Illinois football notes: Offense finally starts to find a rhythm
Illinois football coach Ron Zook calls it "playing with your emergency brake on,'' said center Eric Block.
Whether it was an offense unable to handle the pressure of expectations, the transition following a change in coordinators or Illinois playing against better teams earlier in the year, the Illini scored 73 points combined in the last two games after putting up 68 points in the first six games against major-college teams this season.
"At the beginning of the season, we expected to score points because everybody told us we were a good offense,'' Block said. "Everybody said this offense was supposed to be one of the most dynamic offenses in the Big Ten and the country. We've got all these receivers. The quarterback is great. We've got a slew of running backs, and the offensive line that gets the job done.
"We were expecting to score points every time we touched the ball. We were playing too cautious. Now everybody is coming to let it loose. We're not worried about scoring touchdowns and that other stuff. Everybody is just playing right now. It's been a lot more successful doing that.''
Illinois (3-6 overall, 2-5 in the Big Ten) carries a two-game winning streak into its Big Ten Conference finale against visiting Northwestern (6-4, 3-3) Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN Classic).
"After Camp Rantoul, we hear how we're supposed to have this dynamic offense,'' running back Mikel Leshoure said. "It puts pressure on you to do well. That's what we had in the first part of the season. We had to find a way to get out of a slump. That's what we did.''
Illinois scored a 38-13 victory over Michigan before a 35-32 win at Minnesota. Michigan ranks eighth in the league in total defense while Minnesota is 10th.
JUICE UPDATE: Zook was "cautiously optimistic'' quarterback Juice Williams would return from a sprained left ankle suffered in the first quarter at Minnesota. Williams did not practice Monday or Tuesday and was still wearing a walking boot Tuesday evening.
"There's a good chance he could be ready to go,'' Zook said. "I could be way ahead of myself.''
RUNNING BACK RHYTHM: Instead of constantly rotating running backs, Leshoure prefers the plan of giving the starter a chance to get rolling even though Leshoure didn't start against Minnesota after rushing for 350 yards in the previous three games.
"If you're the starting guy, they will give you the majority of the carries,'' Leshoure said. "They want to keep that rhythm and keep that same guy in there. By being out there and continuing to play, you can find the rhythm and get it going.''
Sophomore Jason Ford rushed for 82 yards on 20 carries against Minnesota. Leshoure had 25 yards on 10 carries.
ETC.: Illinois and Northwestern play for the Land of Lincoln trophy, shaped to resemble a stove-pipe hat worn by Lincoln. The bronze trophy was scheduled for delivery to Northwestern Tuesday. Northwestern will bring it to the game Saturday and will retain the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy that was retired after last season.
John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.