Tate: Koenning, Petrino keep Illini well-coordinated
Call them the UI's Butch and Sundance.
From the day coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning arrived on campus, a struggling Illini program has produced a 10-6 record with the last three losses in 2010 coming by two, four and two points.
They have authored a dramatic change. Looking back, the dual coordinator system wasn't working on defense, and Mike Locksley's replacement on offense, TCU's Mike Schultz, spent an uncomfortable year (3-9) in 2009.
After considerable soul-searching on how to proceed, then-athletic director Ron Guenther met with Ron Zook to fix the problem, and the budding revival is a direct result of salaries upgraded to entice Petrino from Arkansas and Koenning from Kansas State.
Progress was immediate. Two examples among many: (1) Petrino talked soon-to-transfer A.J. Jenkins into staying, and (2) Koenning dipped into Memphis to recruit the next great Illini linebacker, Jonathan Brown. Jenkins and Brown are now the best UI players on offense and defense.
The coaches' contributions go beyond strategy to include tight personal relationships with the key players under their direction and, via the media, keeping Illini Nation informed by avoiding typical coachspeak. These straight shooters are the brightest window into Illini football. They provide insights as to personnel. They willingly explain their failures.
Hey, you say you didn't like the fourth-and-1 backfire before halftime against Arizona State? Petrino willingly accepts the blame.
"It was my decision not to punt. I wanted to go for it, so it was my fault. We had worked on that play for the Arizona State game since Rantoul," he said. "Nathan's fake was good and the Arizona State player was coming up when he saw (tight end) Jon Davis running past him and reached out and tackled him. We had them, but the guy wrapped his arms around our receiver, and nothing was called."
Or how about Brock Osweiler's 14-yard quarterback draw for Arizona State's go-ahead touchdown to open the fourth quarter?
"I called the defensive play to stop the draw, but I changed and they fooled me," Koenning said. "It happens."
Arizona State gained possession five times within 54 yards of the UI goal and managed seven points out of those favorable field positions.
"We battled, but we didn't play well early," Koenning said. "There was the blown coverage on their first-quarter touchdown. We messed up some other things. We got some sacks, but we left another five sacks out there. Jonathan could have had three more himself.
"We need to get more players in the game. But the bullets were flying, and I looked up to see Houston Bates lined up on the wrong side of the field. I said, 'Oh, my God.'
"Give Coach Zook credit for being a calming influence and keeping the coaches from getting rattled. He kept believing."
Koenning sees Saturday as a "trap game" against Western Michigan.
"Yes, I do," he said. "It is hard psychologically not to feel that. It is in the subconscious to take things for granted. But we've had a lot of rough times against teams from Michigan, and the last time we played Western Michigan, it was embarrassing for some of the players who are still here. You check the film and you see an outstanding quarterback (Alex Carder) and a group of receivers who are good enough to embarrass your tail. These MAC teams beat people every year.
"You can't be electric every week. We might have played electric against Arizona State, but we made too many mistakes. That's what we're working to correct."
Some Illini fans are concerned about overuse of Scheelhaase in the running game. He had a sore shoulder early this week but has been cleared. Rather than hold him back, Petrino's instincts are to push him back into the fire. Once again, Scheelhaase's ability with his feet will be a key part of Petrino's game plan.
"We have to be able to run and pass," Petrino said. "And we need to break some tackles. Last week we got some guys into the secondary for short gains, and we need those to be big gains. Every ball carrier has to do better. There'll always be one defender unblocked. Our runners need to beat that guy and score. When it's on the 1-yard line (referring to a failed bid against Arizona State), we need Jason (Ford) to run over somebody and score."
Petrino pulled freshman Donovonn Young after he fumbled an exchange.
"He didn't get his arm up and roll over the football," Petrino said. "I was a little worried when he put the ball on the ground. We need to get him back in there Saturday because he is a good football player.
"This week we can't have three-and-outs. When you do that, the other team stays fresh. We had been doing a good job on third-down conversions but, particularly in that third quarter, we didn't execute on third and 2, third and 3 and third and 4 (not to mention a fourth-quarter review that denied what appeared to be a first down by Scheelhaase). We always want to move the ball and wear down the defense. We can't do that if we don't convert on third down."
It was a good sign to see a 17-14 game in which the defense held up a stuttering offense ... an offense that had averaged 42.7 points over the previous stretch of nine games.
"We didn't punt in the first half," Petrino said. "We stopped ourselves. In no way were we satisfied with our performance. We know we can do better."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.