With four touchdowns in three games, Illinois needs to get its offense going. Where to start? These stats say rushing yards lead to passing touchdowns, and the Illini agree.
FIRST 6 GAMES LAST 3 GAMES
Scoring 34.7 9.3
Passing TDs 11 2
Rushing yds 226.2 129
Passing yds 221.5 169.3
Coming off its bye week, Illinois faces a perplexing task.
Shut out in the first half of its last three games, it now will try to snap its three-game losing streak against No. 22 Michigan, which defeated it 67-65 in triple overtime last year, the highest scoring Big Ten game in history.
If this is going to be another shootout, the Illini say they'll be ready.
``We're always prepared to put points on the board,'' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ``If we take care of business, we'll be fine, regardless of what the score is.''
Since averaging 34.7 points when they opened with six straight wins, the Illini have put up just 28 points in their three losses, 21 of them when they were playing catch-up in the fourth quarter.
Coach Ron Zook remains optimistic that the offense has been recharged by last week's bye, which enabled the team to go over its fundamentals, heal up and recharge for its final three games.
``The signs that maybe we're coming out of it a bit?'' Zook said. ``We are a refreshed team. The attitude, the way they're running around out there. They're rested.''
Where did it get away from the offense?
``I don't have the answer exactly why,'' said Zook, who also saw his offense lose its swagger. ``You go back to the Ohio State game and they were pressing a bit. It really kind of started at the beginning of the Indiana game.''
One obvious explanation is that Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State are better defensively than the teams Illinois faced when it was winning.
Zook's point of emphasis during the bye week?
``Let's go back and do what we do,'' he said. ``Don't worry about having big plays. Just take what they give and line up and play.''
Another explanation: The offensive line wore down, and didn't give Scheelhaase the time he needed to connect with A.J. Jenkins on the deep balls that were a signature of the winning streak.
And another: Scheelhaase also wore down, a combination of the offensive line's decline and his aggressive running style. Since throwing 10 touchdown passes in the first six game, he has thrown two in the last three games.
``Nathan may have been [banged up], but he's not going to tell you unless it's serious,'' Zook said. ``But there's no question the time off has helped everybody.''
Scheelhaase, who took some knocks on his throwing shoulder early in the season, said his throwing arm is fine, but said the week off has been a good time for the offense to regroup.
``In the bye week, you get a chance to get back to basics,'' the quarterback said. ``So its does build some confidence. You're breaking things back down, it's always nice to have that. It's been very helpful to us as an offense.''
Illinois again will ``saddle up and ride'' senior running back Jason Ford, who has rushed for 183 yards on 34 carries, a 5.4 average, the last two games. In the four games before Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino made him the horse, Ford had 117 yards on 37 carries, a 3.2 average.
``The better you run the ball,'' Petrino said, ``the better you're going to be, and the better you're going to protect the passer. We've worked real hard on our timing, our execution and all the little details. I expect us to go out and execute it better.''
Restless fans will question the play-calling if Illinois continues to sputter.
But the running game buys the quarterback time to make throws, Scheelhaase knows. Which means the Illini need to do everything better.
``It's going to come down to execution,'' Scheelhaase said.