It has not been an easy first year for Paul Petrino at Illinois. Becoming an offensive coordinator for the first time, he was motivated to prove himself outside of his brother Bobby Petrino's shadow. Inheriting an offense that had lost a four year starting quarterback was difficult enough, but he also tore his ACL during spring practice.
Petrino is known for his ability to coach receivers. Normally someone who runs with them 20 yards downfield to encourage yards after catch, he hobbled his way through spring ball and fall drills. Still, he never lost any of the tremendous energy he exudes to fire up his team. It's been a difficult first year, but his offense has made tremendous progress. The positives have outweighed the negatives for him.
"It's been a lot of fun," Petrino admitted on WDWS radio Saturday. "It's definitely been a year of us continuing to improve as we've gone along offensively."
Petrino and his offense have continued to evolve as the season has progressed.
"It's been good to know the players, learn what they do best. As the year's gone along, we've put them in better situations, and they've bought into what we've been teaching. It's been a great group of guys to work with. And I've got a great room to work with on the offensive staff. It's been an exciting, great year."
The Northwestern game stamped Petrino as a top offensive coordinator as the Illini rang up 559 yards total offense to dominate the Wildcats. Petrino felt good things were going to happen after a good week of practice and the atmosphere at Wrigley Field.
"We got off the bus, and I could see the atmosphere was exciting. I got excited because I could see our kids got pumped up. You could tell they'd be ready to go. We had a great week of practice, and they were ready to go anyway. But that helped even more."
The Illini game plan was to mix a strong running game with a vertical passing game.
"Going into the game, we had a lot of what we call shot plays, deep play-actions and plays where we thought we would take shots and throw the ball deep a lot more."
However, it quickly became apparent the running game would decide the outcome. Petrino adapted.
"We ran because it was working. We were running the ball so well. When you're running that well, there's no reason to change. It keeps their offense on the sideline, and it lets our guys be tough and go downhill. Anytime you can go for over 500 yards, you don't throw the ball at all. You just keep running it and running it.
"We got into a lot of different formations where we could run about 5-6 plays really well. We kind of felt like if we could get on them, sit up on our blocks and get him (Mikel Leshoure) one-on-one with their secondary, we could beat their guys."
The offensive linemen carried out their assignments to perfection. They had help from freshman fullback Jay Prosch, who time and again opened gaping holes for the running game.
"Prosch had as good a game as any fullback I've ever seen play in my life. As a true freshman, he dominated those linebackers. By the end of the game, they were running out of the way and pawing on the ground. He's been playing pretty well all year.
"We use him quite a bit. It depends on the game plan and what we're doing well. He played 31 snaps in that game, about what he plays most games. But they were 31 unbelievable snaps."
Petrino also took advantage of the athleticism of 300 pound offensive guard Hugh Thornton, adding him to a jumbo backfield for extra blocking on occasion.
"That was our muscle personnel. We kept Prosch in the game too, he was the wing. We'd motion Prosch and send he and Thornton both in there. That was something we worked hard on all week.
"On short yardage plays, we couldn't go from one sideline to the other and call the play in time. So we worked all week on just lining up and running it. They executed real well. We were 7 for 7 in that personnel. It gives it away a little bit, but they never stopped it. We switched it up in the second half. The guy in motion ran the other direction."
Northwestern's defense had been stout against the run all season. But on this special day, the Illini offense absorbed Petrino's fire and gave it out in copious amounts to the Wildcat defense.
"They'd done a good job against the run. Everybody said they play so hard, but we played harder. We wanted to make it a physical, tough game. Our kids were just tougher than their kids were, bottom line."
Petrino's receivers are well versed on downfield blocking, helping spring Leshoure, Jason Ford and Nathan Scheelhaase for big gains. But freshman tight end Evan Wilson must also be singled out for praise.
"Sometimes guys get caught up on how many stars players have, but those are two freshmen, Evan Wilson and Jay Prosch, who were both two-stars. You find me a freshman anywhere in the country that played better at tight end or fullback and I'll be shocked."
Wilson has caught only 9 passes for 110 yards on the season. But blocking is equally important for a tight end.
"You watch on tape and he's blocked his butt off. He hasn't caught a bunch of balls because we're still growing in the passing game, and not necessarily because of his talents."
Petrino wants an offense that is balanced between run and pass. Some games the pass has been more effective. Against Northwestern, it was the run. But the passing attack had to come through when the game was tight, and it did.
After the Wildcats tied the game at 24 late in the first half, the Illini drove for a field goal to take a lead it would never relinquish. And it's first drive of the second half was equally important. Both required a mix of run and pass, and Petrino's guys came through with flying colors.
"The drive that resulted in a field goal, which was big for momentum, we completed some nice passes. And then we came out the first drive and went right down the field and got the touchdown pass to A.J. (Jenkins).
"When we had to complete passes, we completed them. The guys ran their routes hard, and Nathan scrambled out of there and made big plays. The passing game was productive enough to move the sticks, and then we just kept pounding the ball."
Scheelhaase's development has been essential for the offense. Petrino and quarterback coach Jeff Brohm have worked tirelessly to help a redshirt freshman learn the offense and how to exploit defensive tendencies in a short amount of time. And the best is yet to come.
"He's come a long way. He's becoming a winner, finding ways to win games. He's made a bunch of big plays for us. He's beginning to understand the passing game better and has done a good job there. In the last five games, I believe he has 11 touchdowns and just one interception. And the one he did throw against Northwestern was like a good punt.
"Nathan's really improved. He's a leader, he's a tough guy. For a freshman to run our offense and put up the numbers we've put up with five other true freshmen playing, I think that's a credit to Nathan."
Petrino has done a masterful job in a short time, but he's had to make personal sacrifices to do it. He is a family man, but coaches have minimal time to spend with their families in the fall.
"During the season you live in the offensive staff room. The only time you come out of it is to go to practice. A couple Thursday nights you get to go home after practice.
"On those nights, I've been lucky enough to go watch my kids play football, basketball or softball. That way you get to get out and know some people. Usually the other people you know are the parents of the kids your kids play sports with.
"You've got to try to make the most of it when you are around your family, be the best father and husband you can. But unfortunately during the season your wife better be a good single parent because you won't be around that much."
He does make frequent contact with his brother Bobby, successful head coach at Arkansas. They come from a football family, and they've worked together until this season. They still help each other when they can.
"We talk every Monday and on Thursdays. I throw some stuff off the wall at him, play this front to these formations. And he'll have a question for me, 'What did we used to call this?'
"So we talk every Monday about the upcoming opponent. And we always talk on Thursday. And there's been a couple Wednesday afternoons where I'll give him a call to ask him about one certain thing. We stay in touch a lot, and I still follow them. There's a bunch of players there that I coached for two years and recruited, so I follow them pretty close."
His father was head football coach at Carroll College in Montana, and Petrino spent his youth studying football with his father. It's in his blood, and he has aspirations to lead his own program someday.
"That's one of the reasons I had to leave my brother, to go out and show what I could do on my own. My whole life that's what I wanted to be, a head coach. I think a lot of it's just timing, what's right."
If he continues to move the Illini offense up the national rankings, he will have those opportunities. Illinois fans want him to stay, but that depends on the nature and timing of any job offers. And it depends on family needs.
"My kids are in the seventh grade right now, so the next couple years will be pretty important. I think more than anything I'd like to be somewhere I can stay where they can go to high school all four years.
"If I get a head job before they start high school, then that'd be great. But if it works out where I don't, and they're in high school, then I'll probably stay where I'm at until they're out of high school."
Petrino is a football coach, a good one. For as long as he's at Illinois, the team has a chance to rack up lots of points and yardage. And victories likely won't be far behind.