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Illini offense has shown flashes but needs to be better

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase (2) gets defensive pressure from Washington's Travis Feeney (41) Josh Shirley during first half an NCAA college

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase (2) gets defensive pressure from Washington's Travis Feeney (41) and Josh Shirley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

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Updated: September 25, 2013 9:22PM

Two Sundays ago, back on campus a day after Illinois’ 34-24 loss to Washington at Soldier Field, senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase knocked on offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s office door.

“How did it look?” Scheelhaase asked, knowing the veteran coach had burned the midnight oil reviewing game tape.

“Not good,” Cubit told him. “But we’ll get better.”

Will they?

The performance of their offense merely is the single biggest key to the Illini’s season.

Three games in, Illinois (2-1) ranks 113th nationally, and last in the Big Ten, in total defense, allowing 492.7 yards per game. Washington’s offense went wild on the Illini, piling up 30 first downs and 615 yards. Tim Beckman’s defense clearly has room for improvement, but it’s also light on quality linemen and desperately young in the secondary.

More often than not, it seems, Scheelhaase and his offensive buddies will have to score a lot of points for the Illini to have a chance.

There are reasons to be optimistic about that, of course. Only 14 quarterbacks in the country are throwing for more yards per game than Scheelhaase (294.7). Running back Josh Ferguson and wide receiver Ryan Lankford rank 1-2 among all Big Ten players in yards per reception (26.4 and 22.5, respectively).

The Illini have been explosive, with 21 offensive plays of at least 20 yards — only 13 fewer than the 2012 team had all season. Just as important, they’ve been able to extend drives, with an eye-opening six of them already that lasted at least 10 plays.

But there were some scary numbers for the offense in the Washington game, too. Scheelhaase completed only nine of 25 passes. He was sacked four times.

Cubit, who has been widely credited with effecting great change in his first season in Champaign, said the offense “regressed” against the Huskies.

“I thought we played almost like we did last year,” Cubit said, kind enough to use that pronoun even though he was at Western Michigan.

“We got really antsy. The receivers weren’t patient enough in their route-running; they were cutting off routes, not focusing on technique or the little things. [Scheelhaase] wasn’t patient enough in the pocket. The kids were speeding things up instead of being patient.”

There were mistakes, too. Two drops on plays that would’ve been touchdowns, according to Cubit. A sack that led to a long field-goal attempt that Taylor Zalewski missed. Another sack that knocked the Illini out of field-goal range.

Was all that about the Illini or was it more about Washington? The Huskies were a significant step up defensively from Cincinnati, and certainly from Southern Illinois. The Big Ten opener at Nebraska is a week from Saturday. The league might not be a murderers’ row of defenses, but the bar will continue to rise.

“We’ve got to get back in sync,” Cubit said.

Before Nebraska comes winless Miami (Ohio) at the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium. It’s a one-shot deal — one chance for the offense to sing again before things really get challenging.

One chance for the Illini and their fans to build on the hope that a 14-game Big Ten losing streak will soon be a thing of the past.

“Absolutely,” Lankford said. “It’s very important for us to play a great game this weekend. We need to get back into the swing of things, of feeling victory. Let’s get that flow going. Let’s get that mojo right.”

The offense better bust out some serious fireworks this weekend.

It’ll certainly try. But if it turns out to be another dud?

Things can go from bright to bleak in a hurry.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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