Paul Petrino had precious little time to install a new offense for Illinois this year. Arriving in the winter, he had only one spring ball and one Camp Rantoul to bring new life into a program in need of something special. Normally a coordinator who prefers a pro-style offense, Petrino helped the cause by adapting his style to fit the talents of the players at hand.
Thus, the Illini emphasized a running game behind the talents of junior running back Mikel Leshoure and redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Opponents keyed on Leshoure and brought 8 and 9 players close to the line of scrimmage to counter, but the Illini found ways to gain yards on the ground. How is that possible?
"We used a bunch of different schemes," Petrino relates. "The ability to run some option, the two back power game, we had a lot of different schemes other teams have to prepare for. There's a lot of different running plays, so there's a lot for them to work on."
The Illini needed a strong running game as their passing attack was inconsistent at best. The offensive line did well most of the year, but blitz packages cause them problems at times. Petrino says it wasn't just the offensive linemen who needed to step up their play.
"I think different things happened in different games. It wasn't always the offensive line. Sometimes we might have missed a protection; it might have been a tight end or a back.
"Protection is all eleven of us. In some games it was real good. Obviously, in the Fresno game it wasn't good enough."
Scheelhaase is still in a learning stage with the passing game. He threw to junior wideout A.J. Jenkins far more than anyone else. Jenkins is the best receiver, so that made sense. But sometimes Scheelhaase appeared to telegraph his passes by looking solely for Jenkins. Petrino admits that is likely.
"Probably. Most any quarterback will do that. I always tell them, "You have to show in practice that you can do it, and then they will look for you.'"
Petrino coaches receivers, and he puts them through their paces. At Camp Rantoul, it appeared they would be featured in the offense. Did the other receivers become discouraged when they didn't see any passes come their way?
"Not really. When they're playing hard and playing fast, they have a chance to make a play. As they continue to improve and get the job done in practice, then it will happen in the game."
"I think the young receivers can improve on being big playmakers for us. They have good speed. Our freshmen receivers have a chance to be real good. They and Nate just have to continue to improve on the passing game.
"It's no genius statement, we have to improve on the passing game. We're gonna be able to run the football. Then we'll be a tough team to stop."
Of course, the receivers did a tremendous job with downfield blocking to help spring Leshoure, Scheelhaase and Jason Ford for big gains. That is an oft-overlooked aspect of receiver play, but the Illini receiver corps did yeoman work.
"To be honest, they understood one of the best things we did this year was we ran the ball. There were a lot of games where they were key players and did a great job of giving up their own catches to block their butts off and make big plays in the running game. A couple of them should be applauded for their unselfishness. They cared more about winning than anything else."
Petrino hopes to become a head coach someday. No doubt he wants to be known for a balanced offense, but he cares more for winning than personal resumes.
"I don't care about the career situation. I care about whatever it takes to win. If this year we have to run it a whole bunch to win, we'll run it. If we need to throw it, we'll throw it. Ideally, it will be balanced. But if you have to do one more than the other, that's what you'll do."
Illinois benefitted greatly by having 15 bowl practices. Petrino is excited about how much improvement is possible in that span of time.
"Oh, yeah. This is like a whole extra spring ball, so we can improve on a whole bunch of things. And definitely keep doing the stuff we've done well all year and improve on that while improving on some of the things we didn't do real well during the season."
The Illini offense needs the improvement as it may have to outscore Baylor in the Texas Bowl to win. Petrino evaluates the Bear defense.
"They've got two real big guys up front. They've got a couple guys in the secondary that play pretty well. I think their biggest strength is their two big defensive tackles."
Petrino always adds downfield passing to his game plans. That part of the offense hasn't always been successful, but Petrino expects to look for downfield opportunities against Baylor.
"It's just a matter of executing and getting it done. That's just me. I always feel receivers are better than dbs. It's just a matter of executing and making it happen."
Besides all the other problems he faced when he arrived at Illinois, Petrino tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during spring ball. He hobbled through the rest of those practices before getting it surgically repaired. He still wears a brace.
"It's getting better. It's still probably not good enough to run around without the brace, but it's getting better."
Despite an inconsistent passing game, Petrino is proud of all the Illini have accomplished offensively this year. He considers his first year as coordinator a success.
"If we can go score 43 points in this game, we will set the record for most points in a season. If we do that, I'll feel pretty good. But the ultimate thing is how many games you win, and we can always improve. For our first year, playing with a freshman quarterback, a new offense, playing five true freshmen, I think it went pretty well."
Petrino coaches and recruits with a long-term plan in mind. Given his entire career as an offensive coach, he feels he can recruit players both for running and passing games. That is especially true when recruiting quarterbacks. He is not concerned a lack of passing this year will hurt his chances with top passers in future recruiting wars.
"We can show a recruit a style either way. I can show him a tape of when we were at Arkansas or Louisville, if they're that type of kid. We can show him tape of Nate if he's that type of kid. We're gonna adapt to whatever they do best."
Since Scheelhaase has three more years as a potential starter, will that make it more difficult to recruit top signal callers?
"Not if you're real good. If you're real good, you always believe you can come in (and play). We signed Michael Bush, and a year later we signed Brian Brohm at Louisville. If you get some great players, you try to play them all. You try to get the best players you can get.
"You get special as a program when you have great players at every position battling to beat each other out. There's nothing better than competition to make people better. That's how you get to be real special."