Illinois not satisfied despite clear progress on offense

Illinois not satisfied despite clear progress on offense

CHAMPAIGN — Emphasizing playmaking isn't new for Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith. That's something he's discussed with his group the entire season.

Illinois' offensive performance against Minnesota, though, was cause for Smith to share an Illini motto on Twitter with various hashtags like #MTP and #MakeThePlay. Putting up 55 points and 646 total yards of offense — both season highs by wide margins — was cause to do a little celebrating and hoping for more in Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff at Nebraska.

"We talk to them all the time," Smith said. "You're going to be in position to make a play. You've got to execute. There's certain things that I can't teach you that you have God-given ability. I'm going to give you all the tools, put you in position, teach you basic fundamentals and technique, but at some point you've got to go make the play."

Illinois did that against the Gophers. The longest of the Illini's first two consecutive scoring drives in the first quarter was 39 seconds. Both ended in 72-yard touchdown runs by Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, respectively.

Both could have been even quicker.

"We probably could have scored on the first play," Illinois redshirt senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti said. "The next series we probably could have scored on the first play, too. Seeing that gives us more confidence in our offense.

"We already trusted coach Rod, but there's even more trust there that he's going to call a play to put us in the best situation to be successful. To see it hit over and over and over again with Ricky (Smalling), Dre and Reggie, it was just working on all cylinders. It was pretty fun, and I think that's what we can be."

Corbin understands if one of his thoughts about that season-best performance against Minnesota raises some eyebrows. As good as the Illini were — better than they'd been all season long — the redshirt junior running back saw several opportunities when watching the game film where they could have been better.

"We know we missed a lot," said Corbin, who earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors after rushing for 213 yards and two touchdowns in that win. "We left some points out there and left some plays out there as well we're not proud of. As long as we clean that up, we can keep going and keep progressing."

Progression is what intrigues Allegretti. Not only for the final three games on the schedule this season, but for what the Illinois offense could be in the future with Smith at the helm.

"This program is going to get to the point where we expect that kind of performance," Allegretti said. "I think that's where our offense needs to be — highest scoring, biggest rushing, just have a ton of offense every week. That's where our program has three more opportunities to get to this season, but down the road I think that's where our program will be."

Smith said Illinois' performance against Minnesota was the first time this season the offense played a complete game from opening kickoff to final whistle. It wasn't without its slip-ups, but it was clean enough in Smith's estimation.

"I think it shows our guys what we've been preaching to them the entire year," Smith said. "Trust the process. Trust in what we're teaching you. Trust the fundamentals you're being taught."

But Smith is on board with Corbin's line of thinking. As good as Illinois was, there's plenty they could do better at Nebraska. Having a breakout performance under their belts to build off, though, can't hurt the Illini.

"I think our guys felt good," Smith said. "I felt good. It's always nice when you can execute — particularly if you execute at a high level. It's hard getting first downs. It's hard scoring points in college football. Some people say, 'Well, it's an offensive game,' which it is, but in the Big Ten it's hard. There's good defenses — good players — so just the opportunity for us to go off like we did hopefully gives our guys a shot in the arm with adrenaline and confidence."