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A lesson for the Illini: Time to play to team's strengths
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams threw only one pass last week against Missouri that was over 20 yards. Jarred Fayson, left, caught it for a 24-yard gain


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Published: 9/12/2009 12:03 AM

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There are 10 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with active losing streaks of 4 games or more.

Illinois is on this list.

There are 13 FBS teams that averaged 14.0 points or fewer over their last four games.

Illinois is on this list, too.

The Illini defense took its lumps for less-than-stellar play in last Saturday's 37-9 loss to Missouri, but it's time to point out that Illinois' big-name offense looks like the bigger problem here.

And not only are the players the issue here, but the guys who collect the big paychecks as their coaches.

For evidence, I direct you to the second quarter of Illinois' loss to Missouri.

Situation No. 1: The Illini trail 10-0 and face third-and-3 from Missouri's 8-yard line. Now, keep in mind the Illini boast the Big Ten's leading active rusher in senior QB Juice Williams. They also boast, in head coach Ron Zook's words throughout camp, "four running backs we can win with."

And they boast what's regarded as the Big Ten's deepest and most talented receiving corps (though All-America candidate Arrelious Benn was already out with a sprained ankle).

So what do the Illini do? They line up with a full-house backfield and ask receiver Jarred Fayson to run a sweep to the right. Fayson gets stuffed after a 1-yard gain and the Illini settle for a field goal.

Situation 2: After Missouri takes a 13-3 lead with 8:36 left in the half, Illinois decides to get creative.

Backup quarterback Eddie McGee comes in to take the snaps, which moves Williams to wide receiver. Then, on first down, McGee hands to receiver Chris Duvalt for a sweep to the right. Duvalt weighs 175 pounds soaking wet and, in his only previous college carry entering this game, lost 5 yards.

So what does Duvalt do here? He loses 5 yards. McGee lines up under center again on second down - Williams still standing well out of harm's way at receiver - and McGee throws a wild incompletion in Duvalt's general direction.

Just in case what Illinois' coaches did isn't obvious, let's restate it so we get it straight:

The Illini wasted a big possession with its best passer (and runner) split out to the left where he wasn't a threat, one of its lightest receivers serving as the running back and its second-best quarterback doing the throwing.

I'm all for a versatile offense that incorporates the element of surprise, but people in every profession make the mistake of complicating things unnecessarily.

Starting with today's home opener against ISU, a rebuilding Football Championship Subdivision program, Illinois needs to get back to basics and play to its strengths.

• Juice Williams, as alluded to above, leads all active Big Ten ballcarriers and ranks 15th nationally with 2,077 rushing yards. But he carried the ball just seven times against Missouri (not counting sacks and scrambles and getting tripped up by his own linemen).

• Williams also boasts one of the nation's strongest arms and several fleet receivers who intrigue NFL personnel men, but he kept throwing bubble screens and quick down-and-outs against Mizzou because the Illini went into the game with a plan to control the ball.

Of Juice's 28 attempts, exactly one flew at least 20 yards downfield. On that singular play, Fayson made a great 24-yard catch on Williams' rifle of a throw.

• Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound ball hog, is pegged by NFL Draft Scout as the nation's seventh-best player at his position and projected as a fourth-round pick in 2010. Yet "Uh-Oh" had exactly one pass thrown his way against Missouri. This cannot become the trend. He's a mismatch in the middle of the field.

To Zook's credit, he did address several issues Tuesday and promised some changes.

"Offensively, we know we've got to push the ball downfield," Zook said. "We can't be afraid to worry about running the ball more with Juice. We're going to do the things that we feel like we can do the best."

As long as Illinois understands what it does best, then the Illinois State game could do more than remove the Illini from some negative lists.