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Game Recap: Illinois Fighting Illini Struggle Against FCS Youngstown State

The Fighting Illini work for three quarters before the offense finally works. Lunt's first performance produces Beckman's 7th win as Illini head coach.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

With nearly nine minutes left in the game, Josh Ferguson lined up in the backfield, next to Wes Lunt. The ball was snapped and Ferguson ran forward in a straight line. Lunt waited, then placed a perfect pass to Ferguson who was in open space behind the middle linebacker. It put the Illini ahead with a four point lead and relieved the mounting fear.

The Illini offense struggled for the first three quarters. There were three different three-and-outs in the first quarter. The passing game couldn't complete any long passes while the running game could only game 2 yards at a time. After last season's offensive success and all the speculation during the offseason, it felt like an extreme let down.

Seeing Lunt for the first time gave me mixed feelings. He's got a shotgun for an arm, but early in the game, he also had the accuracy of a shotgun. There were times that receivers were open but Lunt threw it outside any reasonable range for them to catch. His passes looked better as the game continued but also made a few poor decisions. He threw to blatantly covered receivers and only FCS-level talent prevented a few interceptions. He'll have to get better with those split-second decisions.

His fourth quarter was exceptional. Three touchdowns passes (combined with one in the 2nd quarter) brought the Illini to 28 points and a comfortable lead. He makes long passes look easy. He would flick his wrist and the ball would sail 40 yards downfield. His arm strength is as advertised, the O-Line was not.

Having four returning starters up front should imply success, but they missed too many blocks and were pushed around far too easily. Part of Lunt's initial problem was that there was at least one defender in his face on every play. They got better as time went on, allowing much more time to Lunt to throw, but if they come out like that against Purdue, they will lose.

There was also a scary lack of a ground game. The first quarter produced one single rushing yard. At the end there were only 79 yards for the day. There was no commitment to the running game though. Ferguson and Donovonn Young combined to average 4.2 yards a rush, which is good, but they only had 19 attempts combined. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will always have a pass-happy attack

The defense has improved, but they still have some work to do. They held the YSU rushing attack to 3.4 yards per rush and allowed only 172 passing yards, which unfortunately were mostly allowed on two plays, one for 61 yards, another for 54, when receivers were left uncovered. The line was maybe the most improved with Austin Teitsma having a very good game. YSU running backs found themselves trapped on several attempts.

This game was 71% ugly but the final product came out fine. I'll admit that I was scared at one point. My palms were sweating, my voice was higher, I stopped twittering, my 40-weeks-pregnant wife wondered if she would be the one driving us to the hospital. The offense failed too often and the defense were allowing just enough to let the Penguins obtain first downs. It was nerve-racking -- is this what I've been waiting for all summer?

This was Beckman's 25th game as head coach and only his 7th win. Those wins have varying degrees of greatness, and I'm not sure all of them have that much reason for pride. Since there are so few of them, I thought I'd rank them for you in order from best to worst:

  1. 2013 vs. Cincinnati, 45-17 A whooping was laid down to a team that would finish 9-4. It was Scheelhaase was making plays all day, which actually got on Sportscenter that night. You know it's a good game when ESPN talks about you. It hasn't happened much in the past two years.
  2. 2013 @ Purdue, 20-16 It was sloppy and way closer than it should have been, but it's the only win within the conference and our only win over a Power 5 team. It also came during the worst Purdue season half a century. It ended a 20-game B1G losing streak that was more depressing than working on the weekend. Sadly, this is only our second best win.
  3. 2012 vs. Western Michigan, 24-7 A vital win for 2013 and beyond. This helped the WMU coach get fired, then he became our offensive coordinator. This win gave us Bill Cubit.
  4. 2013 vs. Miami (OH), 50-14 Nothing really that special from this game other than being our highest scoring game as the Fighting Beckmans.
  5. 2012 vs. Charleston Southern, 44-0 Nothing really special from this game other than it being our only shutout as the Fighting Beckmans.
  6. Today
  7. 2013 vs. Southern Illinois, 42-34 Letting an FCS team score that many points is embarrassing.

Hopefully this list expands by double by season's end, with more additions coming at the top of the list, but today's performance doesn't necessarily inspire those hopes. Although it was an FCS team, the defense looked better and, in the end, Lunt looked strong. The impact of a loss would have been too much to handle. I couldn't handle another 3-year rebuild. But thankfully we don't have to consider that.

Next week, they'll face the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in Champaign.

Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_ Room and Like us on Facebook. You can follow Aaron Rench on Twitter at @ARench89.