Paul Petrino Clarifies His Decision-Making

The Fighting Illini football team has enjoyed offensive success the last couple years. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is now in his second year, and his players have a better understanding of the offense. He has proven he is a capable coordinator, but explanations can still provide comfort to fans confused by his decision-making.

Illinois is 4-0 on the young season, and it is presently ranked fourth in total offense in the Big 10 despite playing a couple strong defensive teams in the preseason. Yet fans questioned several aspects of the Illini's play in the Western Michigan game.

Paul Petrino takes pride in his offensive success, so he is willing to clarify his decision-making. For instance, he used freshman quarterback Reilly O'Toole a few plays in the second half, even alternating him with starter Nathan Scheelhaase briefly.

Internet forums were abuzz with questions and criticisms without any knowledge of Petrino's reasoning. As he explains, what he is doing this year is no different than last year.

"It's a big deal this year. I did it last year with Eddie (McGee), and nobody said a word. Now all of a sudden it's the hugest deal ever.

"I don't worry about the boards. I worry about us winning. We're 4-0. We spend 16 hours a day coming up with a plan, coming up with a way to win, and we've been pretty successful.

"Sometimes it's just giving Nathan a break, letting him take a couple plays off. Watch from the sideline and let someone else make the plays. Nathan is so important in running the ball and throwing the ball, that sometimes you need to take a little pressure off him. He doesn't have to make every single play."

O'Toole has assets that can be exploited to help the team win. And getting him into the game helps prepare him better should Scheelhaase go down with injury.

"He did a good job. He went in there and had good poise. He's a pretty special individual who can go in there for a couple plays and then come out. That's a good thing to have."

Since O'Toole is more of a passer than runner, is there concern he might become type-cast, allowing defenses to prepare better for him?

"They might, that's why we have to definitely make sure we can run the football with him in there. There's some things that he can do. He's a lot more athletic than people give him credit for. They better not think that because he can run our option game too."

Petrino will not let those fans incapable of accepting nontraditional play-calling influence his thinking.

"We're gonna still do it. It will be a week-to-week thing. We'll watch all the practices and see who is executing well."

The Illini run game was surprisingly vulnerable first half against Western Michigan but ended with over 300 yards on the ground for the game. Halftime adjustments were important.

"We just didn't do a good enough job running the ball the first half. I thought all the assistant coaches did a good job at halftime coming together and getting a great plan. We went out second half and executed real well. The guys grinded it out and got a tough win. They found a way to get it done."

Did concern for Scheelhaase's painful shoulder influence a reduction in the option attack he runs so well?

"I probably did too much of it in the first half. We probably stayed away from the option too much in the first half. Second half, we did what we had to do to win the game. We went to the option in the second half, and we did some things that sparked us. His running is real important. It really helps us."

Senior Jason Ford struggled carrying the ball first half, but senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young both gained 100 yards replacing him. Did they move ahead of Ford on the depth chart?

"Ford is still the lead guy. I think early in the game, we're gonna try to give them all the ball. And then whoever is hot, or whatever plays are hot, (that's what we will do). Last week, it wasn't necessarily who wasn't doing the job, it was the plays that were working."

Everyone is pleased for Pollard, who has persevered multiple injuries.

"He's done what we've told him, and he's gotten bigger and stronger. That's definitely helped him. He can run through tackles better. He's always had great vision and has a natural great sense of making cuts."

Most freshman running backs lack an understanding of blocking assignments, reducing their playing time. Not so for Young.

"He does a good job. You can tell he comes from a real good system because things are easy for him to pick up. He's been well coached in high school. That gives us some options."

The Illini run game is aided by Jay Prosch. The muscular fullback puts fear in the hearts of opponents, who have taken to diving at his ankles to neutralize him and avoid injury.

"It doesn't really affect our play calling. Some defensive coaches don't believe in giving up one for one. People have been doing that lately. When you see it on tape, sometimes that makes them give up touchdowns. They got us a couple times.

"Really, if they're giving up one for one, we should be okay, as long as the hole is big enough we still have places to cut. When they do that, Prosch has just got to punish them and make it hurt so they don't want to do that. And then the backs have to make quick cuts and get around it."

Petrino had to adjust to using two redshirt freshmen tackles after Jeff Allen was banned from the second half of the WMU game. But Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz asserted themselves well.

"They battled and did a pretty good job. They fought hard. It probably played a little role in what I called too. We only punted once in the second half, so we moved the ball real well."

No matter how well the offense is doing, Petrino is always looking for more.

"When we are moving it, we have to have touchdowns. We settled for three field goals and got stopped on the one (last week). If all of those were touchdowns, we score 42 points. We've got to get touchdowns when we get down there.

"Last year as the season went on, we got better. That's something we've got to keep doing. We're a lot farther along after four games than we were last year after four games. We've just got to keep grinding every day in practice. As long as everyone keeps believing in hard work, we'll be fine."

Petrino was asked if he expected to be competing for Big 10 championships when he came to Illinois.

"I came from a family where we won. So wherever I've been, I've always expected to win. If you don't win, that's not good enough. No matter where I'm at, I expect to battle for a championship.

"There's no question that's why I came here. It's great Coach (Ron) Zook brought me here. I knew what a great recruiter he was, and that's one of the biggest things, having the players to have a chance to do that. It's exciting.

"Now we've got to keep getting better. We've just got to look at getting to 5-0. We beat Northwestern, we'll be in good shape."

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