In the three-man race for the Illinois starting quarterback job, Saturday’s Orange and Blue Spring Game may have posed more questions than answers.
Reilly O’Toole earned the start for the Blue team and played in the first and third quarters, while teammate Wes Lunt played in the second and fourth. The third competitor vying for the job is Aaron Bailey. Bailey started for the Orange team but still split time with reserves Chayce Crouch and Man Berg.
While fans anxiously awaited the appearance of the transfer quarterback Lunt, the sophomore struggled in his debut action for the Orange team.
Lunt opened with four consecutive handoffs before finally dropping back to pass on a 2nd-and-5. He was hit by Jarrod Clements and the ball fluttered into the air where three Orange defenders got their hands on it before it fell incomplete.
On his second drop back, Lunt looked to his left and fired a pass that was intercepted by Zepheniah Grimes as he cut off the intended receiver on the dig route.
Lunt regrouped himself before halftime with back-to-back completions of 24 and 22 yards and gave the Blue team a field goal try as the first half ended.
It was the senior O’Toole who stole the show for the Blue team, completing 12-of-17 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns, despite throwing into a strong wind when he was in the game. O’Toole got the start and marched the team down the field on the game’s opening drive, encompassing 15 plays over 73 yards.
On O’Toole’s first touchdown to Kevin Carroll, however, the ball wasn’t even intended for Carroll.
“I checked the play and I was hoping one of the receivers would relay the route out to (Carroll), but they didn’t,” O’Toole said. “They ended up in the same spot. I would have liked to think that if Kevin wasn’t there, Pete Bonahoom would have caught it, who I was intending to throw it to, but I’ll have to see the film.”
When O’Toole and the Blue team got the ball back 11 seconds later after an Orange fumble, O’Toole was at it again, this time hitting Justin Hardee for a 25-yard touchdown. For the second time, although the result was desirable, O’Toole admitted to looking to hit a different receiver.
“I threw it to Church, but actually the wind really affected that one and kind of took it over to (Justin) Hardee,” O’Toole said. “That wasn’t a play mishap, they just both beat their guys so I was trying to get it up there to give them some room.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit thought O’Toole’s hot start might have put some early pressure on Lunt to make plays.
“If I was a quarterback and I saw that, I’d think I’ve got to sling it around and make some plays,” Cubit said. “You don’t need those big throws all the time. You could get sacked or get intercepted, just take what the defense is giving you.”
Lunt finished 6-of-16 passing for 99 yards with an interception on the day. O’Toole and Lunt switched off quarters for the entire game, with O’Toole starting both halves and Lunt finishing them.
For the Orange team, Bailey put together solid numbers although he was hamstrung by the “no-contact” jerseys for the quarterbacks. Anytime a defensive player laid a hand on the quarterback, the play was whistled dead.
It looked as though Bailey might break a long rushing touchdown in the third quarter, but was “touched” from behind by Jevaris Little, who might not have been able to catch Bailey and bring him all the way down in a regular season game.
“It definitely limits me to not be able to get out like I want to,” Bailey said. “Of course you get frustrated, but you just have to deal with it.”
Bailey was sacked four times but without the sacks, he would have ended up with 10 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown to go along with 9-for-13 throwing for 43 yards.
No decision will be made until the fall at the position, and all three quarterbacks are prepared to stretch the competition for the foreseeable future. While fans might believe O’Toole is the clear-cut choice after his stat line Saturday, Cubit said that the Spring Game is just one of many ways to evaluate the quarterbacks — which is even more muddled as they all work with different personnel at the receiver position.
“It’s just so hard,” Cubit said. “Our offense is all matchups: our guy against their guy. ‘Well, now my guy isn’t there and who is that guy? I haven’t thrown to him.’ So the sync isn’t there (in the spring). It’s a little more difficult.”
Stephen can be reached at email@example.com and @steve_bourbon.