CHAMPAIGN- Coming to Illinois from Arkansas prior to the 2010 season, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino looked to escape the shadows of his older brother, Bobby, who has been known to produce a few high-powered offensive attacks of his own. The younger Petrino did just that, as the Illini used breakout seasons from future NFL second-round draft pick Mikel Leshoure and highly touted redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase to smash Illinois school records for total points and points per contest.
If Saturday's game against Arkansas State was any indicator, Petrino's 2011 offensive unit looks poised to once again enter the Illini record books.
Scheelhaase, who threw for a career-high 267 yards on 16-23 passing, impressed Petrino with his improved ability to read defenses and make the correct adjustments. That being said, Petrino continues to stress to his young quarterback the importance of making those same crucial reads in the ground game.
"I thought (Nathan) had a great game in the passing game," Petrino said after Illinois' practice on Monday evening. "He did a great job with all his reads, got us in the right protections, threw the ball real well. There were a couple plays in the running game that he knows he needs to improve on. There was a couple times he needed to pull it and run it, and a couple times he needed to change the run, so it was great game in the passing game and (we) need to improve on the running game."
Scheelhaase wasn't the only Illini signal caller to grace the field against the Red Wolves on Saturday. To the surprise of many Illini fans, the Illinois staff decided to burn freshman Reilly O'Toole's redshirt in the first game of the season.
While O'Toole didn't see much action - three plays in the fourth quarter - his debut means that Illinois fans can expect to see more of the freshman from Wheaton, Ill., throughout the remainder of the season. Apparently the former three-star recruit's impressive play at Camp Rantoul in August was enough to vault him into a tie with sophomore Miles Osei on the Illinois depth chart.
According to Petrino, the plan all along has been to get both quarterbacks game action when the opportunity presents itself.
"It's something that we'll continue to talk about," Petrino said. "We'll have a plan going into each game, and it could be a little bit different each week. We'll definitely continue to get (Osei and O'Toole) reps."
Though the talk after the game centered on the impressive start for the aerial attack, games in the Big Ten are won and lost with the running game. And while Illinois has had its ups and downs during the Ron Zook era - 29-45 overall record after Saturday's win - they've led the conference in rushing three different times - 2006, '07 and '10.
After the departure of Leshoure - who was recently named to the Illinois All-Decade team - Petrino will look to senior Jason Ford for the bulk of the offense's carries. Ford, who has struggled keeping his weight down during his time at Illinois, danced his way to 86 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries on Saturday.
Petrino put the emphasis on 'dance' when evaluating his running back's performance.
"I thought (Jason) played well," Petrino said. "I thought he had a couple runs in the second half where he maybe was trying to bounce it outside and make too big a run, instead of banging it up there and getting six, seven yard gains."
Overall, it was an impressive showing for the Illinois offense. Any day an offense puts up 473 total yards - 271 yards passing, 202 rushing - and no penalties for the first time in 18 years, the offensive coordinator will be happy…right?
Petrino continues to stress to his offensive players that, no matter what the stat sheet indicates, there's always room for improvement.
"I thought we had two series in the second quarter - gave up the safety and then the next series we got stopped on the third-and-one - and those things can't happen," Petrino said. "We're going to really come out here and concentrate on improving, in both the running game and the passing game.
"Our goal is to be great, and we aren't satisfied with how we played last week."