- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino entered the season brimming with confidence, and for good reason.
His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.
"We're always going to set our expectations high," Petrino told ESPN.com in August. "We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year."
Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.
But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.
Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.
What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.
"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.
"We've got to do it better."
They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.
A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.
But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.
"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."
Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.
Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.
"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.
"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."
Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.
"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."
Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.
"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.
"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."
Saturday would be a good time for a better start.
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