Tate: It's a bird, it's a plane, it's the Illinois QBs
Sit back and enjoy the aerial circus. The Williams-Scheelhaase years are behind us.
In the last eight years, Juice Williams (2,557 yards) and Nathan Scheelhaase (2,066) became the leading QB rushers in Illini football history. Nobody else reached 600.
Those two — particularly Scheelhaase during his two bowl-winning seasons — provided an extra dimension in the UI offense, whether optioning or darting extemporaneously. With Rashard Mendenhall providing a 1-2 punch with Williams in 2007 (before turning pro early), the Illini held the ball for the last eight minutes to upset No. 1 Ohio State and set a school single-season record of 3,338 yards rushing.
You won’t see that in 2014. Clap your hands, here come the passes. With Wes Lunt and Reilly O’Toole the 1-2 quarterbacks, Illinois has returned to the drop-back aerial game.
And that’s not all bad. The Illini already switched to that mode in 2013 when first-year coordinator Bill Cubit set secondaries on fire with a school record 3,452 aerial yards — this coming one year after the UI managed just 2,026 overhead with roughly the same players.
The UI has been known to favor the pass when UI quarterbacks were taking their lessons from NFL types Mike White, John Mackovic and Ron Turner, not to mention Lou Tepper’s coordinator, Greg Landry.
In 1980, White immediately recognized the hopelessness of the Illlini continuing a tradition of banging their heads against the Big Ten’s big uglies.
In three previous seasons, Gary Moeller’s Illini went 6-24 (three ties) while averaging exactly 100 yards per game in the air. Imagine that: exactly 100. Moeller’s Illini gained 3,300 yards in 33 games, or 1,100 per season.
In 1980, Dave Wilson threw for 621 in one game (at OSU), and the Illini averaged 3,299 yards passing in White’s first six seasons featuring Wilson, Tony Eason and Jack Trudeau at QB.
If fans carry positive memories of the White years, it’s because they brought excitement to Memorial Stadium, outpassing Moeller’s teams, on average, 287 yards to 100. And they won considerably more games.
Get ready for more White-style offense. Cubit has shown a knack for passing wizardry since early in his career. As a coordinator at Western Michigan in 1998, his Broncos averaged 32.7 points per game, and the quarterback, Tim Lester, left in 1999 as the NCAA’s No. 5 passer. The Wheaton product, now QB coach at Syracuse, totaled 11,299 air yards at WMU.
More recently, as head coach at WMU, Cubit sent two 2010 receivers — Juan Nunez and Jordan White — over 1,000 yards in receptions, and the 2011 team set so many school records you can’t count them: 459 points, 58 TDs, 4,385 passing yards, etc.
The point is, we’ve come to expect a productive aerial game from Cubit. He has made a career of it. So if there is trepidation over Illinois losing a four-year QB starter in Scheelhaase and most of the receivers, this is overridden by Cubit’s history and the acquisition of quality talent at the throwing and catching positions.
After seeing the Illini in Rantoul practices and witnessing the skills of Malik Turner and Mike Dudek, it is hard to keep from going overboard about these freshman receivers. Turner made some dazzling receptions while Dudek always seemed to be open. Both emerged repeatedly from a cast of about 15 candidates, and both used their first-team opportunities to become Lunt favorites.
Reporting on the closed scrimmage Saturday night, Cubit said:
“The passing game was pretty good. I think Wes was 20 of 24 for 241 yards, and Reilly was 16 of 22 for 171. The receivers went out and got the ball. Gemo (Allison) made a great catch, and so did Justin Hardee. We didn’t run as well. We tried to emphasize the run early, and we emphasized the pass later. We had one turnover (by Turner) in 142 plays.
“The wideouts made some big plays on 50-50 balls. Wes threw well, and Reilly ran the team well. Turner came right back from his fumble to make big catches on third down. Dudek made some more acrobatic catches, but Allison made the biggest jump from the practice field.”
Cubit has done it before, and it looks like he’ll be doing it again in 2014.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com