hope in the secondary in the future. Defensive tackle Jamal Milan is also playing a big role and has a chance to be a star down the road. He provides the size (300 pounds) and athletic ability that frees up other players on defense. The former staff recruited him and was giddy when he decided to come. They figured he would be important early in his career and they were right.
Q: If there is one player Michigan State’s defense has to be concerned with? Why should the Spartans be worried about him?
Asmussen: This is going to seem kind of weird, but tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn. He has lost his job as a starter, but continues to serve as wildcat quarterback. To me, he is the best running back on the team (leading rusher last year) but has gotten on the wrong side of the offensive staff and is on the bench. If he gets going early in the game with a long run, the coaches might use him more and he could have a very big day. I have been very puzzled by his benching. He is a good kid with a lot of talent. He has not been available to talk about it.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo