Illini passing game suffering through inexperience

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Something has been missing from the Illinois passing game the past two games.

The heart of Illinois' offense has been disjointed, with passes either missing receivers or falling from their hands.

What's absent, interim coach Bill Cubit said Monday, is experience. And with the Big Ten opener coming Saturday against Nebraska (2-2), it didn't sound like either of the two veteran injured players who could provide a fix, Mike Dudek or Justin Hardee, will be back any time soon.

''There are four guys out there playing who didn't really play at all (last year),'' Cubit said.

Senior Geronimo Allison is the only receiver left with much experience. Along with him, the Illini (3-1) are regularly playing sophomores Malik Turner and Marchie Murdock and freshmen Sam Mays and Desmond Cain. All that inexperience has led to some miscommunication with quarterback Wes Lunt.

Dudek, who was last season's top receiver and arguably the team's best player, and Hardee would have been starters this fall. But Dudek has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and Hardee a broken foot. The team initially said both were expected back at some point this season, but on Monday, Cubit said he has no idea when or if they will return, only that neither will play this weekend.

The Illini are also for now playing without their top two tight ends, Tim Clary and Tyler White, also lost to injury.

Statistically, the passing game looks OK. Illinois is averaging 242.8 yards per game, fifth in the Big Ten. And the Illini are scoring 34.2 points a game, also good for fifth in the conference.

Murdock, in particular, has had strong moments. He's caught 11 balls for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Only Allison has been better, with 24 catches for 362 yards.

But in Illinois' only loss, two Saturdays ago at North Carolina, Cubit said he counted nine dropped passes. Passing was hardly the only Illini problem in that 48-14 demolition, but as the Tar Heels pulled away, Illinois' offense couldn't answer.

Last Saturday's 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee included five more drops, Cubit said. But it also showed Lunt and his receivers regularly disconnected.

On a third-down play in the fourth quarter, Lunt threw to a spot along the right sideline where Murdock had just been. But the receiver was already heading to the middle of the field, and as he came off Cubit yelled at the young receiver for the mistake.

Cubit's Illinois passing game can be complex. The receivers have to take constant cues from Lunt, including changes he makes based on what he sees in the defense.

On Saturday, that didn't always happen, both Cubit and Lunt said.

''If their eyes aren't on me, they won't see the checks,'' Lunt said. ''So the biggest thing with that is just making sure their eyes are on me during the play. It's hard - I understand they have to watch the ball (and) kind of look at the defense, too. But the main thing is they have to look at me.''

Dudek quickly fit into the Illinois offense last fall as a freshman, but Cubit said that's rare. The typical adjustment period is about half a season, he said.

''Very rarely do you see a guy come in and sets the world on fire,'' Cubit said.

But Nebraska offers Illinois' passing game a reason for optimism, too.

So far, the Cornhuskers haven't been very good at stopping the pass. They're last in the 14-team Big Ten in pass defense, giving up 379.5 yards a game, and 12th in total defense at 453 yards a game.

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