Illini Offense With Something to Prove

CHAMPAIGN - Last year, Illinois defeated six teams in a row, the best start to a season since 1951. But the record breaking winning streak was quickly halted by a six game skid.

With many high performing defensive players such as Whitney Mercilus, Tavon Wilson and Michael Buchanan, it led many Fighting Illini fans wondering : "Why aren't we winning?"

With a defense that ranked in the top half of essentially every Big Ten stat category, the blame quickly fell into the hands of the offense.

While outsiders may have viewed the offense with contempt, inside the locker room players weren't pointing fingers.

"The greatest thing about football is that it is a team game in general, so we are only as good as them and they are only as good as us," says defensive end Justin Staples. "The thing that they are pretty much improving on this year is their timing and consistency. We don't really know what to attribute the slump to last year. Guys got hurt last year and everything, so definitely having that offense this year, and having some key guys back that couldn't play last year, that is going to help them a lot and pretty much bridge that gap with the defense."

Timing and consistency are said to be key components in the new offensive coaching staff's game plan, and starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is aware of the importance of both aspects.

"We just have to go out there and take care of our job," the junior signal caller said. "Be consistent – that's something we have talked about, you know, really for the whole offseason. There were times last year where our offense was as good as anyone in the country, and our players played as well as anyone, but it comes down to consistency."

Coach Tim Beckman says he has seen steady improvement in his receivers, specifically naming Darius Millines as a player who stepped up on Sunday, making three big catches in the rain for over 25 yards during their open practice. In addition to the receivers, Scheelhaase says the running backs and tight ends will come out Saturday and show their development.

"I think our running backs are as tough as it gets," he said. "Being able to interchange those guys, and get those guys on the field at the same time, that'll help us out a lot, so all three of those guys, Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young, and (freshman) Dami (Ayoola), they all can get the job done… and I think our tight ends will really step up for us. They're big targets, and catch tough balls in the middle of the field. They're able to block, and they're able to attack the ball in the air."

Each player polled, on both sides of the ball, said members of the offense are eager to bridge the success gap with the defense.

"I believe the offense is going to be a lot more exciting this year," says linebacker Johnathan Brown. "We have a lot more options, and we have a lot more guys that are able to make plays and that are willing to make plays. I think it's going to be a pretty exciting year for the offense."

If a balance can be found between the two units, perhaps another milestone could be reached. With a successful regular the season, the team could advance to a third consecutive bowl game for the first time since the program went on a run of five straight postseason appearances from 1988-92.

"It comes down to doing it every snap, every week, over and over again, and that's what we've got to have," Scheelhaase said.

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