Illini offense showing life as big test awaits

Be honest. You did a double take when watching Illinois ball-carriers sprinting into the open field last Saturday against Southern Illinois.

Were those guys in the orange helmets the same ones who seemed to play in a studio apartment last season?

The most mind-blowing stat that came out of Illinois' season-opening win wasn't quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's career-high 416 pass yards or the two 100-yard receiving performances (Ryan Lankford and Josh Ferguson) or team record 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by V'Angelo Bentley.

Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer in its 42-34 win, equaling its total from all of last season. Digest that for a minute. The Illini offense, which finished 119th out of 120 teams in both yards and scoring last fall, had only six true explosion plays in 12 games.

Only high-powered Oregon had more plays of 30 yards or longer in Week 1. Was it a starting point for the Illini offense? You bet.

"That was the one thing we got Saturday," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit told ESPN.com. "We had 10 big plays of over 20 yards throwing the ball and over 12 running the ball. If you don't have those big plays, it's just more difficult."

The Illini far exceeded their big-play goals in the opener, loosening the reins and getting results.

"Our players bought into the things that we felt were necessary to take some deep chances," head coach Tim Beckman said. "As we progress we hope to be able to gain those big chunk yardage plays.”

Saturday's home test against Cincinnati will provide a much better gauge of the Illinois offense and its big-play potential. Cincinnati thumped Purdue 42-7 in last week's opener, limiting the Boilers to just 57 plays and 226 yards.

But this much seems clear: Ilinois has a better idea of what it is after one game under Cubit than it did all of last season, as a rudderless ship never made it out of port.

"We have an idea of our identity," Scheelhaase said. "We're game-planning week to week, and at times will look different and will want to look different because of the players we have. ... It's nice to be able to put guys in different positions and throw different formations out there and make things more difficult on the defense. It's our job to be as comfortable as possible out there on Saturday."

Scheelhaase, who struggled with the rest of the offense in 2012, looked much more at ease last week. He completed 28 of 36 passes. Two of his incompletions were throwaways because of pressure. Two others were dropped.

Cubit liked how quickly Scheelhaase delivered the ball, a major emphasis point for a system where Cubit wants the ball out within 2.2 seconds. Although Scheelhaase threw an interception and was responsible for one of the five sacks Illinois allowed, he performed well for his first time in Cubit's offense.

"I was encouraged," Cubit said. "He's smart and he understands college football. There's really not too many defenses he doesn't know, so it was easy for me to communicate with him and not have to explain what a coverage is. He understands it right away and what the weaknesses are."

Illinois hopes Scheelhaase is surrounded by more weapons to exploit those weaknesses. Lankford posted a career high in receiving yards (115) against Southern Illinois, and Ferguson eclipsed 100 receiving yards for the first time in his career.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Ferguson accounted for three explosion plays, including a perfectly executed 53-yards touchdown on a screen pass, and finished with 152 all-purpose yards on only 13 touches.

"He's one of the game-breakers who can make a big difference," Cubit said. "If you don’t have one of those guys, it's hard to drive 90 yards."

Tight end Jon Davis, who had a 15-yard touchdown catch and an 11-yard run, also brings explosiveness to an offense that completely lacked it last season. The 6-3, 240-pound Davis saw time at tight end, wide receiver and running back last season and could boost Illinois in the red zone.

"Another guy who's so versatile," Scheelhaase said. "He ran the ball, caught the ball, split out, played in tight. He's one of the best players in the conference. Obviously, he dealt with some injury stuff last year, but he's a player who makes everyone around him better."

With more weapons and a clearer vision, Illinois' offense will improve after bottoming out in 2012. Cubit has raised the standard. According to Scheelhaase, only three or four players graded out against SIU.

"He wants it to be difficult for us to grade out," Scheelhaase said. "It raises our intensity each week."

That's a good thing. Cincinnati is coming to town.