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I feel like we might have one of these right now. It's what I asked Lovie yesterday in the press conference (clip below): how do you make a QB decision after a "Big Ten freshman of the week" performance? The conundrum, as I see it: can you really send a guy to the bench when he had the most rushing yards by any FBS quarterback this season?
Here's the exchange, if you didn't see it on Twitter today:
He caught me a little off guard there (these would be so much easier in person), but I fought through the frisson and got my question out. And I think it's a legitimate question. Maybe the only question right now? Go back to the senior starter or play the freshman phenom? Maybe both?
It occurred to me after this exchange that this Nebraska game might be one of the bigger "put in the backup" moments in several years. There have been QB debates recently, but no situations where a QB is the conference freshman of the week and then heads to the bench because the senior is back. Two three-and-outs to start the game on Saturday and it will be a very loud "put in Williams".
Please note that I'm not trying to spin up some big controversy. I'm not going for "which Illini QB do YOU think should start on Saturday? CLICK, LIKE, SUBSCRIBE". I'm simply observing that it's been a while. We've more or less known who the starter will be in most every game for years. Last season, when Brandon Peters was injured against Minnesota, Matt Robinson started the next week against Michigan. But when Peters returned for Wisconsin, there wasn't a lot of uproar after an incompletion on third down. Saturday, there might be.
So I thought I'd just go back through situations like that. Maybe year by year the last 20 years. Right to it.
2019 was fairly simple: Peters won the job in camp, Matt Robinson won the backup job, Lovie said before the season that they had a "plan" for Isaiah Williams which turned out to be "use him in four games while preserving his redshirt". They packed 20 lbs on his slender frame and got him ready for 2020. Which meant that there really wasn't a controversy.
And there really wasn't much of a controversy in 2018 either. AJ Bush was brought in to be the starter and he was. He got injured early in the Western Illinois game and missed that game plus the next two, so MJ Rivers got the other starts, but there wasn't much of a controversy. There might have been some discussion had Bush come back after the South Florida game because Rivers played a solid game. Actually, there would have been a controversy had the second half against Penn State gone differently because Rivers had Illinois in the lead midway through the third quarter. But that game fell apart quickly, and most were happy to see Bush back in there.
2017 was kind of a mess with the injuries. I guess we could call it a QB controversy, but it was really just injuries. Chayce Crouch started five games but his shoulder just wasn't ready so he switched to tight end. Jeff George started five games but some injury issues (plus ineffectiveness) meant Cam Thomas started the final two games. And then all three QB's were gone before the following season. That was similar to 2016 as well. Wes Lunt got hurt twice and was replaced by Chayce Crouch (who tore his labrum in the second game) and then Jeff George Jr. took over until Lunt was back. But it wasn't a controversy - it was another injury year.
2015 was simple: Wes Lunt started all 12 games. But I think if you go back to 2014, we find our last "quarterback controversy". Lunt was injured in the Purdue game (maybe five games in?) and then sat for a few games while Reilly O'Toole took over. And then Lunt came back for Iowa and part of the Penn State game but he was ineffective. That's the last time I remember the fans being vocal about "put in the other guy" (I mean, someone says that every game - I wanted Deuce Spann in the Minnesota game - but I'm talking about a situation where the majority of the fanbase is quite vocal about "put in the other guy"). O'Toole came in, led the team to a comeback win over Penn State and then a bowl-clinching win over Northwestern, and proved the fans right.
The four years before that were mostly devoid of any QB controversies because Nathan Scheelhaase held down the starting spot all four years. 2013 he started every game, 2012 he missed two games with injury (and O'Toole started), and he started every game in both 2011 and 2010. So yeah, I think the only real QB controversy of the last decade was late 2014 when the fanbase was vocal about "wait, we were better when O'Toole was in there" at the end of the season.
And before that, there was another four year starter: Juice Williams. And again, the only "controversy" was which backup would take over when Juice went down with an injury. In 2009, with Juice out for the Minnesota game, Jacob Charest started (and won) the game. Actually, now that I think about it, there was that moment in 2008 when Juice was ineffective and we turned to Eddie McGee mid-game to attempt to spark the offense. And when did we have the "DC Package" where McGee would come in and run a series or two here and there (mostly Wildcat stuff)? Was that 2009? Anyway, the point is that from the moment Juice won the job early in the 2006 season through the 2007 Rose Bowl season and all the way through the 2009 season, Juice was the starter. There wasn't much controversy.
Well, I guess there were calls for Juice in 2006. Tim Brasic started the first three games but then the demands of the true freshman grew louder and louder until Juice took over. So maybe we can list that as our second QB controversy. Calls for "Brasic isn't getting it done, Juice has to be ready by now" in 2006.
Brasic started every game in 2005, so there were no real battles then. But now we get to maybe a three year QB controversy: the end of the Ron Turner era. Let's carve out those three seasons real quick. Kurt Kittner started every game in 2000 and 2001, and no one even came close to pushing him, so let's just toss those out. Now we'll talk about the 3-year QB controversy. I'll work these years forwards instead of backwards.
In 2002, Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer won the post-Kittner starting job. Buetjer is the future! But he didn't hold on to the job. That year was a back-and-forth between Beutjer and Dustin Ward. Midway through the Minnesota game, Turner replaces Beutjer with Dustin Ward. Ward starts the next game and the Illini win (blew a 24-point lead against Purdue but still won in overtime). But then Ward is ineffective to Turner goes back to Beutjer. And that stayed the same during the 2003 season as well, with even Chris Pazan getting into the mix. That year Beutjer started 7 games, Ward 3, Pazan 2. The old "if you have three quarterbacks do you have one?" debate.
And then 2004 was probably the most "I have no idea who the starter will be" season of the last 20 years. Ward had graduated, but Beutjer, Pazan and Brad Bower (BOWER POWER) took turns as the starting QB. Beutjer started 6 games, Bower 4, Pazan 1. And it wasn't really even a "controversy" at that point. The fanbase mood was basically "I don't think we have a 'starting quarterback' on the roster". Some guys have it, some guys don't, and after Kittner, we just couldn't find a guy with "it" (and we tried everyone).
So there's my answer to the question I asked myself. "What were the QB controversies the last 20 years?"
+ Beutjer/Ward/Pazan/Bower from 2002 through 2004.
+ "It's time for Juice" three games into the 2006 season.
+ A very tiny "McGee over Juice maybe?" controversy in 2008/09.
+ Lunt/O'Toole late in the 2014 season.
And now Peters/Williams in 2020? Maybe. We'll see.
It's been a while. I forget how these things go.