With Illinois heading to TCF Bank Stadium to play the Gophers on Saturday, I exchanged Q&A's with Bob Asmussen, Illini beat writer for the Champaign News-Gazette and IlliniHQ.com. You can follow him on Twitter here. Here were my questions about Illinois.
1. How would you compare this year's team to the one that beat Minnesota last year?
The offense isn't as good without Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee. But the defense is playing much better. The defense has bought in completely to new co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair's plan and it is mostly working.
The defense has had a couple of clunkers against North Carolina and Penn State, but has been otherwise solid and kept the team in games when the offense sputtered. The defensive line is the strength of the unit, but the best player on defense and maybe the entire team has been safety Clayton Fejedelem. He might be one of the best stories in the Big Ten, a former walk-on who started his career at St. Xavier and now leads the team in tackles.
2. In what ways has Bill Cubit put his stamp on the team?
He is the ultimate players coach. So, he has cut back on the length of the workouts and the demands on the team. It looks like the players are fresher late in the season than they have been in the past. And he has also done an unreal job connecting to the students, fans and media. Those were not strong suits for Tim Beckman. Cubit went on the Quad every Thursday of home weeks and mingled with the students. Who does that? He has embraced every part of the head coaching job and likes to spend time with the fans. He has won over people with his enthusiasm and attitude. He took what could have been a nightmare situation -- losing the head coach a week before the first game -- and kept the team together. If he gets the team to a bowl game again, it will be a minor miracle.
3. What is your best guess on whether Cubit will get the job and why?
Right now at Illinois, everybody is an "Interim". The chancellor, athletic director and head coach all have interim tags. So the question is who makes the decision on the next hear coach? When Mike Thomas was fired as AD, I believe it hurt Cubit's chances to get the job. But maybe the chancellor will decide she doesn't want to hire a hew coach without an AD in place. It is kind of a mess, but it would be easier for the school to keep Cubit if the team reaches the postseason. Cubit has made a strong case to keep the job based on how the team has performed and who he has coming back. Recruiting has been hurt some, but if Cubit is named soon, that too will pick up. I would put it at 50-50 he stays and the number goes up to 60-40 or 70-30 if Illinois wins the next two. Cubit's age works against him a bit (he turned 62 in October) but he works and acts like a guy at least 10 years younger.
4. Which Illini players have the best case to be All-Big Ten selections?
Safety Clayton Fejedelem leads the Big Ten in tackles and is fifth nationally. He should be on the first team. Geronimo Allison, one of the top receivers in the conference, is close. And so is defensive lineman Dawauane Smoot. He ranks among the Big Ten leaders in sacks.
5. Can I get your score prediction and a brief explanation?
I will go with Illinois 28, Minnesota 24. Same score as last year. Illinois will be so happy to not see Ohio State on the other sideline that it will overcome the disadvantage of playing on the road. The best game the team played all year was two weeks ago at Purdue. Wes Lunt and Josh Ferguson have a big day up north.