Slow starts doom Illini to 3-game skid

BY foxsports • November 9, 2011

Like a lot of teams, Illinois scripts the first dozen offensive plays it runs every week.

Instead of the precision you might expect, those plays have been a big, sloppy problem for the Illini in three straight losses.

Coach Ron Zook blames them in part for the offensive struggles that have cost Illinois (6-3, 2-3 Big Ten) against Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State.

''I wish I had an answer to it; you would think in the beginning of the game, when they've worked I don't know how many times,'' Zook said Tuesday, trailing off as he tried to explain how those scripted plays could become such a headache. ''Those would be the plays that you would expect to have the least amount of problem with.''

The Illini haven't scored a first-half point in any of the losses. They are averaging just nine points a game over the three-game skid, despite averaging 66 more yards a game than their opponents.

In the 10-7 loss at Penn State, Illinois' first 12 plays resulted in 17 yards, three plays that lost yardage, a penalty, a sack, not one first down and four punts.

''There's just been a lot of MAs, missed assignments,'' Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said, echoing his coach. ''If we just execute early, I think it'll help us be more explosive at the start of a game.''

After three quiet weeks on offense, some sort of scoring explosion might be in order Saturday when Illinois hosts No. 22 Michigan (7-2, 3-2), a team it lost to in triple overtime last fall, 67-65. The Illini and Wolverines combined for 1,237 yards and more points than have been scored in Michigan's 130-plus years.

With a week off after the Penn State game, the Illini focused on some basics. Scheelhaase compared the practices held since last week to preseason work at Camp Rantoul, where the Illini spend two weeks before each season.

The chance to clean up some bad habits and to some run plays against Illinois' first-team defense has been a needed boost to the offense's morale.

''It does build some confidence,'' Scheelhaase said. ''You're breaking things back down. You're getting back to the fundamentals that you start with.''

Zook said Illinois' offense has other problems. For one, he said, the team is playing tight, something he said started with the Ohio State game - at that point arguably biggest test to date for a team that was undefeated and ranked in the Top 25.

And second, Zook said his team appears to be waiting at times for Scheelhaase or receiver A.J. Jenkins - the Big Ten's leading receiver with 68 catches and 1,030 yards - to make a big play.

''Everybody waits for somebody to make something happen,'' he said.

Offensively, Illinois did find one thing that worked well at Penn State, and one the Illini plan to put to use the rest of the way.

Senior tailback Jason Ford had his biggest work load of the season and his best game, carrying the ball 24 times for 100 yards. The previous eight weeks he averaged 12.6 carries a game and 49 yards.

''Of course he's excited about that,'' Zook said of Ford and his new feature-back role. ''No one's ever questioned whether he can be a big-time back. Let's put the ball in his hands.''

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP


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