Illini Offense Gearing Up For Better Results

The Fighting Illini offense has struggled at times this year. With high-scoring Indiana on tap Saturday, the Illini have spent the week working on making improvements both in the passing and rushing attacks. Indiana will move the ball, so the Illini offense needs to score points and keep IU off the field. Illini coaches and players discuss their progress.

Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino knows his guys need to score more points and balance run with pass. He was pressed for answers by inquiring media this week.

"We've done a good job of controlling the ball, we've just not gotten enough points. Part of that's not making enough big plays, part of it's not hitting big passes. We've got to finish our blocks a little bit more, sustain and beat people one on one in the running game and then make a couple big plays in the passing game. We've had opportunities, we've just got to start making them."

Petrino feels the Illini are close. They just need to make a few improvements here and there.

"I think part of it is, you've got to score points and not turn the ball over. If you just go through the Penn State game in the first half, or the last game (MSU), we're controlling the ball and they're not scoring. So we're doing a good job.

"You've just got to finish. Three of our first four drives the other night were a 13 play drive, 12 play drive, 14 play drive. It's hard for them to score when they're standing on the sideline. But we didn't get points on two of the drives. If we can keep controlling the ball like that and they can't get points, it's 21-3, and that's just domination.

"It's just a matter of making a big play here or there, or not hurting ourselves and go all the way down and score. You've got to make a few big plays, but sometimes it's hard to go 14-15 plays."

Third quarter stagnation has been noticeable in several games. Petrino believes a few mistakes have ruined what might otherwise have been decent drives to begin the second half.

"In the Penn State game, we scored every time we had the ball. This last game we came out, the first five plays were all good plays and then we threw a pick. At Missouri we came out and got to a third and medium on the first two third downs and didn't convert.

"I don't know if we out-schemed them in the first half, and then we have to save a few things to out-scheme them in the third quarter. It's really come down to a couple third downs here and there to keep you on the field so you can sustain your drives."

To the average fan, opponents appear to be making more halftime adjustments than the Illini. Petrino admits some of this may be due to the youthfulness of the offense, especially at quarterback with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase.

"You make adjustments, but sometimes you've got to be careful of making too many adjustments. Keep doing what's working. A lot of times, you've just got to make sure you go out there, stay on the field and sustain drives, convert third downs."

Top receiver A.J. Jenkins had a difficult game against Michigan State. He short-armed a long sideline pattern and fumbled a catch over the middle. The Illini need their studs to make plays. Head coach Ron Zook says that must include Jenkins, who was quick to apologize for his mistakes.

"Offensively, we were doing some really, really good things. I was talking to A.J. about it, that (fumble) is a play he's got to make. The fade down the sideline, those are plays he's got to make.

"As I said to A.J., his thinking has got to be why can't we put the game on his back, he's good enough. Not just Nathan, not just Mikel (Leshoure), not just the offensive line. He's good enough also. The plays don't care who makes them. The big thing is that we're prepared when the play shows up.

"I think probably one of the biggest differences in practice (Monday) was the way A.J. practiced. I was very, very happy and pleased with his intensity."

As the quarterback, Scheelhaase is responsible for everything that happens with the offense. He knows the Illini need to be more consistent and score more touchdowns.

"Some of our leaders talked after we got off the plane about how we can't settle for either field goals or not scoring at all in critical situations. It really comes down to a lack of focus. When you're on offense, you need all eleven players. If one person doesn't do his job good enough, there will be opportunities for the defense to make plays.

"When you play good teams, they're gonna take advantage of those opportunities. We all have to do a better job. There were plays that were there in the critical zone. One thing or another caused us to not put points on the board.

"You have to maintain focus throughout drives from the first quarter through the fourth quarter. Anytime you don't, it definitely bites you back. I know I have to do a better job of that at certain times. I think everybody on the offense feels that way."

People tend to forget Scheelhaase has played only six games for Illinois. There is a definite learning curve, and it is the things he didn't anticipate that have taught him the most.

"You definitely learn a lot from game one to now. It's the little things that catch you off guard: time management, clock management, being able to see what adjustments teams are making during games.

"I think that's the most different from watching teams on film. Obviously, teams make adjustments in games. It's kind of a queer thing to see how those teams are making adjustments. You have to make your adjustments against them. It's a big chess game really to out-do your opponent, think a step ahead."

He is catching on, but it takes time to learn everything. All he can do is add what he learns to his memory banks for use in future games.

Jarred Fayson is said to have great speed, so some wonder why he isn't used more on long routes. But as a slot receiver, he is to use his speed one-on-one against linebackers on shorter patterns.

"Definitely. Crossing routes, routes in front of the linebackers, things like that. They also send me deep. There's certain things we've got to work on for the deep routes, spreading the ball around to get the ball down the field better."

Fayson has a dream of getting the ball in space and getting up a head of steam. His face brightens considerably, a big smile on his face, when he contemplates that possibility. When will it happen?

"Oh man, I don't know. I believe in Coach Petrino. When my number's called, I just try to execute the play called. I believe my time is coming. In the meantime, I have to make the best of it."

The tight ends have not contributed much to the passing game. Tight end coach Chip Long is working with youngsters Evan Wilson, Justin Lattimore and Eddie Viliunas, and it has taken time for them to catch on to the complexities of college football. Will they see some passes in the Indiana game?

"Hopefully so. They're slowly coming around. They're still young, and they're still learning how to run routes. Learning how to get open. Hopefully they make some plays when their numbers are called. They're playing really well and have to keep doing what they're doing."

With opponents stacking the box to counter the Illini's rushing attack, is there less room for the tight ends to maneuver on short routes?

"At times, but they've got to do a better job. They have to understand what type of release they can take, a certain technique. They've got to do a better job. The routes are called. I've got to do a better job getting them to understand it.

"They're starting to get there. The first six games were a learning experience. They've got to come around and make the play when it's there to be made. I think they will. We want to get them involved. It's just a process right now with their youth. They'll get the ball."

There may have been a setback at Michigan State.

"We weren't pleased at all with our effort, my guys especially, last week. I think they're practicing a lot harder, so I expect good things out of them. But they have to be ready to play."

Tight end/fullback Zach Becker missed the first five games with a stress fracture in his foot. Is he rounding into shape?

"He's doing well. We're slowly getting him in there. You know what you're gonna get with Zach. I'm glad to see him out there. It puts a smile on my face. He brings ease to the group. Evan isn't counted on to do quite as much as he has been. I think that's gonna help him down the stretch. It's really good having him back."

Tight ends have always been prominent in a Petrino offense. Long says without doubt that will eventually be true at Illinois as well.

"We have a million different plays to get the tight end the ball. In our past, they've had tons of catches. They're young, and you are kind of uneasy going to them in certain situations. You don't want to put them into a situation where they're not as confident. The more they get through the season, the more catches they'll have."

That can be said for the entire offense. It is a work in progress, and they have faced three of the best defenses in the Big 10 the last three weeks. There are six more games on the schedule, six more opportunities to put everything together and prove itself on the field. To a man, every Illini coach and player interviewed is convinced that will happen eventually.

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