Cubit breathing new life into Illini offense

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Bill Cubit doesn’t know the depth of his own playbook.

“Oh jeez,” he said with a thin smile slipping across his face. The question was, “How many plays or formations are in your playbook?”

With an offensive system vast and complex enough to warrant its own major, Cubit and the Illinois offense have torched opposing defenses in each of the first two games of the 2013 season, which was something of a rarity before he got here.

The 2012 season was a nightmare for the Illini, particularly when they had the ball. Under the tutelage of co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, Illinois couldn’t move the ball through the air or on the ground.

The Illini lurked near the bottom in most offensive statistical categories as a unit, ranking second to last in the nation in total offense (296.67 yards per game) and scoring offense (16.67 points per game). Those numbers were even inflated by a 44-0 drubbing of FCS foe Charleston Southern — by far the team’s most prolific offense output on the season.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase finished the 2012 campaign with 1,361 yards. He already has 725 in just two contests this season.

Fans have already seen a diverse look on the field from the Illini — remarkably, with almost identical personnel from the year before.

A max-protection scheme with one man running a route to start the season? Sure.

A middle screen with a lateral back the other direction? You bet.

A swinging-gate formation that split six linemen out where receivers usually are and only three tight ends in front of Scheelhaase? Why not?

Does Cubit really wake up in the middle of the night to draw up new schemes?

“I do,” he said. “I just sit there in the offseason, and I always have a notepad. I just like to put defensive coordinators on edge.”

One of the most notable changes with Cubit calling plays was in the first half of the Illini’s Week 1 game against Southern Illinois.

With 1 minute, 32 seconds left in the first half, many expected the Illini — backed up at their own 6-yard line — to sit on the ball and take a 17-7 lead into the half. Even the Illinois players didn’t seem entirely sure what the plan was. After a quick 10-yard completion, the Illini connected on a pass for no gain to Martize Barr and then for just 2 yards to Miles Osei.

Again, with a 3rd-and-8 situation from their own 18 and under a minute to play, the Illini could have conceded to halftime. Not this year.

Scheelhaase hit Ryan Lankford for 13 yards and brought the troops up to the line in the no-huddle offense. Moving quickly to the line, Scheelhaase called for the snap, looking right the whole way until Steve Hull came streaking across the field on a deep post route — a 55-yard completion. Two plays later, the Illini were in the end zone, and to cap things off, holder Tim Russell fired a pass to Matt LaCosse for a two-point conversion, as the icing on the cake just seconds before halftime.

“We’re here to win, we’re here to score points,” head coach Tim Beckman said after the Southern Illinois game. “If you thought we were going to take a knee and run out the quarter, we ain’t doing that anymore. We’re going to let Coach Cubit call it and they scored in 1:12.”

Even this past Saturday against Cincinnati, arguably the best win in Beckman’s tenure, the Illini took the ball over on their own 1-inch line after a turnover on downs. Instead of pounding three straight runs up the middle and punting, the Illini went play-action on the first play for an 8-yard gain.

The next 11 plays included a wide receiver reverse, a tight end screen and a receiver jet sweep en route to a 99-yard drive that gave the Illini a commanding 28-10 lead.

“If you’re in this position, you have to have a bit of an ego,” Cubit said. “To say, ‘I don’t care who we’re playing, we’re going to move the football.’”

Going into the next biggest test of the season against No. 19 Washington, Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox made a video cutup of 120 or so “trick plays” that Cubit has used during his career, both this season and during his tenure with Western Michigan.

Whether they never get used or it leads to another touchdown, Cubit’s late-night epiphanies are keeping defensive coordinators up at night.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.