Nathan Scheelhaase has been around Illinois for awhile. He was recruited way back as part of the Class of 2009, a four-star quarterback out of Kansas City, Missouri. With offers to Stanford, Nebraska, Iowa (where his dad played), and Oklahoma, he chose the Fighting Illini. After redshirting for the 2009 season, Scheelhaase took the reins as a starter in 2010 and impressed with his dual-threat abilities. In his first year he completed only 58% of his passes for 1825 passing yards, but combined his 17 touchdowns and 8 picks with 868 rushing yards and another 5 scores on the ground. In 2011 he put up similar statistics, passing for more yards but rushing for fewer. In both years the Illini reached 7 wins and won a mid-level bowl game.
Last season was a different story. Scheelhaase only managed 1361 passing yards and an ugly 4 passing touchdowns compared to 8 picks. His production on the ground was also slashed to 303 yards and 4 rushing scores. He missed the second and third games of the year, in which Illinois went 1-1. The season was a bitter disappointment and the Illini finished 2-10.
So expectations were low entering this year, and not even Scheelhaase’s 28 for 36, 416-yard passing day against Southern Illinois had fans happy, considering the close 42-34 final score against an FCS opponent. Oh, how one week can change so much. Illinois laid a beating on Cincinnati at home on Saturday, winning 45-17 on the back of the redshirt senior quarterback’s 312 yard, 4-touchdown afternoon, and suddenly the Illini have some buzz going into next week’s game against Washington at Soldier Field.
Over the two games, that’s a total statline of 54 for 73 (74%), 728 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception. How about that running? 15 attempts for -1 yard. So for at least two weeks, Scheelhaase has decided to stick to picking up yardage with his arm, and so far, it has led to efficient, high-volume production and two wins from a quarterback who looked to be locked in as a slightly above average dual-threat weapon on a bad team.
I haven’t watched nearly enough Illinois film to know if Scheelhaase has truly turned some sort of corner at the position. He’s played at a similar level, and followed a similar pattern, over a long college career, and even if he is breaking that mold, Southern Illinois and Cincinnati are not exactly powerhouses. Scheelhaase and the Illini haven’t faced an opponent of Washington’s talent level, and even in what should basically be a home game, they will not be favored to advance to a 3-0 record.
The Huskies have replaced two out of four starters in the defensive backfield, but every player in that secondary played wonderfully against Boise State’s experienced passing attack, and it seems unlikely that Scheelhaase will be able to pick them apart if Marcus Peters, Greg Ducre, Will Shamburger, and Sean Parker are able to bring that season-opening, stadium-opening intensity and focus on the road.
You can bet that Washington will spend the next week preparing for a quarterback that is playing better football than ever before in his career, and who could also begin to flash his rushing ability at any time. You can also bet that Coach Wilcox is letting his defense know that Scheelhaase’s best target in ’13 has been a running back, sophomore Josh Ferguson, who has caught six passes for 158 yards and 2 scores. He won’t want his defense surprised or caught off guard by anything they see on the field Saturday, and that will mean being ready for a passing attack that has gained confidence from a high-scoring 2-0 start.
More on Illinois every day from now until the game on September 14th.