One of head coach Tim Beckman’s most popular moves in his short tenure at Illinois has been bringing back Illini-great Luke Butkus to direct his offensive line.
As a three-year starter and anchor of a Big Ten championship team at Illinois, Butkus knows what it takes to compete at the highest level. While his last name alone was enough to put smiles on faces throughout Illini nation, his “Oskee-wow-wow” tweets and affinity for Camp Rantoul bordered on grounds for retiring his number and naming him head coach-in-waiting.
The guy genuinely loves Illinois and his passion for the both the university and the football program shine through every time he speaks. All summer, reporters flocked to Butkus for stories of his playing days and quotes about his desire to take this team back to competing for Big Ten championships.
Summer—when hope springs eternal with every football program—is officially over, and as we approach Saturday's desert duel, the honeymoon surrounding Butkus’ return could come to a screeching halt. After an uninspiring performance from his unit in the opener, Butkus knows Week 2 represents a critical test for both he and his unit.
Butkus took an unorthodox approach to preparing his line this summer.
The first-year coach played seniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton all over the line, while rotating others in and out throughout fall practice. It was a calculated gamble, as conventional wisdom says a starting five needs weeks, if not months, to gel as a unit.
Being who he is, Butkus got the benefit of the doubt from both fans and the media. Though the sample size is limited, the early returns are not overly impressive.
In the opening week, starting running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young—whom Beckman referred to as “outstanding”—carried the football 22 times for a combined 40 yards from scrimmage.
Just in case you forgot, the Illini played Western Michigan last weekend. While the Mid-American Conference teams are known for being stingy early-season opponents for Big Ten programs, they’re not known for being a dominant force in the trenches.
When Illini fans are skeptical of a line prospect, you’ll often hear these fans say “he’s more of a MAC-type,” meaning, he doesn’t have the size, skill and athleticism to play in the Big Ten. What’s disconcerting is that those “MAC-types” were pounding the Big Ten program off the line of scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. That speaks to a unit that played harder and understood their assignments better that Butkus’.
Fortunately for Butkus and his maulers, the Illini won 24-7, and wins have been too few and far between in Champaign to criticize much of anything following a 17-point victory.
Saturday night will be a different story.
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks’ talented unit is sure to play well, but it won’t win this game without contributions from the Illinois offense.
If you haven’t heard, 27-game starter Nate Scheelhaase is banged up and questionable for Saturday night. Although the general consensus is that he plays on Saturday, he certainly won’t be able to make plays with his feet the way fans are accustomed to seeing. His ability to evade the pass rush will surely be affected by his limited mobility.
It will be absolutely essential that the Illini move the football on the ground, and regardless of who plays quarterback, they can’t win this football game without protecting him and creating lanes for their sophomore running backs. A few big plays from both Scheelhaase and the defense were enough to beat Western Michigan, but the team will need Butkus’ boys to carry their weight if the Illini expect to escape Sun Devil Stadium with a win.
Butkus and Co. are well aware of this; they know the onus is on them to up the ante going into Week 2. Earlier this week, senior center Graham Pocic told FightingIllini.com that the line's performance left something to be desired: “As a group, we weren’t really happy with the way we played….we left a lot of points on the field.”
Both Pocic and Butkus seemed to be on the same page in terms of what the line needs to do to correct their errors. When asked if he would tweak his scheme this week, a clearly frustrated Butkus made it abundantly clear scheme had nothing to do with the opening-week performance:
“No,” he insisted “they need to come off the ball. They need not to think so much and just run off the football. That’s how you create movement in this game, you run, your feet, and we need to do that better.” (via tayandj.podbean.com)
While the Illini offensive line isn’t littered with NFL prospects, they are by no means devoid of talent. Pocic will have a chance to play on Sundays and Hugh Thornton has the ability to compete for an NFL roster spot in training camp next fall. Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic bring considerable experience to the table, and Butkus has highly regarded youngsters in Ted Karras, Pat Flavin and Alex Hill to mold into his type of players.
This is a team that went 1-3 on the road last year. The Illini lost to lesser squads in Purdue and Minnesota and let a game they controlled throughout escape in Happy Valley.
What does that mean? It means Illinois is not good enough to win on the road without every group doing their part, including the offensive line.
Butkus has made it clear what he expects from his unit on Saturday, and the players appear to be hearing that message. The question is, can they execute it?
Like it or not, the verdict will be read on a national stage this weekend. While it would be interesting to see how Illini fans respond to Butkus if his unit continues to under perform, I’m fine with not having to find out.