CHAMPAIGN — It’s hard to tell what Matt LaCosse is enjoying more — getting discovered as a player who has an important role in the Illini offense, or playing a position that seems to have found an elevated importance, too.
On Monday, two days after catching two touchdown passes for Illinois, he said both developments please him a great deal.
“It’s great,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for two-and-a-half years for this and it’s nice now, in my junior season and in Evan Wilson’s senior season, that we’re involved and a part of it.”
Tight ends caught four touchdown passes Saturday in Illinois’ 50-14 victory over Miami (Ohio) and on the season tight ends have lined up all over the field and have hauled in 21 passes good for six touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit says use of the tight end is essential to the success of an Illini offense that is averaging 478.5 yards per game.
“The tight ends are so important in this offense,” he said. “If you use four wide receivers or five and you can’t get open, it’s going to be a long, long night. That tight end package gives us a chance to get going a little bit. It gives your wideouts a break so they’re not out there all the time against press-man coverage.
“If I had my way, give me five scholarship tight ends anytime.”
Cubit makes steady use of a package that has three tight ends on the field at the same time. And LaCosse said he has lined up in five different places, including in the backfield and split outside beyond the wide receivers.
“It’s exciting for us to come to practice each week and fine out how we’re going to be used, what’s new this week. It’s the most fun I’ve had within an offense.”
At 6-6, LaCosse and the 6-7 Wilson give quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase big targets. And Scheelhaase said he’s not afraid to throw a “jump ball” pass to his tight ends, as he did Saturday when Wilson went high in the air to spear his touchdown catch.
“We talked about that this past week,” Scheelhaase said. “There were going to be opportunities in that Miami game that even if they were covered, it was still our best option to throw it up high to those guys.
“To see them make plays, that’s a big deal. They’ve known they could do it, but I don’t know if it has necessarily happened in a game. That was big for our confidence as an offense and for them personally as well.”
Last year the tight end was largely a forgotten position. Tight ends accounted for 22 catches all of last season and the position has just one shy of that total already, four games into the schedule.
“Our tight ends played spectacular,” Beckman said. “It was great to see Matt get into the end zone twice. And a great catch by a 6-7 tight end,” he said, referring to Wilson.
Cubit also credited the tight ends for getting the running game going against Miami. “Those guys made some really good blocks,” he said.
Illinois rushed for a season-high 289 yards against the Redhawks.
On Monday, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said quarterback Taylor Martinez was not yet 100 percent and his status for Saturday’s game against the Illini was uncertain.
Martinez suffered a turf toe injury and did not play in the Sept. 21 victory over South Dakota State. Nebraska did not play last week and Pelini said Martinez did not practice during the bye week.
“I think he’s getting closer to being 100 percent but as of (Sunday) he was not quite 100 percent,” Pelini said.
Illini coaches expect that Martinez, who in three games has thrown for 528 yards and nine touchdowns, will start for the Huskers.
Kickoff is at 11 a.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Quarterback Aaron Bailey, who rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown in Illinois’ 50-14 victory over Miami (Ohio), was named Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week Monday.
Bailey has been used in various short yardage situations and has rushed for three touchdowns and seven first downs in his 12 rushing attempts this season.
“That’s great,” Illini coach Tim Beckman said when informed of the honor. “I didn’t know that. He’s the first one I’ll call. And I’ll call his dad, too. It’s well-deserved.”
While the Illini men’s basketball team was allowed to begin practice on Friday, the women couldn’t get started until Monday.
Illini head coach Matt Bollant said second team is much more prepared to embrace the aggressive style of play he likes, even if they have to compensate for the loss of No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold. They represent the loss of more than 35 points and 16 rebounds a game.
“We’re just so much better with the little things this year than we were last year at this time,” said Bollant, whose first Illini team finished with a 19-14 record.
“We have some things to answer with Karisma and Adrienne not being here, but there’s no question we’re going to be better. It’s exciting where we’re headed.”
Bollant was asked if Illinois can contend for a Big Ten title.
“Penn State probably has the most talent,” he said. “Talent-wise we’re not quite there yet. But the system is the best there is and I’m not so sure our system can’t over come that.”
Illinois has its season home opener Nov. 12 against Valparaiso at the State Farm Center.
STREET JAM A SUCCESS
Illini officials were pleased with the turnout for the Illini Street Jam basketball spectacle staged Saturday night in Campustown.
A crowd of about 3,000 packed in around a synthetic court placed at the corner of Green and Wright Streets. The Illini men’s team arrived in a military vehicle wearing camouflage gear.
Included in the crowd were Class of 2014 recruiting commitments Michael Finke of Champaign and Quentin Snider of Louisville. Also on hand were Class of 2015 prospects Aaron Jordan, a 6-foot-4 guard from Plainfield, and D.J. Williams, a 6-7 forward from Chicago Simeon.
Also showing up was former Illini D.J. Richardson.
The next public appearance by the Illini basketball team is Oct. 17 for the Orange & Blue intrasquad scrimmage at the State Farm Center.