When the Washington Huskies kick off Saturday at Soldier Field against the Illinois Fighting Illini, they will be facing a team much different than anything the UW coaching staff may have studied in the offseason.
Tim Beckman's addition of Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator has injected immediate life into an Illinois offense that was stagnant to the point of barely functioning in 2012.
The Illini's 16.7 point-per-game average was No. 119 of 120 Bowl Subdivision teams not in a transitional season. After Week 5, Illinois broke 20 or more just once—in a game in which it allowed 52.
Just two weeks into Cubit's tenure leading the offense, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is reenergized, and the Illini have put up 87 points. Illinois' Week 2 defeat of Cincinnati upped the ante on Saturday's Pac-12 vs. Big Ten showdown.
Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian has taken note, addressing the challenges Illinois' new look poses to the Husky defense.
"Nathan Scheelhaase...is throwing it all over the field to a variety of receivers. I think they have six explosive plays of 30 yards or more," he said. "I think four of five of those have over 50-yard plays."
Ryan Lankford, Josh Ferguson and Steve Hull have all made catches of at least 50 yards, and each has a touchdown. Five Illini receivers have scores in all.
Use of a deep receiving corps and a pass-happy attack is a Cubit hallmark, evident in his time as offensive coordinator at Stanford and as head coach at Western Michigan. Cubit's ranked no lower than No. 28 nationally for passing yards each of the previous five seasons, and as high as No. 8 in 2011.
"They run a lot of different football schemes [with] a bunch of different personnel groupings," Sarkisian said.
Illinois' immediate transformation under Cubit might look familiar to Washington fans, because it's reminiscent of the total reversal the Husky defense made in Justin Wilcox's first season as coordinator.
Much like Cubit made the available pieces work, Wilcox operated similarly, adjusting his play-calling to the strengths of his players.
"He had a different scheme at Boise [State], he had a different scheme at Tennessee. He came to Washington, and did a really good job of getting the core principles in place, then assessing the personnel," Sarkisian said at July's Pac-12 media day.
Wilcox provided a much-needed face-lift to a defense that languished near the bottom of college football before his arrival.
The Huskies trimmed over 10 points and nearly 100 yards off their per-game averages from 2011 to 2012. In 2013, Washington has shown further improvement on that side of the ball.
A swarming presence against Boise State didn't produce gaudy numbers—the Huskies recorded just one sack of Bronco quarterback Joe Southwick and resulted in just one turnover.
Washington's defense did record an impressive stat where it mattered most, however. Boise State scored just six points, its lowest single-game point total of head coach Chris Petersen's tenure.
Sarkisian said before the season that the tremendous stride made in 2012 still left room for improvement. Week 1 was the first glimpse into just how much better Wilcox's defense could be, and the rejuvenated Illinois offense offers another.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.
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