CHAMPAIGN – Illinois knew last week that left tackle Simon Cvijanovic was going to miss Saturday’s game against Ohio State because of an ankle sprain. That meant a game of musical chairs for those on the line who were healthy.
Michael Heitz moved from left guard to left tackle, Alex Hill from center to left guard, and Jake Feldmeyer moved up the depth chart to start at center.
A season ago, such a drastic shake-up might have caused some stomach churning in the Illini football offices and among the linemen.
But not this season, when an improved offensive line has been the bedrock of a revamped Illinois offense under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
“These guys didn’t blink an eye. They were ready for the challenge,” said offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, who is also in his first season with the Illini.
The offensive line has been one of the glossed-over units on the Illinois squad, and that’s a good thing for them. They allowed 39 sacks last season – one of the worst totals in the country. The unit had a rough day against Ohio State in allowing six sacks, but the Illini did score 35 points – the most anyone has scored on the Buckeyes this season.
Overall, Cubit said the line deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Illinois’ statistical leaps on offense.
“I still tell them it’s not good enough,” Cubit said.
Illinois has made vast improvements in total offense, first downs, plays of 20 or more yards and third-down conversions. So what has changed?
“The main issue is the guys believing in themselves,” Ricker said. “They were the eyesore last year with 39 sacks. They read all that stuff, don’t kid yourself. … They adopted that attitude that they’re tired of being the eyesore on the team.”
That dubious distinction now belongs to the run defense. But in the opposite trenches, Illinois has had more success making progress. Right tackle Corey Lewis said Cubit and Ricker are responsible for the turnaround. The two have good chemistry, Lewis said, and that makes it easy on the players to learn.
“In the spring when they got here and you could see everything working, it was easy for us to buy in,” Lewis said.
And they have helped bring along freshman Austin Schmidt, who hasn’t missed a beat when called upon to spell Lewis or an injured Cvijanovic 2 weeks ago against Indiana.
“Everybody knows each other’s assignment on every pass play. There are no mistakes mentally,” Schmidt said. “The only time there would be a sack would just be a mistake physically.”
The Illini expect Cvijanovic back this Saturday against Purdue, so all should be normal again. But regardless, the line has no reason to worry anymore.
“I told them I was going to be honest from Day 1,” Ricker said. “If you’re not very good, you better be tough, you better be nasty, and you better play low. You have to have an identification about yourself, and a lot of those guys really soul searched.”
Illinois (3-7, 0-6) at Purdue (1-9, 0-6)
When: 11 a.m.
Where: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind.
Line: Illinois by 6½