An X's & O's preview of Illinois

Washington's opponent this Saturday, the University of Illinois, is coming off a resounding 45-17 victory over Cincinnati in week two. In week one, Illinois was able to hold off FCS Southern Illinois to win 42-34. Despite inconsistent defensive performances, the Illini have matched their two-win total from 2012 courtesy of offensive outings that have yielded 87 points in just two games. Illinois is ranked 27th in the nation with 43.5 points per game and 34th with 493 yards of total offense per game. This is a stark contrast from 2012 when both statistics were ranked 122nd nationally with an average of only 16.7 points and 294.2 yards per game. How have the fighting Illini been able to revive their anemic offense of a year ago? Enter Bill Cubit as Illinois' new Offensive Coordinator.

Cubit, the former head coach of Western Michigan, has energized the Illini offense and more importantly, he has given new life to senior quarterback Nate Scheelhaase. Under Cubit's tutelage, in just two games, Scheelhaase has already thrown for 728 yards, six touchdowns with one interception, while completing 74 percent of his passes. For context, Scheelhaase threw four touchdowns and 1361 yards in 10 games last season. Clearly Cubit has been able put his stamp on the Illinois quarterback and offense, which has been the catalyst for Illinois fantastic start.

Our friends at (an SB Nation site) have written extensively on Bill Cubit and his addition to that program (click the links, the guys over there do a great job). My main takeaway from reading their pieces is that Cubit loves to throw the football and he has been very successful doing it.

Tom Fornelli of The Champaign Room posted a fantastic table displaying Cubit's affinity for passing while head coach of Western Michigan. Furthermore, since 2007, Cubit's Western Michigan squads have ranked 31st, 11th, 21st, 16th, 8th and 28th in the nation in passing yards per game and his quarterbacks have finished in top 25 in NCAA passer rating twice since 2007. His fondness for throwing the football also led to team success for Western Michigan, as Cubit finished his tenure with a 51-46 record and three bowl game appearances in eight seasons.

When the Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian was asked about Illinois' offense this week, he noted how versatile they are with different formations and personnel groupings. He also mentioned how six different Illini players have had an explosive (30+ yards) play this year.

What can the Huskies expect from the new-look Illinois offense this Saturday? Let's dive into a couple of touchdowns from their victory over Cincinnati.

5:59 left in 1st quarter

1st & 10

'Posse' personnel (3 WR's, 1 TE & 1 RB)


Cincinnati in Cover 0

Illinois lined up in an 3 x 2 formation, 'Empty', but with Cincinnati having six men on the line of scrimmage, Scheelhaase motioned tight end Jon Davis in the backfield. The Illini are now in a 2 x 2 formation but with a twist, as running back Josh Ferguson is lined up in the slot.

After the snap, RB Ferguson and wide receiver Steve Hull both run hard vertically. Smart Football's Chris Brown has explained that running hard vertically is tough on defensive backs, as they disguise a receiver's true intentions.

If you look closely, Scheelhaase has his shoulders tilted up, indicating he is throwing deep to Ferguson. If his shoulders were level, he would be throwing to Hull on the dig route. Although it looks like Ferguson and the Cincinnati defensive back are running side-by-side, Ferguson already has a step on the defensive back.

As the screenshot shows, Ferguson is a step ahead of the Cincinnati defensive back and Scheelhaase threw a dime for an Illinois touchdown.

7:12 left in 2nd quarter

3rd & 2

'Heavy Plus' personnel (4 TE's & 1 RB)


Cincinnati in Cover 2?

Illinois is lined up in a 'Stack I' (extra player in an I formation), which is a rarely seen formation. What makes this formation even more unique is the personnel. The Illini has four tight ends on the field! The only other team I have seen do this is Stanford.

Cubit made a shrewd play call ('Stack I' is primarily a running formation) as Illinois called a play-action pass. Based on the formation and personnel, Cincinnati was anticipating run and bit hard on the play fake.

The route concept called was 'Corner-Flat' and is a common route concept. 'Corner-Flat' is a 'High-Low' read. A 'High-Low' read is designed to isolate a single defender by sending a receiver behind and in-front of him, forcing the defender to make a decision. The Cincinnati defender in the black square is eyeing tight end Jon Davis in the flat, which tells Scheelhaase to throw to tight end Evan Wilson running the corner route.

This was a very easy throw for Scheelhaase because he made the correct read. TE Wilson made the easy catch for an Illinois touchdown.

The two Illinois touchdowns described above display Cubit's affinity for passing and the diversity in Illinois's personnel and formations. The most obvious question for Dawg fans is: What can Washington do to stop Illinois?

Husky defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said it best after practice on Tuesday... "Play with good eye discipline, great fundamentals, technique, whether it's the first play or the 82nd play, it's all the same."

In order to come away victorious in Chicago, the Husky defense must be tight in coverage and not bite on play fakes or other fakes designed to fool defenses. Cincinnati was poor in both areas and it resulted in explosive plays and touchdowns. Based on the first two games, one should expect Illinois to be able to complete a few passes. It's limiting those completed passes to eight to 10 yards, rather than 20 to 30+ yards.

Go Dawgs!

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