Something to Shoot For

It was good news/bad news for the offense last week against Indiana.

CHAMPAIGN – Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the last player to appear for interviews following the Indiana loss last weekend.

The junior signal caller limped in after receiving medical treatment, needed after rushing 19 times, throwing 27 passes, taking seven sacks and enduring a handful of other hits in the 31-17 loss.

He re-injured his sprained ankle late in the game, but described his pain as coming from, "just a couple things on the left side. I'm gonna be alright."

A hobbled Scheelhaase following games has become a familiar scene this season, as the offense has struggled to protect him in passing situations.

Nearly giving up four sacks per game, only three teams in the nation allow more QB takedowns each Saturday.

Usually in these situations the o-line gets the blame. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras doesn't dispute the unit up front has struggled.

"You know there's a lot of plays that were ridiculous sacks on plays there should never have been sacks on," he said. "The o-line takes all the responsibly for that."

The struggles aren't so easy to diagnose, though. It's more than poor line play, says co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty. The issues are four-fold. Yes, the line is somewhat culpable, but some plays have been slow developing and Scheelhaase has held the ball for too long on others.

Down, distance and circumstance, Beatty says, has a lot to do with it, too. If the Illini fall behind in a game or face third and long, defenses have reaped the benefits of knowing a pass is coming.

"We're trying to do some things to get the ball out of quicker," he said of this week's game plan. "I know that's part of it. "You've got to stay away from obvious passing downs to give yourself a chance to not get lit up with the blitz and things like that."

When it comes to passing the football, the stats aren't pretty. The Illini rank 101th nationally in yards per game (184) and have thrown nearly as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (11).

After allowing Scheelhaase, who's dealt with that ankle as well as a concussion this season, to take another pounding against the Hoosiers, the offensive staff worked this week to develop a different approach.

"We probably have to get off the ball quicker, and do some more movement type passing," coach Tim Beckman said. "Protection-wise we've kept backs in, we've kept tight ends in to chip and help protect, but we've got to continue to strive to do better. It still comes down to a one-on-one battle when they're blitzing, so you've got to win."

Perhaps last week's rushing effort offers a blueprint, or in the least some hope play can improve.

Tailback Donovonn Young gained 124 yards and Scheelhaase 89 (57 of which were negated in the box score by sacks). In total, even counting the losses on sacks, the 196 yards netted on the ground were 46 percent more than the team averaged in previous games this season.

The reason: simplicity.

"We didn't do anything crazy in the run game," Scheelhaase said. "We didn't do anything too brand new, or different or anything like that. We got back to the basics."

While the actual plays weren't anything fancy, a subtle tweak to the blocking scheme opened things up, too. Instead of using a tight end to double team opposing linemen, the box was cleared out to create more running room.

The plan worked.

"We did a couple little things different, trying to create some angles and to be able to get some different point of attack deals and some movement," Beatty said

"Sometimes you've got to figure out the best way to set an angle to get a block or to create a double team. We kind of spread some guys out and made it easier to run it."

The run game took a step forward while the passing game remained a work in progress. That said another tough loss took away the luster of Young's 100-plus yard performance, always a mark of pride for an o-line. That may be, but the success, even if in only one area, is something "hopefully we can build on," Beatty said.

If the rushing effort can maintain, the passing game has a chance to improve, too.

For a team facing mounting losses and heaps of outside criticism, something to build on is at least something.

"This season, no, it's not going the way I thought it would go," Karras said. "We're not having a good year, and as of now the season is not over and we're going to keep going."


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