Illini face questions over quarterback, coach's future with Northwestern finale ahead



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CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Big questions face Illinois as it gets ready for something it hasn't faced since 2011: a big game to close the regular season with a potential bowl bid on the line.

Illini coach Tim Beckman said Monday he doesn't yet know the answer to two of the biggest questions.

The first: Who starts at quarterback Saturday at Northwestern after backup Reilly O'Toole came off the bench and engineered a win against Penn State? Beckman says he'll decide Thursday.

The second: Does Beckman have to win to keep his job?

"Nothing's been mentioned to me about that," the coach said. "I don't control that."

The third-year Illinois coach has faced questions about his future in Champaign all season, and Saturday's 16-14 win over the Nittany Lions certainly stirred the pot.

Illinois (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) would become bowl eligible with a win, and the Illini would get to six wins for the first time since 2011. That was the season in which six regular-season victories weren't enough for then-coach Ron Zook to keep his job.

Zook's team lost six straight to finish. Beckman's Illini have won two of their last four.

Beckman said Monday that he's only exchanged a few words since the win with athletic director Mike Thomas, all on the field during the jubilation that followed.

"He was the first guy to see us, first guy to congratulate us," the coach said. "Mike Thomas understands exactly what way this program's going and what he wants."

Starting quarterback Wes Lunt was ineffective and was pulled late in the first half. O'Toole led the team on four scoring drives, going 18-25 for 157 yards and a touchdown.

The two will split playing time in practice this week, and it's likely that, whoever starts, both will play Saturday, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. And Cubit praised O'Toole's ability to come into a game cold and get the offense moving.

"Sometimes guys are pretty good relief pitchers," he said.

O'Toole has spent most of his four seasons on the bench, but found himself forced into 10 games his freshman year, mostly when starter Nathan Scheelhaase was banged up. O'Toole says that taught him how to become the relief pitcher Cubit talked about.

"Early on in that season I was just kind of like, 'Wow, I'm playing Big Ten football,'" O'Toole said. "As I continued to get like legitimate reps in the middle of a game (it helped)."


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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