Mike Locksley Seeks Answers for Offense

Fighting Illini football coaches searched for answers following their unexpected loss to Minnesota at Homecoming last Saturday. The offense should have been thrilled with its total yardage, but mistakes at critical times prevented victory and caused much soul-searching.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley knows more work is needed. Improvements need to be made in all areas. But he says the biggest problem by far is turnovers.

"If you look at turnover margin, the teams on the plus side of turnover margin are usually the teams that are winning a bunch of ball games. That's probably the most important stat. A team like Vanderbilt, who may not be as high as we are statistically on offense and defense, are number two in the country in turnover margin, and they are one of the top teams in college football."

A critical fumble and interception by star quarterback Juice Williams late in the game prevented the Illini from catching up with the Gophers. Top teams don't make those mistakes.

"If we can couple what we're doing on offense a little better with protecting the football, minimizing the critical errors, I think we've got enough firepower to be a special offense," Locksley says. "But as long as we keep turning it over, we'll continue to show glimpses of efficient offense, but we won't bear the fruits of the production."

The offensive line has shown glimpses of excellence, but two new starters and an injury at right tackle have the Illini scrambling somewhat.

"The continuity and jelling of that group is so important because everything is timing. That's affected anytime you bring in two new starters with (Eric) Block and the right tackle, whether Ryan Palmer (injured) or (freshman) Jeff Allen.

"For the most part, until this last game we protected the quarterback pretty well. Obviously, we have to do some things to protect the young guy at right tackle."

Allen has been impressive for a true freshman, but he lacks the experience and technique work that comes from years in the system. After two good games against tough opponents, Jeff had a setback against Minnesota according to Locksley.

"Prior to this game, he held his own against probably two of the best defensive ends in the conference with the Brandon Graham kid at Michigan and (Aaron) Maybin at Penn State. We can try to do things to help him schematically, but at some point he's gonna have to block somebody. He's done that for the most part.

"And it hasn't been just him. As a whole, I don't think we're getting the best production out of every guy on each play. You never know what play it's gonna be where you create a critical error because you don't execute your assignment."

The Illini running backs have done well running behind the linemen much of the time. But opponents are putting extra pressure on the young right tackle to limit the run game's effectiveness.

"I think for the most part, we've been able to manufacture some runs. But people are doing things to try to make us left handed, and we've got to try to equalize it by being able to do both things efficiently.

"We're gonna do whatever we've got to do to win the ball game, whether it's run or throw. We've got to get it figured out during the course of the game and get it executed."

And pass protection broke down against the Gophers, the Illini giving up five sacks. However, Locksley explains that sacks are not always the linemen's fault.

"When people talk about sacks, they think it is just Jeff Allen. But the quarterback has the timing clock in his head when the ball has to be thrown. You can say Juice was holding onto the ball too long, but I can show you plays where we've got receivers not running routes at full speed and where they need to be.

"So timing isn't just the quarterback or linemen. We've gotta protect our quarterback, the quarterback's got to not take sacks."

Introspection after a loss is natural, and it is often beneficial. If the Illini can learn from their mistakes, they will translate their lofty yards-per-game average into points and victories.

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