The Illinois football team entered this season looking for a playmaker, someone who can create big plays for touchdowns to spark its struggling offense.
After the first 10 weeks of the season, the Illini are still looking.
No one has emerged with the ability to create explosive plays in the passing game, and the Illini offense has struggled because of it.
Illinois averages a mere 4.4 yards per play on offense, the third worst in the NCAA.
Take last Saturday’s game as an example of the contrast of Illinois’ offense with its defense that gives up large gains.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller generated plays downfield against the Illini. Five of Miller’s first six completion’s went for 24, 31, 32, 51 and 14 yards, compared to Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s first 10 completions: minus-7, 8, 9, 5, 7, 9, 11, 6, 7 and 7.
A large part of Illinois’ inability to get the ball down the field has been because the team has not been able to protect the quarterback. Early in the season, offensive line injuries were thought to be a big reason, but the starters have returned and the result is still the same.
Illini quarterbacks have been sacked 32 times his season, good for last in the Big Ten. That number surprised Illinois head coach Tim Beckman.
“I haven’t been around offenses that give up so many sacks,” Beckman said. Last season, Beckman’s quarterbacks at Toledo were sacked 10 times all year. “It’s very important to me to keep these guys healthy. And how do you do that? You protect them, so they’re not taking hits.”
Scheelhaase has already missed two games and most of another with injuries and has only taken 17 of those sacks himself. That’s not counting the number of times he’s been knocked down during the season or hit while running the ball.
Beckman has implemented a lot of quick throws to get the ball out of Scheelhaase’s hands as quickly as possible.
Taking more chances in the downfield passing game will require Illinois’ wide receivers to win battles against cornerbacks one-on-one. Ryan Lankford is the only Illini to have 100 yards receiving in a game, which came in Week Five. Illinois misses the presence of a receiver like A.J. Jenkins last year who could stretch defenses and keep opposing defenses from stacking the line of scrimmage.
“Yes, we have to take strikes down the field,” Beckman said. “The timing of those shots are important. Anytime you can stretch a defense, it’s important, but we almost make sure we can get proper leverage and separation so we can get those shots, but I do think it’s important for us to be able to get some of that stuff done in the next three weeks.”
While Illinois tries to work the ball downfield on offense, the Illini defense is working to limit the big plays the unit is giving up.
The Illini will try to do so without linebacker Jonathan Brown, who will miss Saturday’s game because of a shoulder injury. The Illini will look to some young linebackers like freshman Mike Svetina and sophomore Ralph Cooper to carry the load.
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks said he’s spent the week in practice trying to make sure the Illini are focused on their assignments, and they expect to have safety Steve Hull back to help sure up the secondary.
“The problem is when we have (secondary breakdowns), they’re usually for tremendous plays so those stick out,” Banks said. “I don’t think it’s as bad as it may seem, but it’s different back there ... in the backend. If you make a mistake, everybody knows.”
Jamal can be reached at email@example.com and @JamalCollier.