- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Aside from Wisconsin's record-setting unit, no Big Ten offense ended the 2010 season playing better than Illinois.
The Illini eclipsed 530 offensive yards three times in their final five games, averaging 492.4 yards during the stretch. Their main thrust came on the ground, as they racked up 1,644 rush yards and 19 rushing touchdowns in the final five contests. And while the pass attack was up and down throughout the year, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase finished with his best performance in the Texas Bowl against Baylor, completing his first 13 pass attempts (a team record to start a game) en route to a 242-yard effort.
Expectations are justifiably higher for the Illini offense in 2011, and the Big Ten had better be ready.
"We've improved a lot," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "Everybody understands [the system] better. It helps us play faster."
Although Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten running back Mikel Leshoure and several other contributors, most returning players have the luxury of being in Petrino's system for a second season. The Illini had different offensive coordinators in 2008 (Mike Locksley), 2009 (Mike Schultz) and 2010 (Petrino).
The continuity has helped so far this spring.
"It means a lot," tackle Jeff Allen said. "I'm just blessed for [Petrino] to come back for his second year. That's a big benefit. This is my first time having the same offense [two years in a row], and instead of learning something new, I'm just able to play faster and have a better knowledge of the game."
Illinois brings back three full-time starters up front (Allen, center Graham Pocic and guard Hugh Thornton) as well as a part-time starter (guard Jack Cornell). Also returning are fullback Jay Prosch and tight end Evan Wilson, both of whom play major roles in run blocking.
Petrino's offense features an unbalanced line -- tackles and guards are on the strong side or weak side, rather than the right or the left -- and the approach has clicked with players.
"I love creating matchups," Allen said. "Being able to always go against the best player, the best defensive end on each team, it's great. It gives us the ability to do things that we wouldn't be able to if we had a normal formation. It shows the coaches have a lot of trust in me."
Asked if the line needs to be a team strength this fall, Petrino quickly replied, "It needs to be, no question."
Without Leshoure, Illinois will rely more on Scheelhaase. The redshirt sophomore is a dynamic athlete who will remain a big part of the run game -- "He might have to run more [in 2011]," Petrino said -- but must evolve as a passer.
Petrino is seeing promising signs as Scheelhaase goes through his second spring in the system.
"We really wanted to see him become more accurate, get a quicker release and just understand the whole offensive scheme better," Petrino said. "He's done all those things. ... A lot of times they say the game starts slowing down for you when you know what you're doing. When the game slows down, you get the ball out of your hands faster. He's just more comfortable.
"He believes in what he sees and he pulls the trigger."
Although the Illini must build more depth at both running back and receiver, two areas hampered by injuries this spring, Petrino has raised the ball for the unit.
"He expects greatness out of us," Allen said. "He wants us to be the best offense in the country. That's our goal: to be the best."
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