Is there a danger in crowning Bill Cubit before he has coached in a Big Ten game?
Maybe so. The journey has just begun, and Nebraska is a huge hurdle. But high praise keeps pouring in.
— Josh Ferguson, national leader in receiving yards for a running back:
“He’s a genius. The quarterback is playing well, I’m playing well, the running backs are playing well, and so are the tight ends and receivers. We’re just excited to be under his guidance.”
— Fan in west lower stands:
“You need to come down behind the bench and watch. It’s awesome to see him interact. He is in full control.”
— Head coach Tim Beckman:
“I’ve known about him since he was offensive coordinator at Rutgers (2001-02). Last year I called just one guy, Bill Cubit. It’s great to have his leadership.”
— BTN personnel:
“Cubit’s pregame comments were the best and most forthright we’ve dealt with.”
— Statistician release:
Illinois is No. 10 nationally with pass plays of 20-plus yards (22) and set a school record with 161 points in the first four games. Nathan Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in aerial yards (1,162) and stands No. 10 in the nation in passing efficiency.
This is a stunning reversal from last season when Beckman employed dual coordinators and felt the need to involve himself when the offense floundered.
“It’s been a good transition. We know his expectations. And it’s helpful having him on the field (rather than the press box) where we can talk face-to-face.”
Nebraska has defensive shortcomings.
Last season the Cornhuskers allowed 63 points at Ohio State, 70 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, and 45 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
They opened this season by permitting five Wyoming TDs in a 37-34 home win, gave up 38 unanswered points after building a 21-3 lead on UCLA, and had to rally after allowing 17 first-quarter points by South Dakota State.
If the Huskers are giving up 27 points per game, can Illinois score that many or the additional number it might take to pull an upset?
One factor gives Illinois a chance: Cubit. He analyzed the task Monday.
Q: Is the running game developing to a point where you can get some balance?
Cubit: We always look for ways to run the ball. But if someone wants to shut down the run, they will. So you have to beat them with the pass. Or if they’re going to drop back and stop the pass, you have to be able to run it.
It’s arithmetic, and it begins with how many people they have in the box. They’re going to be short somewhere. It’s our job to take advantage of it. You need a smart quarterback, and we do.
I’m just interested in points. How we get them, I don’t care.
Q: This is Nebraska’s fifth straight home game and the first for Illinois in a loud, negative environment. How will you deal with this?
Cubit: This is one of the top places in the country for football, a special place.
They love their football. We’ll be ready. We’ve been doing silent counts and that sort of thing. We should be OK.
Q: How do the Huskers compare with the Washington team that defeated Illinois 34-24 in Chicago:
Cubit: They’re big, strong and fast. Schemewise, Bo Pelini uses a pressure package, so Nate has to be sharp. He needs to know his protections, and our wideouts have to win their matchups.
They are similar to Washington with their man-to-man and man-zone packages. Sometimes they’ll start with a zone, and then the DBs will latch onto receivers in their area. That’s prevalent when we use four wideouts. If they guard two wideouts with three defenders, and the other two with three, that leaves just five in the box, so we better be able to run.
Q: The tight ends scored an Illini record with four TD receptions against Miami.
Will you need to keep them in for blocking purposes, or can you turn them loose again?
Cubit: We’ll send them out there and let them do what they need to do. One of those (touchdown) checks against Miami was Nate’s. He knows what he’s supposed to do when he sees certain coverages. We’ll be multi-personnel and multi-formation just like always.
Q: As a former dual-threat QB, who ran for 868 yards as a freshman, Scheelhaase appears to be settling in as primarily a passer.
Cubit: Nate has evolved probably because of the system. We want him to be a passer first. He can really throw it, and he has become more accurate.
Somebody said he’s No. 8 in the country with passes of 20 yards or more. I could have made a lot of money if I had bet on that.
Q: You have no go-to receiver, but you’re among the top passing teams in the country. Is that kind of balance good?
Cubit: It sure helps in the meeting room because everybody is attentive and understands they’re part of it. If the quarterback concentrates on one receiver, some of the other guys may not be working hard on their routes.
We had a lot of guys (11) catch balls against Miami. We’re No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing, but our top receiver (Ferguson) has just 12 catches.
Q: Tell me about Ferguson.
Cubit: It’s fun watching him run. He is a difference-maker because he can make people miss. It’s hard to drive 80 yards without any big plays. We had a significant amount of big plays Saturday.
He’s part of our screen game, and it’s been pretty good. We had three big gains off it Saturday. If they’re going to give us a big pass rush, I think we have answers. A.J. Ricker’s linemen do a good job getting out there to block.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.