CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Illini literally got off to a high-flying start with their 42-34 win over Southern Illinois on Saturday. In the air, Illinois was nearly ten times more effective than on the ground, with the team racking up 415 yards passing and just 49 yards rushing.
Fans who hope to see such impressive aerial displays again shouldn’t hold their breath, though. Nathan Scheelhaase was quick to point out after the game that the passing bonanza was just the way the team adapted to how SIU was playing.
“Based on what their defense did, crowding guys in the box, runs aren’t as great,” the senior quarterback said.
Though the pass-heavy offense may not be here to stay, the Illini certainly took advantage of it while they could. Scheelhaase put up a new career high in passing, with 416 yards, and receiver Ryan Lankford and running back Josh Ferguson set a career highs in receiving yards, with 115 and 103, respectively.
The key to setting those records, according to Lankford, was the tempo of the offense. Under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illini are running a no-huddle offense more frequently and moving the ball with great pace.
“We are definitely going to use that fast tempo,” Lankford said. “As a receiver you love the fact that you can throw the ball at any time. Today we were just trying to get the ball around and wear the defense out.”
Wearing the Salukis out was important to Cubit because it allowed his team to be more successful.
“When we picked up the pace we wore them down a little and our kids got some confidence,” the first-year coordinator said.
The goal, however, is still to keep a balanced attack.
“We want to be a 50-50 football team…our responsibility is to give Josh (Ferguson) and (Donovonn Young) the football,” head coach Tim Beckman said.
With that balance, however, the Illini want to continue to play aggressively. The team’s commitment to aggression was on display today when the team ran a fake field goal two-point conversion and when they went for the endzone after getting the ball back with less than a minute to go in the first half.
The fake field goal was a set play, according to Beckman, inspired by Boise State, who would frequently plan to run a fake on the point after of a specific touchdown. The decision to go for it with seconds to go in the first half, however, was just the way Beckman wants to see his team play this season.
“We’re here to win, to score points, to do what we need to do to be successful. You might have thought we’d run and run out the clock but we’re not doing that anymore. We got on the headsets and said, ‘Let’s score,’” the head coach said.
So, while fans might not be able to expect such exciting aerial games in the future, they can count on the Illini playing with more intensity. And that may just be the ticket for this team to improve on their 2-10 record from a year ago.