CHAMPAIGN — It’s a small sample size, but the top two scoring offenses in the country live in the Big Ten.
Maryland and its ridiculous 71 points per game is ahead of Penn State and its 62. The Terrapins are thrilled to have former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley back in town.
You have to look down the top 50 to find Illinois tied for 46th. Rod Smith’s guys are scoring 36.5 points per game, the same as Purdue, Arkansas State and UNLV.
In total offense, the Illini are 85th, three spots ahead of next week’s opponent Nebraska.
What did the offensive coordinator think about the team’s performance during the Illini’s 31-23 win at UConn? Smith wasn’t thrilled with the start, when Illinois fell behind 13-0. Against the worst team in the American.
“I think we were sleepwalking,” Smith said. “It wasn’t very good.”
Nice guy Smith was quick to credit the Huskies’ defense.
“They gave us something we weren’t expecting,” Smith said. “Something completely different than what they did in the past. It took a little bit to get adjusted. We adjusted well after the first quarter.”
Good point. The Illini scored 24 points in the second quarter to take the lead.
That was a positive. But there were plenty of negatives for Smith to use as teaching moments.
“Too many mistakes,” Smith said. “Too many miscommunications. Too many missed reads, missed blocks. Things we’ve got to get cleaned up this week, definitely.”
It was a change from the opener against Akron when Illinois won easily 42-3. Not in a good way.
“First week, we were pretty clean,” Smith said. “This past week, it was a little disappointing when it comes to that.
“We’ve got to be able to play four quarters instead of two quarters.”
When past Illinois teams fell behind 13-0 on the road, it was usually “game over.” Not always, but usually.
That didn’t happen at UConn.
“I think we found out about our whole team,” Smith said. “You win on the road, got in the hole 13-0. Nobody panicked. Our kids were resilient.
None more than the starting quarterback.
Michigan transfer Brandon Peters threw an early pick-six, but was solid the rest of the game. He finished 24 of 35 for 227 yards and four touchdowns. That gives him seven for the season against one interception. Kurt Kittner, the best quarterback I have seen in my time covering the Illini, would be proud.
“Brandon started making plays,” Smith said. “Wideouts made plays. The O-line did a really job for the most part all day.”
The Illini now know that an early deficit doesn’t mean the sky is falling. They have the ability to bounce back. For a team trying to end a half decade of losing, believing you can win is important.
“Every game, there’s going to be some adversity our guys are going to encounter,” Smith said.
Creating their own problems
Some of the wounds were self-inflicted. The team got whistled for a pair of celebration penalties after touchdowns in the second quarter.
The coaches talked to the offenders.
“Football is hard,” Smith said. “You work hard at this game for 12, 13 opportunities. We want our guys to have fun. You’ve got to do it within the framework of the rules.
“We told our guys, ‘You celebrate with your teammates. You don’t do it individually. Act like you’ve been there.’”
It’s simple, really. Cross the goal line, hand the ball to the official and go celebrate on the sidelines.
Just like Barry Sanders. And Walter Payton. And all of the other football greats who chose not to draw penalties for celebrating.
Smith talked to the offense about it Monday.
“Better not see it again moving forward,” Smith said.
Pro players are allowed to celebrate after a big play. The college players see it.
“I think it definitely filters down,” Smith said. “But the reality is, it’s the rules. We’ve got to accept that.
“I told our guys ‘It’s selfish for you to get 15 yards to put our kickoff team or our defense in a bad position.’ We’re not going to do that no more.”
Smith played quarterback at Glenville State in the mid-1990s. What did he do after a score on those teams coached by Rich Rodriguez?
“We were taught to hand the ball to the official,” Smith said. “And go celebrate with your teammates.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.