Illinois offense comes back to life
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Illinois wide receiver Steve Hull cores a touchdown in front of Cincinnati safety Arryn Chenault during the second half of Saturday's game in Champaign.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If any part of the Illinois football team has a right to enjoy the 2-0 start, it's the offense.
As 2012 dragged on and losses piled up, the offense's futility grew. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase watched his yardage, passing and running, drop sharply. He wound up with just four touchdown passes -- all season.
In Saturday's win over Cincinnati, Illinois got the ball to 11 receivers, and seven people ran the ball. The result was an offensive explosion -- 522 yards and 27 first downs -- in which no ball carrier had more than Donovonn Young's 64 yards and no receiver more than Martize Barr's 72.
"I don't think I've ever been around (anything like that)," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "That's a lot of different guys. It's not like some guy's catching 14."
Most important of all was the result: a 45-17 win over the Bearcats. Illinois faces a potentially stiffer test Saturday, taking on No. 19 Washington at Soldier Field in Chicago.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Cubit, the architect of the offensive turnaround now in the works at Illinois, would admit to a little wonder at his creation so far. Cubit was hired in the off season to improve that faltering offense and beef up head coach Tim Beckman's staff.
While gloom and blame became part of the culture of last season's 2-10 Illinois team, the upbeat Cubit says his players are having fun so far this season, and should be.
"I think they need to enjoy this stuff -- this game is so hard," he said.
He points to two pieces of his offense as keys to the success Illinois has had so far -- Scheelhaase and his receivers, those 11 guys he threw to Saturday who mostly made due with a catch or two apiece. Scheelhaase already has six touchdown passes this season against just one interception.
"He's so intelligent. For me, it's just a pleasure to watch him go out there and have fun," Cubit said. "For a guy who's been a little bit maligned around here, you know, right now I think he's leading the Big Ten in passing."
It's early, but he's right. Scheelhaase's 364 yards a game and 74 percent completion percentage are both best in the conference so far. And it's clear the quarterback is enjoying their partnership.
Cubit coaches from the sideline rather than a box high in the stadium, which means the two talk face to face and do it quickly, Scheelhaase says.
"I mean, even mid-play sometimes," Scheelhaase said. "One time he thought I should have checked something. I pointed up to the (play) clock and said we're about to run out of time. He shook his head and knew exactly what I was talking about. Being able to have that kind of quick communication, that does help."
The receivers, Cubit said, have made Scheelhaase better.
He calls them a selfless group. Even leading receiver Martize Barr only has nine catches in two games, but he and eight other Illini players have caught at least three each. Converted quarterback Miles Osei has eight catches for 54 yards and is always where he's supposed to be.
"It's experience, it's leadership, it's dependability," Cubit said. "He's not fast, he just does everything right."
Notes: Beckman said the return of starting guard Ted Karras, who missed the first game with an injury, was welcome. "There's not a bunch of vocal guys on the offensive line. Well, Teddy is," Beckman said. "Teddy will let you know how he feels about it." ... The Cincinnati win is the biggest of Beckman's stay in Champaign, but he insisted he didn't celebrate. "Nah. I tell ya', I spent time with my mom and dad and we had a recruit over." ... Running back Josh Ferguson's 47 yards on nine carries earned him a shot at seeing a little more of the ball, Beckman said. "I think Ferguson will definitely be a guy that we can try to get the ball to, along with Donovonn Young." ... Linebacker Jonathan Brown leads the Big Ten with 23 tackles, 11 of them solo.
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