Illini Work On Offensive Improvement for PSU

The Fighting Illini football team worked hard on offense this week in preparation for its game at Penn State. While the defense was buoyed by its improved play, the offense knows it must improve production to counter strong Big 10 defenses. The running game has been consistent. The Illini feel the passing game is improving every week, but more is needed.

Illinois is last in the Big 10 in total offense despite a strong running game. They have a rookie quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase who is learning on the job. They also have an offensive coordinator in Paul Petrino who is in his first year in charge of an offense. But since he has been calling plays since he was little, he doesn't feel he is a rookie.

"It's going all right. Really all that matters is whether you win or lose. We're 2-2, so two of them were good and two of them were bad."

If there is any adaptation required for Petrino, it is learning more about his players.

"You gain experience every game you ever coach, so you learn from it. Something you learn with this group of kids is what they can do and can't do. That's the biggest thing you gain experience about."

Petrino sees progress, however slow it might seem to outsiders.

"I think we've improved each game. This last game, we got down there three times and got two field goals and missed a field goal rather than three touchdowns. There was definitely one or two plays in each drive that we took turns messing up. That's why offense is all 11 guys doing their job. If we just do that, we get three touchdowns and win the game."

Scheelhaase must continue to learn more about finding downfield receivers. This requires staying in the pocket as he goes through his reads. Petrino sees weekly growth.

"I think he's gaining each game, improving each game. It's just a matter of really believing in it and doing his progression. That's on the practice field as well as the game field."

Scheelhaase feels he is becoming more relaxed in the pocket.

"I think it gets easier. Every week you feel more and more comfortable when you're out there."

Quarterback coach Jeff Brohm knows there are always growing pains with young quarterbacks, and he is trying to nurse Scheelhaase through it.

"He's worked extremely hard, he's a great kid, the other players respect him. And he's gotten better. He's just got to keep working hard, becoming a better passer and improving on his weaknesses. Just keep getting better, keep fighting, keep battling. Toughness is a big factor for quarterbacks, and he's definitely got the toughness.

"He's made great strides in practice. Now we've just got to carry that on in the game. Sometimes the practice speed is not quite as fast as the game. It's an adjustment. He's got to learn to react when things don't go as we prepare for, be an athlete and make plays. He's getting better every day."

Senior Jarred Fayson had his best day as an Illini against Ohio State last Saturday with 8 catches. Illinois head coach Ron Zook is happy for him but also praises Petrino for his ability as receiver coach.

"He is getting better and better. Paul is really, really good. The offensive staff does a great job of getting the ball to the guys that not only you want to get the ball to but what the defense is giving you. I think the fact that Jarred just happened to be in the situation where he was able to get the football and make some key catches and get up field.

"I think he is getting better. They work at it. If you go watch him after every practice, they're working get-offs after we get done running. Paul continually works on explosion and getting off the line and getting off after a catch. He is getting better at it."

Zook realizes success can come in bunches. Trulon Henry grabbed two interceptions against Ohio State and then multiplied that in practice Monday. He hopes the same will be true for Fayson.

"It is kind of like Trulon. He had about four or five interceptions in practice yesterday. Once those things start happening, hopefully it kind of picks up and keeps going.

"Jarred's always had that capability. We see him kind of do it in spurts, but he'd get dinged here or dinged there. I think he is having his best year and obviously it was his, in terms of production, best game this past Saturday."

Scheelhaase is grateful for the quality of his receivers and seeks to use them all in games. With the OSU defense shadowing leading receiver A.J. Jenkins, Fayson became the go-to guy.

"It's something we knew could happen throughout the season. They did a good job of putting a guy over and under A.J., doubling up on him sometimes.

"It doesn't matter. Sometimes it will be A.J., sometimes it will be Jarred, Eddie (McGee) and Darius (Millines), different guys step up at different times depending on defensive coverages. It's good for us to know we've got a lot of weapons we can use. We've just got to make sure we're all on the same page."

A team player, Jenkins wants to see equal contributions from the entire offense. Dropped balls and poor routes stall an offense, as do misreads and poor protection.

"We can't just count on A.J. or Fayson. We've got to count on everyone on the field. We've got to do something as a whole. We've got to be a fist. We've got to get better and come together."

The Illini defense is much improved this year. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning isn't satisfied with that. After all, the key to playing football is winning. After watching film, he and his players realize how their own mistakes prevented a better conclusion.

"Most of the plays they (OSU) made were plays we didn't do exactly right and were not good enough to compensate for it, or they were so good we couldn't compensate for it.

"Leaving the field, most probably said we had a great chance. But for the most part, we were supposed to win that game. That was the pain. We do know we can do it. We've been thinking that from the Missouri game. It's gonna carry on through Penn State throughout the season."

Defenders after the Buckeye game were hurt but optimistic for the future. They believe they can build on their effort. Koenning says they already had confidence. Now they need to put everything together for 60 minutes.

"As far as the defense goes, I think our confidence was already up. We know that we're a good defense. It's all what we do. There were key mistakes in the game, stuff that we did wrong mentally. If we get that tightened up, we'll be straight."

One of the key components has been defensive tackle Corey Liuget. Martez Wilson thinks highly of Liuget's play.

"Corey's been playing great. We expect a lot out of him because he's fast and powerful. He can run to the ball. Overall it's just his mentality. He just has that dog mentality like he can't be stopped. If you watch film, he just defeats his opponent sometimes, gets his shoulders turned when he needs to. I think he's well respected. You've got to double-team him."

Special team play has been a plus, especially the punting and place kicking. But Zook wants to improve the punt returns and kick returns.

"A lot of times with the punting game, when they're hanging the ball up there and have people in your face, it's hard. Jack (Ramsey) has probably taken a few more chances than I would like for him to, but I don't want to take that away from him. The kickoff return, we've got to get that amped up a little bit. I think we can be better than we're at right now."

McGee is likely for the Penn State game, Zach Becker is possible, Terry Hawthorne is a maybe, and Steve Hull is unlikely as they recover from injuries.

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