CHAMPAIGN — Two main story lines have emerged as the Illini head into the final quarter of the college football season.
One is the development of true freshman Cam Thomas as the starting quarterback.
The other is an alarming number of injuries that have shredded an already thin Illini roster.
On Friday, coach Lovie Smith said those two story lines have now converged.
Smith told the weekly meeting of the Illini Quarterback Club that Thomas is unlikely to play in Saturday’s home game against Indiana. Smith rarely describes injuries and did not on this occasion, but Thomas went to the locker room a few minutes before the game ended last Saturday during the 29-10 loss at Purdue.
Thomas made his first-ever start in that game and coaches were excited about his progress. He completed 10 of 20 passes for 159 yards and did not throw an interception.
Little was said about an injury during Smith’s Monday press briefing, but if Thomas can’t go today, the job is expected to fall back into the lap of Jeff George Jr., who started four games and began splitting time with Thomas Oct. 21 at Minnesota.
Just this week, though, Smith indicated the coaching staff had reached a decision to let Thomas have the bulk of the quarterback plays the rest of the way.
“Cam took a big step,” Smith said of his play at Purdue. “He gave us a chance. I like where he’s headed.”
If Thomas is out, that gives the Illini one more injury on a long and growing list. A total of 18 players missed the Purdue game due to injuries and of that group, 13 of them were starters at one time or another this season.
An injury to Thomas would also change Illinois’ game plan, since offensive coordinator has installed a number of run-option plays for Thomas that would not be suitable for George.
There’s also a measure of quarterback confusion for the Indiana Hoosiers. Richard Lagow started the season as the Indiana QB but Peyton Ramsey took over and got four starts.
Lagow completed 40 of 65 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns in a season-opening 49-21 loss to Ohio State.
For today, Lagow is the presumed starter as Ramsey’s status is uncertain with an injury.
If Ramsey can’t play and Lagow was to be injured during the game, Indiana might have to turn to true freshman Nick Tronti, who first-year coach Tom Allen was hoping to redshirt.
Assuming Lagow is on the field, watch for the pass-catch combination of Lagow-to-Simmie Cobbs Jr., a 6-foot-4 target who has already had some monster games this season.
Cobbs had 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State. He had 10 catches for 98 yards against Charleston Southern. And he had 10 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns at Maryland.
He shares the Big Ten lead with an average of 6.6 catches per game.
Allen likes to give his team a one-word theme for the week. Since Indiana still hopes it can win its three remaining games to become bowl-eligible at 6-6, the word this week is “now.”
“The sense of urgency is what it’s all about,” Allen said. “That’s our theme for the whole week. Guys understand the clock is ticking. The senior class deserves to finish well.”
After today’s game, Indiana has a home game against Rutgers before finishing on the road against Purdue.
The Illini also have two games remaining after Saturday — at Ohio State next week before returning home to close out the season Nov. 25 against Northwestern.