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updated: 9/21/2012 6:10 PM

Illinois braces for La Tech offensive onslaught

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  • The Illini defense sacks Charleston Southern quarterback Briar Van Brunt last Saturday in Champaign.

      The Illini defense sacks Charleston Southern quarterback Briar Van Brunt last Saturday in Champaign.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When Tim Beckman looks at Louisiana Tech's offense, he sees a precise, point-producing, state-of-the-art attack.

The Bulldogs average 56 points and 80 plays a game. In the red zone, they have scored 14 touchdowns in 14 trips.

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"I think this is college football nowadays," Beckman says, noting that this kind of wide-open offense is a lot like what he ran at Toledo before taking over at Illinois.

Sonny Dykes, who will bring Louisiana Tech (2-0) to Champaign to take on Illinois (2-1) on Saturday, says he still hears questions about the wisdom of that offense. It puts up those points so fast that the Bulldogs are 101st in the country in time of possession at just under 27 minutes a game. That's more pressure on a defense that gives up 43 points a game.

But, Dykes says, isn't the point to score more?

"I do not know how scoring could be a bad thing for your football team," Dykes said. "But there are a lot of people who think it is."

Beckman isn't one of them.

In fact, he'd like to replicate Dykes' scoring machine in Champaign -- "Oh, no question," the coach said this week -- but right now he's a long way from being able to dial up anything like it.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is just now bouncing back from a sprained ankle that's kept him on the bench for more nine quarters. Starting center Graham Pocic sat out last week's win over Charleston Southern with a leg injury and his status for this week isn't clear. The same applies to starting receiver Darius Millines, who left the Charleston Southern game with an injury. The only definite silver lining is that tailback Josh Ferguson, another starter who didn't play last week, appears ready to go again.

With the cascade of injuries, Illinois' offense has been, at best, uneven.

The Illini are averaging 353 yards a game, 92nd in the country, and only 153 yards on the ground. Their 27.3 points a game is padded with the 44 Illinois scored against Charleston Southern, a Championship Subdivision school.

Receiver Ryan Lankford said the Illini are confident and ready to play track-meet football with the Bulldogs if need be.

"They throw the ball around, sling the ball around a lot," said Lankford, who is the top Illini receiver with 11 catches, 192 yards and three touchdowns. "We're definitely going to have to score one more point than them. If they score 50, we've got to score 51."

Beckman may at least get the chance to start building the offense he aims for this week. He pronounced Scheelhaase close to 100 percent fit this week, and the quarterback said he plans to play.

Illinois' offense has sputtered without him but, in spite of it all, the Illini are ranked 14th in the country in time of possession, at 33 minutes, 37 seconds a game.

Possession might be the best way to limit the Bulldogs' attack. In wins over Houston and Rice, they've averaged 603 yards a game -- 314 passing on the arm of quarterback Colby Cameron and 289 rushing. Most of those rushing yards come from a pair of freshmen, Tevin King (158 yards a game) and Kenneth Dixon (101.5 a game). Nine Bulldogs have caught passes.

"I think offenses really get good when the quarterback understands, `I do not have to make a play here. Someone else can make it for me,"' Dykes said. "I think Colby realized that we have pretty good skill guys that can make some plays from time to time, and he has done a good job of getting them the ball."

Illinois is just two weeks removed from a defensive debacle at Arizona State. The Sun Devils put up four quick touchdowns in a 45-14 rout, using a fast-paced offense not so different from what Louisiana Tech will bring to town.

On film, the Bulldogs look even faster than Arizona State, Illini linebacker Ashante Williams said.

"I actually saw them hiking the ball before (officials) got the chains set," he said.

Illinois' players said after the Sun Devils loss that they had trouble throughout getting play calls in from the sidelines. The coaching staff has since worked out a system of color-coded cards to signal in play calls under pressure, Williams said, something he expects Illinois will need against Louisiana Tech.

"We feel like as a defense we have something to go out and prove," he said. "We feel like this is our toughest task to date."

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