Football is the ultimate team sport, but the success of the team is most driven from the quarterback position.
Illinois starting quarterback Wes Lunt, a junior, is extremely talented but has suffered injuries in almost every season he's played, including high school.
For Illinois, Lunt's health just may determine whether the Illini can make it back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase helpedlead the Illini to the Texas Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
The architect responsible for designing plays to keep the injury-prone Lunt upright and effective will be third-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Cubit’s offensive personnel changes from down to down, along with motions by wide receivers or shifts by tight ends and running backs. This can cause confusion for the opposing defense. For instance, the Illini feature "10" or "spread" personnel (1RB/0TE/4WR), "11" or "diamond" personnel (1RB/1TE/3WR) and "12" or "ace" personnel (1RB/2TE/2WR). These formations are interchangeable and used to locate favorable match-ups for Lunt against the defense.
Out of the different formations I mentioned above, Cubit will find several ways to keep Lunt healthy and dangerous along with while wearing down the opposition.
Key No. 1: Offensive line
When the offensive line can show consistent movement in the run game, the offense will have more balance. Effective play-action passes will create more windows for Lunt because that forces linebackers to step forward to play the run first; then he can hit the space behind the linebackers and in front of the safties. But the offensive line has to re-create the line of scrimmage for both the run and pass. The Illini have a dangerous running back (senior Josh Ferguson) to take advantage of the holes, and a freshman (Ke'Shawn Vaughn) with promise too. Until the offense shows the ability to consistently create running lanes, look for Cubit's game plan to feature more passing attempts than rushing.
Key No. 2: No huddle
Lunt is highly effective when the offense operates in a no-huddle tempo, much like the two-minute drill. Cubit will take advantage of Lunt's skill set with a "tempo" offense. This scheme is similar to what the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots execute. This style of offense executes many quick-hitting, high-percentage throws which translates to less hits on the quarterback.
For example, the wide receivers will run quick five-yard slants or hitches. Tight ends will run five-yard outs and the running backs may run five-yard flat routes or swing passes. This normally loosens up defenses until the safties start to cheat up, and that's when Lunt show off his rifle arm and throw it deep. This offense moves at a rapid pace and dictates what the defense can and cannot do. The tempo also limits defenses ability to substitute to match personnel. Blitzes become non-existent and basic coverage has to be executed until the defense can adjust accordingly.
Key No. 3: Audibles
Cubit places a lot of the responsibility on Lunt by giving him multiple options at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to make a play call based on what he sees from the defense. In 2014, Cubit took advantage of Lunt's ability to adjust on offense on several occasions. However, there was one key play in particular which happened to be a fourth-quarter comeback win for Illinois.
The Illini were down 27-21 to Western Kentucky in the fourth quarter. After Lunt was sacked, the ball was placed on the Illini 38-yard line from the previous spot of the 49-yard line. With 2nd-and-21, Cubit called a play that got more than just a first down. WKU's defense knew the Illini had no choice but to pass the ball to get it back to 3rd-and-manageable. The Illini switched offensive personnel from 11 or diamond (1RB/1TE/3WR) to 10 or spread (1RB/0TE/4WR) in an effort to get more speed on the field.
Here's the alignment (photo courtesy BTN):
On the left side of the formation, Geronimo Allison lined up outside as the No. 1 receiver on the bottom of the numbers. Mikey Dudek was in the slot as the No. 2 receier. On the right side, Martize Barr aligned in the slot and Justin Hardee lined up on top of the numbers. The Hilltoppers countered with dime defense with cover-4 behind it. In this particular coverage, defenders are taught to take away the deep routes first and force the quarterback to make shorter throws. During the play, WKU rushed three defensive linemen, dropped four underneath with a combination of nickelbacks and linebackers responsible for the curl/flat toward the sideline and the hook and curl in the middle of the field. The four deep defenders consisted of outside cornerbacks each covering one quarter of the field, along with the both safties covering the deep halves of their side of the field.
Since the Hilltoppers only rushed three defensive linemen, the Illlini offensive line hadthe advantage with five blockers vs three rushers That gave Lunt plenty of time to scan the field with a clean pocket with no extra blitzers. Allison ran a 10-yard curl, working his way back toward Lunt. Dudek ran a 15-yard post corner to occupy the both the corner and safety. Barr attacked the seam with a vertical "9" or deep route to clear out the middle of the field, forcing the other safety to cover him as an immediate threat. Hardee's route was a deep dig running a 15-yard square in with the defensive back on his outside shoulder.
With great anticipation, Lunt threw the ball before Hardee completed his route, hitting the receiver in stride (pictured below, courtesy BTN).
The two connected on a 62-yard touchdown pass, which gave the Illini the lead for good. This audible ability by Lunt and the freedom to do so given by Cubit may allow the Illini to further exploit defenses this season.
With another year in Cubit's offense, Lunt has the ability to make this unit one of the best in Illinois history. But he needs some help from his offensive line, running backs, receivers (especially with Mikey Dudek out with injury) -- and especially his offensive coordinator. It will be fascinating to see how Cubit attempts to keep Lunt upright, yet still dangerous.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.