Riding a spiraling losing streak and with little to play for, the University of Illinois football team hoped to use the final few games of the season to further the development of Cam Thomas, who just might be their quarterback of the future.
That plan evaporated because for two weeks now Thomas has remained in concussion protocol after being hit in the head near the end of the Purdue game Nov. 4.
That would have pushed the job to Jeff George Jr. on Saturday when Illinois travels to Columbus, Ohio, to take on No. 8-ranked Ohio State. But George, who started last week, has a hand injury and Illinois is preparing to return to Chayce Crouch at quarterback.
Turns out the quarterback job has come full circle. Crouch started the first four games of the season, but was unproductive and was replaced by George. In the meantime, Crouch had been working at tight end.
Now, with both Thomas and George likely unavailable today, it’s back to Crouch, the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster.
An argument can be made that it doesn’t really matter who gets the call at quarterback. The oddsmakers were listing Ohio State as a 41-point favorite Friday as Illinois staggers toward the finish line with an eight-game losing streak and what has been documented as the youngest team in the country.
It’s a reunion of sorts for Illini head coach Lovie Smith, who coached the defensive backs for the Buckeyes in 1995.
“I used to have hair back then,” Smith said this week. “I didn’t have grandchildren then. I have 11 now. It’s one of those traditional programs that has a lot of history behind it. I had a chance to coach on an excellent football team and to coach for one of my college coaches, John Cooper.
“Eddie George won the Heisman Trophy that year, I remember that.”
The Buckeyes have a new cast of characters, of course, and nowadays they seem to be an angry group upset that the conversation about the four-team College Football Playoff rages on largely without discussion of the Buckeyes.
That’s because Ohio State probably saw its chances to be in the hunt evaporate Nov. 4 when it got pounded at Iowa, 55-24. That was the Buckeyes’ second lopsided loss this season (the other at home against Oklahoma).
Ohio State seemed to take out its anger on Michigan State last weekend, beating the Spartans, 48-3.
Smith talks about Illinois finishing the season “the right way,” but that has been complicated by a rash of injuries.
Not only did Thomas miss last week’s game against Indiana, but Illinois was without its top two running backs (Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner), top two wide receivers (Mike Dudek, Malik Turner), two starting defensive backs (Tony Adams and Bennett Williams) as well as an assortment of linebackers and linemen.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who will be back on the sideline after missing last week following the unexpected death of his mother, said he’s going to ask his players to accept the Ohio State matchup as a great opportunity.
“Embrace it and feed off of it,” Nickerson said. “They will have a packed house and a very good football team, and that’s what you want as a college football player. You want to play in that setting against good players and show what you can do.
“That’s my message. Let’s go. Let’s rise to the challenge and get after it. Just play hard, play fast and play physical. Those are the things that even out the playing field.”
Ohio State still has a chance to win the Big Ten Conference championship. First it must win today and next week at Michigan in order to represent the East Division in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 2 in Indianapolis.
A victory there against West Division champ Wisconsin would claim the title. But in the process Ohio State could cripple the Badgers, possibly costing the Big Ten its only chance to be involved in the four-team playoff for the national championship.