Chicago Colleges: Paul Petrino

Illini offense could have new look in bowl

December, 28, 2011
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Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase views the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl as the start of a new season.

It's hard to blame him. The Illini offense needs a fresh start after flat-lining in its final six games. According to Scheelhaase, the unit will look a bit different against UCLA on Saturday in San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanConsistency will be a major focus for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase next season.
Quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm has taken over the play-calling duties for offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who earlier this month left for the same position at Arkansas. Brohm has spent the past few weeks installing some new elements for a unit that averaged just 11 points and 268.7 yards during the second-half slide.

"It's a little bit like preparing for your first game," Scheelhaase told ESPN.com this week. "Every team has stuff that they ran from last year, and for us, we had stuff that we ran from the season. But there's a lot of new things that we've installed, a lot of new stuff we're running going into this game that should put the defense on their heels a little bit.

"I think it will be a big benefit for us."

Brohm's knowledge of the personnel helped him implement some new wrinkles with the offense, and Scheelhaase said the amount of install didn't overwhelm him and his fellow teammates.

It's critical for Illinois to put Scheelhaase in favorable positions in the bowl game. The sophomore recorded fewer than 100 pass yards in three of his final four games and split time with freshman Reilly O'Toole. Scheelhaase also struggled down the stretch last year but made significant strides against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, completing 18-of-23 attempts for 242 yards in a 38-14 Illini win.

"My confidence really doesn't waver," Scheelhaase said. "That's due to preparation and due to just a strong work ethic. That part doesn't change. You've just got to make sure the rest of the guys around you are keeping their confidence.

"We've still got the players, we've still got the talent and it helps that we're doing some new things right now."

Illinois can't escape the disappointment from the way the regular season ended, but the team can still make a bit of history Saturday afternoon at AT&T Park. The Illini have a chance to win back-to-back bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time.

A victory would be a nice springboard for Scheelhaase and the other players set to return and play for new coach Tim Beckman in 2012.

"To win back-to-back bowl games, no other quarterback that's come through this school has done that," Scheelhaase said. "To do that in the first two years would be a heck of an accomplishment. And the guys around me have the same thing in mind, to be a part of something special."

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.


UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.

Ron Zook tenure ends at Illinois

November, 27, 2011
11/27/11
2:22
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Illinois has done the expected by firing Ron Zook after a historic collapse this season. The next step will be the hard one for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.

Zook finishes his Illini career at 34-51, though there were some successes. He led the program to the 2008 Rose Bowl, where it was blown out by USC. Illinois is bowl eligible at 6-6 this season, and if the team is selected for the postseason, that would mark the first back-to-back bowl years since 1991-92.

But Zook also had four losing seasons out of seven and was nearly fired in 2009. Instead, he was allowed to return with two new coordinators -- Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense. That worked for a 7-6 record and Texas Bowl win over Baylor last year, and the Illini started this year 6-0 and ranked in the top 20.

That only set the stage, however, for an palindromic 0-6 finish in which the team often looked lost on offense and special teams, the latter of which was supposed to be Zook's area of expertise. The season ended with a 27-7 loss to Legends Division cellar-dweller Minnesota in which Illinois mustered only one first down in the entire first half.

“I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership,” Thomas said in a statement. “It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner."

A change was necessary, since Zook had never shown the ability to consistently compete at a high level, either in Champaign or at his previous head-coaching stop at Florida. His job status was hovering over the program and fans had long since lost faith in his ability to get the job done. It's better to do this now and get started on the coaching search. Koenning will serve as interim coach now and through a possible bowl game, and the players will somehow have to regroup after the deflating losing streak and this transition.

Meanwhile, Thomas now is under the gun to bring a winner to Illinois. And that earlier stat about the back-to-back bowl appearances illustrates just how hard it's been for anyone to consistently deliver. Thomas has already hired one big-time winner, bringing Brian Kelly aboard at Cincinnati and seeing that team make consecutive BCS bowl appearances. He hired Butch Jones to succeed Kelly, and Jones has the Bearcats on the verge of a Big East championship this year in his second season.

Thomas will try to do the same with the Illini, who don't have it easy in trying to battle Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The program got as far as it was going to go under Zook. Can Thomas find somebody to take it farther?

Illinois offense looking for answers

November, 8, 2011
11/08/11
8:00
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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.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQB Nathan Scheelhaase, 2, and the Illinois offense have struggled the past three games.
"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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