Illinois ranks high in a number of Big 10 team statistics going into the third week of the season, on both sides of the ball. Much talk during this week's practices centered on the effort the Illini make to be successful.
The Illini rank #1 in scoring offense, averaging 44.5 points a game. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino prides himself on this statistic.
"Our goal as an offensive group every year is to lead the nation in scoring. That's something we're gonna strive for; I always believe we can reach it. Usually, the teams that score a lot do okay."
They also lead the league in total offense (496 yards per game) and rushing offense (283 yards per game). While they haven't needed to pass a lot the first two games, they are second in pass efficiency at 183.0.
"Two times when I was at Louisville, we led the country in offense."
So when the team's Monday practice didn't measure up to his standards, Petrino was all over them. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase saw the method to the madness.
"He's a motivator; that's what he does. We expect that when we're not playing the way he wants us to be. He'll make sure we get up to that level. It's been working so far, so why change it now?"
Petrino puts every ounce of effort into his coaching. It runs in his family, and it helps his family thrive.
"As a coach, you feed your kids by winning. That's how you keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. So you're gonna work your hardest no matter what."
Illinois is #1 in first downs at 25.5 a game. Better yet, they are far above all other Big 10 teams in third-down conversions with a 72.4% success rate and tied for first with Wisconsin in red zone offense, scoring all 11 times they have penetrated the opponent's 20 yard line. This is no accident.
"Last year we were real good on that too," center Graham Pocic reminds. "It's a credit to Coach Petrino and his game plan and coaching staff. We go into a game with several calls we can use. They spend a lot of time looking at film and coming up with stuff we can run."
Scheelhaase agrees preparation is key.
"We've talked about it all year. We work on what the red zone calls are gonna be, what the third down calls are gonna be. We have certain calls, and they change every week. We are never surprised by anything."
It is encouraging to realize the Illini are continuing to improve. Pocic says that is especially true for the offensive line this past week.
"It was a lot better. I was very happy with it. We're a veteran group, and we know what to expect from ourselves. We were able to look at the film from the first week and address some concerns that we had and get better."
Tackle Jeff Allen was happy with their play against South Dakota State but feels more growth is necessary.
"I saw a ton of improvement in the South Dakota State game, especially with the offensive line. Our grades were great all across the board, and we ran for a lot of yards.
"We need to work on pass protection, taking those hits off Nate so he can stay upright in the pocket and make those throws."
Receiver A.J. Jenkins believes a balanced offense is key to success. Being able to use multiple skill players both running and passing prevents defenses from focusing on any one aspect.
"We have a lot of confidence this year. And we added a lot more weapons than last year. Last year, people focused on trying to stop Mikel (Leshoure) a lot. In the first game, we obviously had a good passing game. Now we can't both be stopped."
Illinois is second in the league in time of possession at 35:08, a mere :30 behind Michigan State and nearly two minutes ahead of Ohio State. Illini head coach Ron Zook says the offense is helping the defense by carrying out time-consuming multi-play drives.
"I love it, and I guarantee the defense loves it. They can sit on the bench and cheer for the offense. We've been pretty good on third downs, and that allows the defense to rest."
The Illini defense is certainly benefitting, and the statistics demonstrate it. They are third in scoring defense, third in total defense, second in rushing defense and fourth in pass defense. They are tied for first in opponent first downs and second in opponent third-down conversions. They are second in turnover margin and first in fewest penalties.
All this adds up to success on the football field. Granted, Arizona State is a much more formidable opponent than the previous two and will likely have a major impact on these statistics. But the Illini are gaining confidence and trusting their coaches to game-plan for success.
"We're feeling good," middle linebacker Ian Thomas states. "We've still got some things to work on. We're coming up with a good scheme this week against these guys."
Pocic says the Illini have enjoyed another strong practice week, with significant focus on assignments.
"We had a great week of practice last week and had a big win. We're putting good days in every day this week."
The only negative vibration from Illini practices this week is the sad realization Zach Becker will miss another whole year after surgery on his lower leg and ankle. He has a fracture of his lower leg and ligament damage in his ankle. The one redeeming grace is Becker has another year of eligibility according to Zook.
"Everybody feels terrible about what's happened to Zach. It's just a bad luck thing, being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Everybody in this football program, everybody in that locker feels terrible for Zach. That's the unfortunate part of this game, but we have to go on.
"Hopefully we'll get him back in there next year. If he wants that next year, absolutely (we will apply for a redshirt)."