Front line a solid facet of Illini offense

Offensive lineman Jack Cornell wants the blame for the Illini’s inconsistency in the run game.

After rushing for 308 yards in its first road game of the season, Illinois returned home against Ohio State and had no player eclipse 50 yards rushing, collecting 116 total yards on the ground.

“It’s all on us when we can’t run the ball,” Cornell said. “It all starts up front in any phase. When we can’t get the running game going, it’s a direct reflection of us. We’re just trying to come out and prepare harder, work harder during the week and take it one step at a time.”

Despite Cornell’s willingness to accept the blame for the struggle in the run game on behalf of his line, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wouldn’t point a finger at one unit. Instead, he complimented the offensive line as one of the tightest groups on the team. Petrino said it’s easy to criticize the offensive line in difficult times, but it never receives credit when the team is playing well.

“I think everything on offense is all 11 guys,” Petrino said.

“Obviously, a little bit of it’s on (the offensive line) but it’s also on the quarterback getting into the right plays, it’s also on the receivers, tight ends and fullbacks blocking and then it’s also on the running backs running. It’s never one phase. It’s everyone. That’s why we say offense is a fist.”

Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation with 10 sacks, said this year’s Illini offensive line is the best he’s faced in his collegiate career. He called the unit a “brotherhood,” with senior leaders Cornell and Jeff Allen as the driving forces.

“We’re a really tight unit,” Cornell said. “We all live in the same building, so we’re really close. We spend a lot of time together, and we really know each other. We bonded really well the last couple years and we’re trying to translate that to the field.”

In February, junior Corey Lewis, who missed the entire 2010 season, suffered a setback in his recovery from an ACL injury, forcing him to miss the beginning of the 2011 campaign. The offensive line was shorthanded. With no game experience, redshirt freshman Michael Heitz was called on to fill Lewis’ position.

“I thought he’s done a great job,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “For a redshirt freshman to step in and play the way he’s played, I think he’s done a marvelous job.”

While Lewis inches closer to returning, Heitz’s impressive performance has added some much needed depth on the offensive line, one of the main concerns entering the season. Redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic also gained valuable game experience when he was called on to replace Allen after his ejection from the Western Michigan game. Zook said with all the experience of his young lineman, he’s optimistic about the future of his offensive line despite the eventual departures of Cornell and Allen.

“It helps,” Zook said of the opportunity for Heitz to play early in his career. “I think Simon has gotten a lot of experience. He’s done a great job. Then those freshmen offensive linemen we’ve brought in this year is, in our opinion, right now, the best guys we’ve brought in.”