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.
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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.
Lots of the names are the same around the Big Ten. When it comes to quarterbacks, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase are going into their fourth seasons as starters, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller is entering his third and Northwestern’s Kain Colter is heading into year three as a full- or part-time starter. Eight teams return at least 16 starters. But Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State are yet to name starting quarterbacks. There are newcomers at other positions who could become well-known names by season’s end.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has taken a beating this season, one like no other Big Ten quarterback. The Illini (2-7, 0-5 Big Ten) have given up 32 sacks, 10 more than any other team in the conference. Scheelhaase has been on the receiving end of most of those, and it’s shown. The junior has missed part or all of four games with an ankle injury and a concussion. And Illinois’ coaches, with the whipping Scheehaase has taken in mind, have further limited the struggling Illini offense. The game plan as the weeks have passed has changed to include more protection and to cut down on the downfield passes that are were a relatively small part of the offense to begin with. ”I don’t want the quarterback hit,” coach Tim Beckman said Monday, explaining how Illinois had cut its downfield attack to get the ball out of Scheelhaase’s …