Illini offense stuck in state of flux

For the second week in a row, Illinois’ offense didn’t awaken until the fourth quarter.

Faced with a 21-point deficit to start the final frame of Saturday’s game against Big Ten rival Purdue, the Illini registered their first point with 8:12 remaining in the quarter. The offense’s slow start against the Boilermakers came a week after it failed to score against Ohio State until the 6:22 mark of the fourth quarter.

“You’ve got to come out and you have to score points in the first half,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “That’s the bottom line. We got to believe in ourselves, we got to execute, we got to get the ball in the end zone.”

Through six games, the Illini were averaging 35 points per game. They ranked eighth in the nation in passing efficiency, and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was fifth in the nation in receiving yards per game.

The offense has seemingly hit a speed bump.

Petrino said he didn’t see any indication of a slump coming after his unit’s strong 6-0 start. Hampered by turnovers and an 11-for-29 third down conversion rate over the last two games, Illinois’ once high-powered offensive attack is in a state of flux.

“We’ve got to solve it. We’ve got to solve the problem right now,” Petrino said. “We’re kind of taking turns being the problem, different people in different places. I thought we had a good week of practice, and I was expecting us to come out and play real well. We didn’t. We’re going to have to re-evaluate it.”

In the second quarter, backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole was inserted in the game to invigorate the offense due to starter Nathan Scheelhaase’s ineffectiveness on third down. O’Toole went four-for-five on the drive, but threw an interception when trying to complete a deep pass to A.J. Jenkins. Scheelhaase consoled O’Toole after his interception before finishing the game as the starter, completing 22 of 35 passes for 217 yards.

“Well, I just tried to get a spark going,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “I just told Paul (Petrino), ‘Let’s get Reilly in there, and let’s get him a chance.’”

Zook offered no clear explanation for his team’s struggles, but said all three phases, offense, defense and special teams, weren’t playing to their potential. Zook said it’s possible his team was playing tight because it cared too much about winning and psyched itself out in the process. He said confidence wouldn’t be an issue next week against Penn State.

“We’ve got to go back and take the last quarter and a half and say, ‘This is what we have to do,’” Zook said. “If we had played like that the whole game, and I know people get tired of hearing, ‘if, if, if,’ but we have to play 60 minutes the way we’re capable of playing, and we didn’t do that. No question this will be a 60-minute game coming up.”