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Illinois Position Previews - Offense

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Preparing for Washington's next pass-happy opponent.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's game against Eastern was rough. Even with the Husky offense running rampant, I simply could not enjoy a game that featured record-setting futility on the part of the Washington defense. Sure, Vernon Adams is, to my eye, a major conference-level quarterback. He also seemed to play a great game by his own standards. That might have made me feel better about giving up 30-35 points. Surrendering seven passing touchdowns to any quarterback, even Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley, is flat out embarrassing.

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While you shouldn't mistake my tone for a loss of faith in Coach Petersen long term, the past two games have certainly demanded a short-term reality check, and the looming Pac-12 schedule makes progress all the more urgent.

Next up: Illinois, a Big 10 program with a pass-first approach and a strong-armed quarterback in OK State transfer Wes Lunt. He will be throwing against the exact same defensive backfield that we saw on Saturday, minus the suspended Marcus Peters. Should be fun.

Quarterback

Wes Lunt (6-5, 215 pounds) began his career in 2012 as a true freshman at Oklahoma State. He seized the starting job and started out decently as a high-volume, high-risk gunslinger before injuries caused him to move down the depth chart. Now he is the starter at Illinois, following a surprisingly good senior season from Nathan Scheelhaase.

His first two games at the helm have been prolific. He finished 24 of 38 (63%) for 285 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks in a 4th quarter comeback victory over FCS Youngstown State and followed that up with a 35 of 50 (70%), 456-yard, three touchdown, one interception performance in yet another 4th quarter comeback (42-34) against Western Kentucky.

While the Illini will trot out a lot of three, four, and five wide receiver sets and throw the ball 35-50 times just like Eastern, one key difference is that Lunt is not the athletic threat that Adams is. The Eastern QB did a great job of moving in and out of the pocket to extend plays and avoid near-certain sacks. Against Lunt, collapsing the pocket shouldn't lead to a Wilsonian scramble and strike to a wide-open receiver.

Offensive Line

Four out of five starters return from a line that was serviceable, if unspectacular, last season. LT Simon Cvijanovic, LG Michael Heitz, and C Alex Hill are all seniors with a minimum of 15 career starts (Heitz has 31 and Cvijanovic has 26). Junior RG Ted Karras has started 22 career games.

Right tackle is the only position where a new starter is being broken in. Junior Patrick Flavin appears to be the starter there, and at 6'7 and 300 pounds, he is actually the lightest of the five linemen (Hill weighs 315 pounds and everyone else is listed at 310).

This line's 2013 performance is a little bit tough to evaluate just based on sacks allowed. In an offense based heavily on quick horizontal passing, the line did a predictably good job of keeping the QB clean on short, quick drops and a much poorer job protecting him when he dropped back for deeper attempts.  Run blocking was solid, and the Husky defensive linemen should not get caught expecting pass on every single play. Illinois can and will run enough to keep opponents honest.

Running Back

Speak of the devil. Josh Ferguson, last year's leading rusher, returns. He amassed 779 yards and seven scores in 141 attempts (5.5ypa), a pretty solid season line in an offense built around the QB. Ferguson also caught 50 passes for 520 yards and four touchdowns. At 5-10 and 195 pounds, he doesn't have the size to pound the ball 20+ times a game, but he won't be asked to be.

For the occasion that demands a more powerful back, senior Donovonn Young and his 6-0 220-pound frame provide a different running style. At 4.0 yards per attempt, he was far less efficient than Ferguson in 2013.

Through two strange victories in 2014, the two backs have split carries evenly and neither one has looked remotely impressive despite the low level of competition. Young, who figured to be the backup, actually leads the team with 86 yards rushing on 23 carries (3.7ypa), while Ferguson has only totaled 74 yards in 25 carries. Each back has scored a single rushing touchdown.

While averaging less than four yards per carry is inexcusable, part of the problem has been both games turning into 4th quarter shootouts. Lunt has had to pass the team out of late deficits, leaving the run game to suffer as an afterthought.

Wide Receivers

Technically, Josh Ferguson is the leading returning receiver from 2013. While he has been less impactful catching the ball so far this season, it will be important for any linebackers or safeties that end up covering him to take the assignment seriously.  He will be targeted out of the backfield. Steve Hull graduated after a breakout, 59 catch, 993-yard campaign, and the next two receivers on the depth chart, Spencer Harris and Miles Osei, are also gone.

With no clear number-one receiver in sight, Lunt has spread the ball all over the place. Geronimo Allison leads the team with 140 yards receiving and is ties with Malik Turner for most catches, with 10. Seven receivers have caught at least five passes. Eight receivers have totaled at least 50 receiving yards. Allison, at 6-4 and 195 pounds, is the most physically impressive pass-catcher on the roster, but Lunt is clearly willing to throw to anyone who can find separation.

Overall

Like Washington, Illinois has been shaky against inferior opponents. However, while UW struggled on the road against Hawaii and at home against the best FCS team around, Illinois faced both opponents at home. The Illini offense trailed Youngstown State, the definition of an FCS cupcake, 9-7 at the start of the 4th quarter before Wes Lunt threw three touchdown passes to save his team from embarrassment. They required similar 4th quarter Lunt heroics to beat Western Kentucky.

While the sample size is small, Illinois has had trouble starting strong and piling on offensively. 21 total 1st half points against those opponents, at home, is less than spectacular. Against Eastern, the Husky defense started surrendering touchdown after touchdown so fast that even a 21-0 lead vanished in only a few possessions. From then on, Cyler Miles and the offense needed to score on nearly every possession to keep the game competitive. The margin for error was nonexistent.

Over four quarters, there is no doubt in my mind that Lunt and this offense will score through the air on the likes of Jermaine Kelly, Naijel Hale, Darren Gardenhire, and Sidney Jones. The key will be for the young corners and safeties (who also played god awful football on Saturday) to manage competent enough coverage in the first half that Lunt and his receivers again take a few quarters to truly find a rhythm.

Illinois is not a great running team, the offensive line is no better than average at protecting the passer, and Lunt is not particularly athletic. If Washington's greatest weakness can improve just enough to take away the crater-sized midfield holes in zone coverage and the busted coverage on go routes, the strengths of the team, namely the pass rush and the run game, can earn a fairly comfortable victory even if Lunt manages to mount another 4th quarter surge.

That may sound bleak, but that's the reality of facing an above-average passing offense with not even a single average defensive back. Maybe by the end of the season, or by this time next year, guys like Kelly, Baker, King, and Hale will be above-average Pac-12 starters. For now, they are not even close, and they simply need to emerge from the early-season flames with some dignity and, hopefully, another non-conference win.