The program hasn’t returned to respectability yet in the Big Ten, but at least Illinois was able to get back in the win column before the season was over. There were some signs outside of conference play that the rebuilding job might be ahead of schedule for the Illini, but once they got back inside the league, there wasn’t much to feel good about until a late victory over Purdue ended an ugly 20-game losing streak in the Big Ten.
The good news for Illinois is that skid is over. The bad news moving forward is it must replace do-it-all quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as it closes the book on 2013 and tries to get back into a bowl game in 2014.
Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Through all the rough patches and the piles of defeats, the Illini did know they could always rely on Scheelhaase to provide some entertainment and plenty of production leading the attack. With a final 300-yard passing outing to close the season, Scheelhaase broke the school record for total offense previously held by Juice Williams, another indicator of just how much he’s given the program over the last few years.
Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. Wherever the football was, Brown was a safe bet to be nearby as he did everything he could to help the Illini turn things around defensively. He led the team in total tackles (119), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5), and for good measure the senior added a forced fumble and an interception as another veteran at least went out on a personal high note for Illinois.
Best moment: The future looked mighty bright after two games, particularly on the heels of a 45-17 throttling of a Cincinnati team that would eventually go on to win nine games. Scheelhaase produced four touchdowns as the offense exploded, Mason Monheim paced an aggressive defensive performance with a pair of tackles for loss and everything appeared to be trending in the right direction. The buzz was short lived, and it would never be that positive again for the Illini.
Worst moment: The gap between the Big Ten’s elite programs was never likely to shrink that much this season, so blowout scores against division champions like Michigan State and Ohio State weren’t much of a surprise. But the struggles against the rest of the pack were troubling, most notably a 37-34 loss at home to end the season against Northwestern. The Wildcats had been ravaged by injuries and hadn’t won a conference game all year, and dropping that decision a week after ending the epic losing streak wasn’t a strong way to capitalize on any momentum the Illini might have had heading into the offseason.
Covers Ohio State and the Big Ten.Joined ESPN in 2012.Attended the University of Wyoming.
The schedule hasn’t really even hit the midway point thanks to a pair of bye weeks loading up the front half of the slate. But Illinois has already played enough games to improve its record from a year ago, and it has plenty of time to build on a productive start and get back into the postseason thanks to a high-flying offense.
The Illini missed out on a chance to put themselves in early position to contend in the Leaders Division after struggling in a lopsided loss at Nebraska with the offense being held to a season-low 19 points. But if new coordinator Bill Cubit and dynamic quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can rediscover the magic that had Illinois racking up touchdowns in wins against Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Southern Illinois, it might not be too late to make some noise in the conference.
The Legends Division remains wide open, and Illinois has only played once so far in league play, though it could be a grind to go seven straight weeks in the Big Ten without a breather — and the matchups might not be all that favorable with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern remaining.
But Scheelhaase has appeared much more comfortable leading the offense this season, completing more than 64 percent of his passes, throwing for 12 touchdowns and also complementing Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young in a rushing attack that has collectively topped 1,000 yards already this season. And if the Illini can get a bit more help from a defense that gave up at least 34 points in both losses, it could be a tough out down the stretch.
Either way, Illinois has already shown improvement coming off a brutal 2-10 season, and it still has time to take a few more steps forward.
Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini can spread touches around and get a variety of different rushers and receivers involved offensively, but everything funnels through Scheelhaase and his ability to make decisions with the football. The senior is completing nearly 20 passes per game and averaging almost 260 yards through the air, and while his rushing numbers aren’t all that impressive thanks to 104 yards in losses, his ability to put pressure on a defense in different ways has been instrumental in the Illini’s early success.
Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. The senior isn’t hard to find when the defense is on the field because he’s almost always by the football. Brown leads the Big Ten in total tackles with 60, a number that’s even more impressive because he’s racked them up in one fewer game than the rest of the leaders at this point of the season. He’s also been able to disrupt offenses in the backfield, making 6.5 of those tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
A struggling offense almost made Michigan State an afterthought in the league throughout the first month of the season. Even if those early issues aren’t all entirely solved, there have been enough strides to complement a defense that doesn’t take a backseat to any unit in the country to make sure the Spartans are now front and center in any conversation about Legends Division favorites.
Certainly settling on one quarterback has helped stabilize the attack for Michigan State, and Connor Cook has provided consistent, efficient outings behind center to key a turnaround and lead a couple of critical conference wins over Iowa and Indiana. In all, Cook has completed nearly 58 percent of his passes for 923 yards and 9 touchdowns, and while those numbers don’t exactly turn heads, the fact he’s tossed only 2 interceptions goes a long way for a team that doesn’t need to light up the scoreboard every week.
The Spartans do their heavy lifting with a rugged, ruthless defensive unit that is No. 1 in the nation through six games, giving up just 228 yards per game while also holding opponents to less than 16 points on average.
With 14 different players contributing a tackle for a loss and a group of ball hawks that have nabbed 7 interceptions and scooped up 4 fumbles, the Spartans are deep, talented and capable of making life miserable for any opposing offense. Now that their own offensive nightmare appears to be over, they might be primed for a second-half run that could send them to Indianapolis to play for a conference crown.
Offensive MVP: RB Jeremy Langford. Sorting through the quarterback quandary and settling on Cook has helped, but as long as the Spartans have Langford to hand the football to, they should be able to play the kind of hard-nosed, ball-possession style that moves the chains, protects the defense, and occasionally exposes opponents not ready to match up in the trenches. Langford provided just what the blueprint called for last week against Indiana, scoring 4 touchdowns and rushing for 109 yards to help the Spartans start 2-0 in the league.
Defensive MVP: DE Shilique Calhoun. The Spartans have no shortage of candidates for top honors on the nation’s stingiest total defense, but Calhoun’s ability to stuff almost every column on the stats sheet gives him an edge at the midway point. The sophomore has been credited with 13 quarterback hurries, 3 sacks, 3 fumbles recovered and an interception for good measure. If that wasn’t enough, he’s turned three of those turnovers into touchdowns, tying the school record for defensive scores with half a season still to play.
Perhaps the journey hasn’t been quite as smooth as Ohio State might have planned, but the Buckeyes still are right on schedule to get where they want to go. The Buckeyes still haven’t lost since Urban Meyer took over the program last year, and with another perfect half of a season under their belts and no postseason sanctions hanging over their heads, they’ve done everything they can to get in position for a potential spot in the national championship game despite some occasionally difficult circumstances.
Most notably, Meyer had to survive for nearly three games without star quarterback Braxton Miller, though backup Kenny Guiton rewrote the record books to bridge the gap until the reigning Big Ten player of the year returned in time for conference play. The Buckeyes, though, are looking at a longer absence for safety Christian Bryant, with a broken ankle ending his season and shuffling up a secondary that has had some ups and downs even with the senior on the field.
But through it all, the Buckeyes just seem to keep on rolling, and with tough tests against Wisconsin and Northwestern having already been passed, the road looks pretty clear ahead in the buildup to The Game against Michigan at the end of November. With Miller back on the field, Carlos Hyde back in the fold after a three-game suspension and the defensive line potentially getting a boost from the return of tackle Tommy Schutt as early as this week, the Buckeyes might have only scratched the surface through six games.
Offensive MVP: WR Philly Brown. Both quarterbacks have put up gaudy individual numbers while effectively splitting responsibility for the first-half wins, and both Miller and Guiton deserve credit for their respective improvements throwing the football. But the strides the receivers have made since last season have been every bit as critical in the development of the passing attack, and Brown has been the most consistent of them all and been an invaluable asset for either guy taking the snaps. The senior leads the team with 381 yards on 30 catches, and this year he’s also turning those receptions into scores with five touchdowns already to his credit.
Defensive MVP: LB Ryan Shazier. Few players in the country do more defensively to stuff the stat sheet, and the junior continues to produce at an elite level even while taking on more responsibility to become a vocal leader in the absence of Bryant. Shazier might not have many of the kind of highlight-reel plays he made a year ago on film yet this season, but Ohio State isn’t complaining about his 47 tackles (eight for loss), two forced fumbles and a sack. Oho State/Big Ten reporterCovers the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Big TenJoined ESPN in 2012
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