Where Did the Big Plays Go?

Good feelings about Bill Cubit's offense went away when the big plays did. Can the Illini get back to moving the football and scoring points?

CHAMPAIGN - Trick plays and big strikes made Bill Cubit the most popular man in town and helped Illinois win three of it's first four games.

By the eve of the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, the Illini had 27 plays of 20-plus yards and Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford were one and two in the conference in yards per catch.

Everybody knew the first three conference games were going to be tough to win. But, as the thought at the time went, perhaps Cubit could draw these traditional powers into a shootout. A timely deep pass here and some smoke and mirrors there could equalize a gap in talent and a lagging defense.

So what happened when September turned into October? What happened when Southern Illinois and Miami of Ohio were replaced with Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State?

Three losses pushed Illinois back out of sight and out of mind. The defense, as figured, didn't perform nearly well enough. But the offense wasn't able to keep up either. The big plays weren't as frequent. In those three losses, only 12 plays went for more than 20 yards after averaging nearly seven a game in the out-of-conference slate.

The 42-3 loss Saturday to Michigan State provided the lowest of lows. A touchdown was called back for holding and two goal line runs from the one were stuffed. Worse, the offense averaged 1.2 yards per rush and completed only four passes for 10 yards or more.

"What happened was we were getting 2 (or) 3-yard gains that should have been 6-yard gains or maybe 10-yard gains," Cubit said.

And the trick plays went from being explosive and fun to disastrous and embarrassing. Lankford is out for the season after injuring his shoulder attempting a double reverse in Saturday's game.

"I'm sorry this had to happen, but Ryan Lankford will make us better as this season continues, it just won't be on the football field," Coach Tim Beckman said.

So the offense has had a hard time against the physical, talented and experienced defenses encountered in the Big Ten. And it's not going to get any easier without Lankford, the fast receiver who accounted for two 100-yard games and catches of 52, 72 and 39 yards.

"We've got Steve Hull back, so you've got three seniors [at wide receiver] that have played a lot of football: Miles Osei, Steve Hull, and Spencer (Harris)," Beckman said. "That means a Martize Barr, a Devin Church that has played a little bit of running back and a little bit of wide receiver, and Justin Hardee are the other names that will have to take over that role along with D.J. Taylor and Pete Bonahoom. Those will be the faces you'll see out there with Lankford being out."

Hull is the best chance left for big plays. He's averaged over 20 yards a catch, but has also dealt with nagging shoulder issues and failed to make a single grab in three games.

What Hull can do in the final five games remains to be seen. That goes for the entire offense.

Cubit brought all of his players together the day after the flop against the Spartans. They watched film as a whole. After each failed play, Cubit asked players that didn't do their job what happened.

"I'm kind of a tell it like it is," Cubit said of his approach. "I'm not going to sugarcoat anything."

The first-year offensive coordinator got the responses he was looking for. Each time, Cubit said, players reacted with some form of, 'that's on me.'

"I told the guys it all starts with me but we've all got to take responsibility," Cubit said. "… Every one of them took ownership."

Cubit says he likes the morale and attitude. He surely knows the task at hand is the same as it was at the beginning of October. The defense isn't going to get better overnight. The offense has to score points. Big plays and explosive drives happen because of execution.

"Every time we get the ball you should be scoring," Cubit said. "… I'll take it all but I want (the players) to understand every play -- there's different expectations around here on offense."

The conference losing streak is up to 17 games and the groans from the fan base are mounting. It wasn't that long ago everybody felt great about Cubit and what his guys were doing.

After Sunday's film session, Cubit said he still believes.

"When I walked out of that room I felt pretty good about those kids," he said.

The hope is still there. The big plays need to be, too.

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