Illini Offense A Riddle Within An Enigma

According to the statistics, the 2008 Fighting Illini football team was an offensive juggernaut. But was it? Trying to figure out what happened with the offense this year requires a study of paradox. As good as it was in most respects, many remember the offense as being a failure. Looking back may provide some answers, but not enough to solve the dilemma. Some things simply defy explanation.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Illinois offense ended up second in the Big Ten in total offense. They were 1st in passing offense, 5th in rushing offense and tied for 3rd in scoring offense. They were 3rd in pass efficiency and fourth in 3rd down conversions.

Individually, Illini quarterback Juice Williams was 1st in the conference in total offense and 7th in the country with an average of 324.3 yards per game. And he was third in the Big Ten in pass efficiency. In addition, he was 9th in rushing, his 2050 career rushing yards ranking 4th all-time. Barring injury, he should end up second only to Indiana's Antoine Randle El after his senior season.

Among other individual highlights, Arrelious Benn ended up 1st in total receiving yards and 3rd in receptions. Adding his rushing total plus punt and kickoff returns, he ranked 5th in all-purpose yards. And running back Daniel Dufrene was eighth in rushing yards per game.

On the negative side, Illinois was 10th in turnover margin, 9th in 4th down conversions, and 6th in giving up sacks. Despite memories of constant failure, Illinois scored on 32 of 39 sorties into the redzone. But the 25 touchdowns ranked 9th in the Big Ten.

And in one of the strangest statistics of all, Illinois ranked 10th worst for penalties, while their opponents collectively ranked 1st in fewest penalties. The penalty differential caused major problems, but part of that was the impressive efficiency by opponents on days they played Illinois.

Trying to quantify exactly what happened and who might be to blame for Illinois' seven losses is impossible. But the offense did have problems despite its lofty rankings and apparent statistical success.

Some fans demanded the head of the offensive coordinator. Some others wanted Juice replaced at quarterback. So the paradox is, how can an offense that sets records simultaneously be that bad?

First of all, the 2008 Illini offensive line did not live up to expectations. Depth problems were apparent in the spring. An already thin offensive line lost the athletic Brandon Jordan and Marc Jackson to grades before fall began, and they would have been excellent depth even if they didn't start.

But the biggest problem was the nagging injuries that reduced the consistency and effectiveness of the 1st unit. As Illini coach Ron Zook stated, the injury problems cropped up before the first game.

"There was a time before the Missouri game where Ryan McDonald was nicked up, Eric Block was nicked up, Xavier Fulton had the shoulder (dislocation). We were going in to play Missouri with a thin, inexperienced offensive line since three guys who had experience were nicked up. So that had a little bit to do with our running problems."

Those injury problems continued throughout the year. Fulton wore a shoulder harness and couldn't provide the punch or strength needed to control speedy defensive ends. And he missed portions of games when his shoulder popped out on him. McDonald never healed from a pinched nerve in his neck from the previous year, and a leg problem developed also.

Starting right tackle Ryan Palmer broke a bone in his foot and missed the middle portion of the season. Right guard Jon Asamoah played the final 3-4 games in pain. As a result of these problems, Illinois was forced to burn the redshirts of promising freshmen Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis.

Youth is not an asset on the offensive line. Teams learned quickly to blitz over the tackle spots to put pressure on the quarterback. When they also realized they could blitz up the middle, they had a field day.

Illinois' offense is predicated on finding a balance between run and pass. Early in the year, teams loaded up the box on 1st down to prevent outside option runs and force the Illini into second and long and third and long situations. This was later expanded to try run blitzes to further reduce running efficiency.

Juice Williams is a dangerous threat to run when he's healthy, but his number was called less as the season went on due to a variety of minor ailments. In addition, Illinois never found an adequate replacement for departed star Rashard Mendenhall. They used four running backs, but none demonstrated Mendenhall's combined skills.

Daniel Dufrene was the fastest back, and he had some impressive runs and pass receptions. But he didn't have the power to make one yard on third or fourth and short. Thus, he was Illinois' best back statistically but scored no rushing touchdowns. In addition, Daniel missed one game with personal problems during the thick of the conference race.

Sophomore Troy Pollard never fully recovered from his knee surgery the previous fall, and he developed a high ankle sprain early in the season that took several weeks to heal. He never regained his edge and played sparingly.

Freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure showed promise at times, but their lack of experience hurt. Ford is a power back and was used on touchdown dives. And he was impressive running through a demoralized Indiana defense. But he lacked the speed to get outside, and opponents learned to stuff his inside sorties. The same was true for LeShoure, who missed the last three games with a broken jaw.

Juice Williams was a different quarterback in 2008. For the first time in his career, people stopped worrying whether he would hit his target as he relaxed and began to trust his touch. He was by far the best choice at quarterback from the start of fall camp.

And he proved this through the first half of the season. But when the offensive line broke down, he got sacked more frequently. This produced a variety of bumps and bruises. He almost took himself out of the Iowa game with a sore shoulder but finished under duress. He wasn't instructed to run inside options until the second half of the Northwestern finale, when the possibility of additional injury was less important than the need to come from behind and win.

In addition, it appeared he began to revert to his original pattern of panicking in the face of a constant rush. After apparently overcoming that midway through 2007, the constant pressure brought by opponents began to wear on him. After awhile, he seemed less capable of relaxing and finding his hot reads on blitzes. This made him much less effective and stalled the offense.

Illinois had only three quarterbacks on scholarship, and they were hoping to redshirt promising freshman Jacob Charest. Eddie McGee was needed as a backup to Williams, but playing him frequently ran the risk of losing him to injury. So Juice took most of the snaps.

Finally, McGee was put in as a slot receiver to take advantage of his strong will to win and natural athletic ability. He did some good things, but in the final three games he went down with a turf toe injury and a broken bone in his left hand. Illinois had no choice but to keep Juice at quarterback most of the rest of the season, giving him little opportunity to recooperate his balance and confidence.

The fan and media mantra throughout the season was the quality of Illinois' receiving corps. True, there were more quality receivers than in previous years. But four of them were freshmen and a fifth, Jarrod Fayson, will not be eligible until next fall after transferring from Florida.

Benn is outstanding, but he was frequently double teamed as every opponent focused on stopping him. No one ever replaced Brian Gamble's 2007 role as an effective backup to Benn. The two outside receivers for the Missouri game were 5'-6" Will Judson and 5'-8" Chris Duvalt. Both are speedy, but they can be difficult to find downfield, and they had trouble with blocking on running plays.

Fans are always excited about Jeff Cumberland, a 6'-4", 250 pounder with speed. But he missed the first three games with a broken bone in his foot. And he is still far too inconsistent for the offensive coaches to trust him in certain situations.

Freshman Fred Sykes was also listed as a starter for the Missouri game. He had the benefit of spring ball, but he is still a slender rookie. He did some good things but made mistakes also. The same is true of freshman A. J. Jenkins, who is a real student of the game but had only the one fall to prepare for violent Big Ten battles. Long striding freshman Cordale Scott wasn't ready to receive playing time, and rookie Jack Ramsey was sidelined as a partial qualifier.

So, who was ready to take the pressure off Benn? Dufrene helped out of the backfield, and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui had his best year and deserved more receiving opportunities.

However, Michael had to help out the freshmen tackles late in the year, and he was removed for a fourth receiver when the Illini needed to play catchup. His back up was raw freshman Hubie Graham, who did some good things but had no experience. Senior walkon Tom Sullivan was hurt badly in preseason and sat out most of the year. He had three years of playing experience and was missed more than most realize.

The Illini had problems in the red zone, in part because they couldn't find a consistent running game, and in part because they seemed to have their worst penalties and turnovers at the worst times. And the closer a team gets to the endzone, the less room there is for receivers to roam. Once teams found out they could blitz effectively, Juice Williams had problems finding targets in the red zone.

As a sophomore, Juice was instructed to minimize interceptions and mistakes. He did a good job of that even though he still had difficulty hitting open targets. This year, the emphasis was on expanding his passing options to take advantage of Benn and overcome the loss of Mendenhall. Thus, Juice threw into coverage more and suffered interceptions he might not have thrown in 2007.

It is beyond the capacity of most mortals to make complete sense out of any football season because there are so many intangibles involved. We can point out injuries and weaknesses, and we can complain about mistakes. But that cannot always explain failure any more than statistics can explain success.

Momentum can neither be created or destroyed. When it is with you, you win. When it is with the opponents, they win. Perhaps that explains as well as anything what happened to Illinois this year.

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