Illini offense trying to form lay-up line

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mike Locksley is a major reason why Illinois can no longer be branded a basketball school, but the Illini offensive coordinator delves into his hoops glossary when coaching his gridiron skill players.

During film study, Locksley often uses the term "lay-up" to identify big-play opportunities for the offense to convert.

"It's no different than a big-time basketball player who gets the ball in his hands for the game-winner," Locksley said. "He's going to have to take the shot and make a few of them. In football, it obviously takes more than one guy and everything has to work in sync.

"But when you have the opportunity to hit a big play, whether it's through a throw or a running back making the right read or a receiver reading the coverage correctly and running a correct route, we've got to be able to do it and take advantage of it."

Illinois is starting to capitalize in a big way. Last week the Illini had eight plays of 15 yards or longer and five plays of 37 yards or longer in a 45-20 rout of Michigan.

Running back Daniel Dufrene scored on a 57-yard screen pass and Juice Williams found big target Jeff Cumberland for a 77-yard touchdown. Williams also added a 50-yard run en route to a Michigan Stadium-record 431 yards of total offense. Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Arrelious "Rejus" Benn had receptions of 46 and 37 yards.

The Illini rank second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.2) and 18th nationally in total offense (455.8 ypg). Four of Illinois' top six receivers average more than 14 yards per reception.

Locksley said the need for big plays gets compounded by the new 40-second clock, which reduces the number of snaps and the time to come back in games. Two weeks ago, Illinois made its share of big plays at No. 6 Penn State -- three of 30 yards or longer -- but missed too many "lay-ups" and ran out of time to rally.

"We went two, three, four drives where we did some nice things, but then we'd come back and throw an interception, come back and have a holding call," Locksley said. "That's usually the sign of a young team when you don't have the consistency. But as we get into Game 6 and 7, we're moving forward and the progress is where we need to be."

Part of the progress can be attributed to the team's greater sense of accountability. Illinois' coaches haven't been afraid to call out their players, both privately and publicly.

Locksley did it in the spring, when he expressed his frustration about the lack of progress at the running back position after the loss of Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall. Dufrene has stepped up so far, averaging six yards per carry (88.4 ypg) and ranking second on the team in receptions with 13.

"He has big-play ability," Locksley said. "He has the speed to hit the home run. His weakness was probably catching the ball and he really worked his tail off on that all summer long. He's more than a capable guy for us, and he's definitely a threat. I know in our offense, he's the one guy who, right off the bat, we want the ball in his hands the most."

After an underwhelming 20-17 win against Louisiana-Lafayette, head coach Ron Zook said, "the best players have to play the best," a not-so subtle reference to Williams and Benn. Williams, who has put up big numbers all season, elevated his play last week.

Benn has 10 catches for 232 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the last two games after racking up 15 catches for 150 yards and no scores in the first three contests.

"Any time your best players get called out, it really helps the overall team attitude because those two guys are guys we count on to make plays for us," Locksley said. "Because of the pride they have, they're going to accept the challenge and take it as a positive criticism and work to correct some of the things we saw on tape that we wanted to get corrected.

"The plays are there to be made. That's what coach Zook was talking about with Rejus and Juice."