CHAMPAIGN — If the spitting, coughing and wheezing we see from the Illini football offense could be flagged for a penalty, the yellow flag should be worth about 70 yards.
The serious infraction: Too many cooks in the kitchen.
Illinois’ offense has been difficult to watch for some time, and there were built-in deficiencies that head coach Tim Beckman inherited.
The offensive line isn’t very good. OK, it’s really bad.
Illinois lacks a single dynamic wide receiver.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase — as tough a competitor and as devoted a leader as a team could want — is not a naturally gifted thrower.
But while watching Illinois muster just one field goal and squander chance after chance in a 17-3 loss to Minnesota Saturday, we learned about the suspect chemistry that is now making the calls on the offensive side of the ball.
According to Beckman, co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chris Beatty is calling the plays on first and second downs. The other offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, Billy Gonzales, is making the third-down calls. And Beckman himself, a defensive coach by trade, has injected himself into the process by taking a more personal interest in the offense.
“I have tried to be more involved,” Beckman said after the Minnesota game. “But I will be even more involved in our offense the next two football games.”
Elaborating on his role, Beckman said, “I’m not
really play-calling. I suggest and strongly urge plays.”
But Beckman, who goes out of his way to not publicly call out individual players or even position groups, is
clearly frustrated by the play of his offensive line.
“We have to come off the football and get a yard when we need a yard,” Beckman said. “We can’t get the ball on the 1-yard line and not get in (the end zone). Come off the ball and Nathan Scheelhaase will get the yard.”
On his radio show, Beckman’s frustration was more direct.
Commenting specifically on Illinois’ failure to find the end zone after having second-and-goal from the Gopher 1-yard line, Beckman let fly.
“Come on guys, you have to move the ball an inch,” he said. “If you can’t move the football, frickin’ knock the crap out of people.”
He agreed that his defensive players are more inclined to demand that performance from one another than the offensive players.
“There are some boisterous players on defense who will grab you by the throat if it’s not getting done right,” he said. “We’re just not consistent enough on offense.”
All of that is true.
But it also seems likely that in an effort to find solutions on offense, Beckman & Co. now have too many spoons stirring the soup.
The head coach always has final say on play-calls, and I think Beckman has a responsibility to get involved in areas where breakdowns are occurring and recurring.
But I can’t imagine the benefit of having one coordinator call plays on first down and second down and another coordinator taking responsibility on third down.
Scheelhaase was asked about this, but he deftly side-stepped the question.
“I just get the signals from someone other than them on the sideline,” he said, saying he never knows just who calls the play.
One of the best moves former coach Ron Zook made was when he got less involved in the calling of the offense and defense. He hired Paul Petrino to run the offense and mostly got out of his way. He hired Vic Koenning to run the defense and left him alone.
And it worked pretty well until the fragility of the team collapsed on itself in the final six games of last season.
If Beckman has hired the right coordinators, let them do their job. If he doesn’t have the right guys, replace them after the season.
For now, though, I’d make two suggestions:
Recruit better offensive linemen.
Pick a coordinator and let him do his thing. At least we’ll know who to blame.