Hurry-up offense rushes defense
For all the variations in the Illinois offense -- the option plays, the traps and long passes -- maybe the biggest trickery occurs before the snap.
About 80% of the time, the Fighting Illini skip the huddle and go straight to the line of scrimmage. Sometimes they snap the ball quickly, other times they hesitate to look over the defense and signal adjustments from the sideline.
Either way, the no-huddle attack forces opponents to line up right away and limits defensive substitutions.
“When you slow down, you give the defense a chance to get set and disguise their coverages,” quarterback Juice Williams said. “When you hurry up, you make them hurry up too.”
The no-huddle approach dates to Coach Ron Zook’s tenure as defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, facing the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf.”
Zook wanted that up-tempo pace at Illinois, but he also gave offensive coordinator Mike Locksley freedom to adjust. Locksley had worked under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, where the Terrapins favored a more conventional approach.
At Illinois, the result is a spread offense that features zone reads and options by the quarterback but can also switch to an I formation with two tight ends and running back Rashard Mendenhall bulling straight upfield. Play the run too closely and Williams might go over the top to his receivers.
“Certain players have to cover the quarterback, others have to cover the running backs, and if we lose track of our assignments and aren’t technically sound, they’ll gash you,” USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said.
A quicker pace cuts both ways, demanding sharpness from the offense, something Zook wasn’t sure he saw during Friday’s practice at the Home Depot Center.
“We obviously weren’t ready to play today,” he said.
But USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt has seen the Illini looking sharp in game film from this season.
He compared their offense to the one the Trojans faced in a loss at Oregon.
“What it really makes you do on defense is that you’ve got to get lined up because they can snap the ball in a hurry,” Holt said, adding: “They’ll see at the line of scrimmage what formation you’re in and look over at their sideline and their coaches and usually get themselves in the right offensive play.”
Attempts to adjust defensively or rush personnel changes onto the field can be costly.
“A few times this season, teams have been called for 12 men on the field,” Illinois offensive guard Martin O’Donnell said. “A few times the defense hasn’t been set.”
Adding to the complexity, the Illini vary the pace depending on circumstances. Locksley said it’s partly decided in advance and partly a feel he gets during the game.
Williams knows what he likes.
“There are certain times I like to hurry up,” he said. “There aren’t many times I like to slow down.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.