Wisch: Lunt’s Slow Starts Can’t Follow Illini To Seattle

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Is it possible to get off to a fast start while also being plagued by maddeningly slow ones?

Based on Wes Lunt’s successful two-game debut as the new quarterback of the Fighting Illini, the answer would be a resounding yes.

But it can’t be for much longer, not if Illinois wants to keep winning.

This weekend, Illinois (2-0) will trek 2,100 miles northwest to Seattle, where it will tangle with 2-0 Washington inside what’s sure to be a raucous Husky Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday.

If the Illini are to pull off the upset against their Pac-12 foe, the team is going to need points — and likely a lot of them after the Huskies posted a boatload this past weekend in a 59-52 victory over Eastern Washington. But what Illinois can’t afford to do against Washington is wait until the fourth quarter to score most of them, like it has in each of its first two games.

“It makes it a little sweeter coming back,” the sophomore Lunt said this past Saturday after Illinois scored three touchdowns in the fourth to top Western Kentucky, 42-34, one week after it scored three touchdowns in the fourth to beat Youngstown State, 28-17. “But I’d rather win by not having to come back.”

Neither would any Illini fans. And my guess is that the Illini won’t win this weekend if they need to come back in order to do it. At the same time, Illinois will likely also struggle to beat many Big Ten opponents if it keeps following its sluggish-start MO throughout the season.

That’s because, lacking a great defense, Tim Beckman’s team needs its potent offense to actually start games quickly instead of only finishing them that way. And all of that begins by getting its high-octane quarterback revved up from the get-go.

Lunt was named the co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after he completed 35 of 50 passes for a career-best 456 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against Western Kentucky. Through two games, his passing numbers – 741 yards, seven touchdowns, one interception – are truly eye-popping, but the problem is that his first-quarter ones are, too. For the wrong reasons.

Against Youngstown State, Lunt was erratic as his offense went three-and-out on four of its seven first-half drives. Illinois led only 7-6 at intermission before falling behind 9-7 after three quarters. Lunt then went 9-of-11 for 155 yards and three touchdowns in the final stanza to pull out the win.

“I was nervous, but I was doing some things I haven’t been doing,” Lunt said after the game, his first since transferring from Oklahoma State a year ago.

“As the game went on, I got more and more comfortable.”

Until the start of Week 2, that is. Because during the first half against the Hilltoppers, Lunt and the Illini again struggled as they entered halftime trailing 17-14 and found themselves down 27-21 after three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Lunt again donned his Superman cape and rushed into the burning building, completing 10 of 11 passes for 154 yards and a score to pull the Illini out of the fire.

So far, Lunt has the makings of possibly being the Illini’s best quarterback since former NFL Draft No. 1 overall pick Jeff George, and he’s showing off a fourth-quarter killer instinct not seen in Champaign since the days of Kurt Kittner.

Already, his 456 yards against the Hilltoppers stands as the fourth-best passing performance of all time at Illinois, trailing only Dave Wilson (621), Tony Eason (479) and Juice Williams (462). To beat Washington this Saturday, Lunt may just have to crack his way into that top three – but he would need to accomplish it by spreading out the offense over the course of four full quarters, rather that racking most of it up during the final one.

“Like we always say, we’ve got to start faster,” Illinois running back Josh Ferguson said after the Western Kentucky win.

Come Saturday, the Illini need to stop always saying it. They need to actually do it.

Lunt has the keys, and this time he needs to start the game with them already in the ignition.

Dave Wischnowsky is columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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