QB's experience, efficiency major assets
Count me out among Illini football critics who place every outcome at the feet of the quarterback.
The bromide applies: Too much credit for the victories, too much blame for the losses.
Not that Johnny Football (Manziel) didn't uplift 11-2 Texas A&M, but it's still an 11-man, 22-man, special teams, depth-impacted, block-tackle game.
When Nathan Scheelhaase sparked a 10-3 success run from mid-2010 to mid-2011 — outperforming Baylor's great RG3 (Robert Griffin) in the Texas Bowl — his arm was sufficiently strong and accurate.
When the Illini hit the skids, it wasn't deemed to be so.
What we saw in Friday night's spring game was a senior with the right qualities of arm strength, timing, accuracy and leadership ... a host of positives, even if he elected not to discuss it with the media afterward.
With the squad's talent divided for the game, Scheelhaase was strikingly efficient. He completed 75 percent of his passes (24 of 32) with no turnovers. His Blue team led 28-0 within the first 25 minutes and won, 35-28, in a full display of Bill Cubit's new pass-oriented offense. When the offenses got in rhythm, they moved down the field rapidly in chunks. The two teams completed 60 passes.
We'll know later whether an inexperienced defense had something to do with that.
No second guessing here
The backup quarterback is always the fans' favorite. But Reilly O'Toole had his ups and downs.
Of his 52 passes, 34 were completed to a wide variety of receivers. But he threw three interceptions in the first seven Orange possessions, two of them on deflections and one returned 45 yards for a touchdown by redshirt freshman Taylor Barton.
It must be noted that two of his longest completions were looped up for grabs and pulled down by aggressive receivers Justin Hardee and Martize Barr among multiple defenders.
So O'Toole, who settled down in the second half, is still the backup, a fact dictated in part because Scheelhaase offers a lot more in the option running game.
Coach Tim Beckman was most concerned about the Orange miscues, reminding: "We can't turn it over (five Orange turnovers) and be successful. The Blue team was more consistent and ran the ball better. Coach Cubit has a player-friendly offense. I thought Donovonn Young ran well on the goal line."
Young scored on three short bursts and netted 86 yards. He projects as the team workhorse next fall.
Beckman gave the Orange an opportunity to catch up with an extra possession near the end but linebacker Mason Monheim intercepted after O'Toole led his team to the 22-yard line.
What does it mean for the upcoming season?
— Cubit is installing a quick-hitting, well-timed attack and, even if Darius Millines doesn't return at wide receiver, a committee approach might work. Ryan Lankford caught nine for the Blue, and Miles Osei, Hardy and Barr combined for 20 receptions for the Orange. Josh Ferguson, who missed the game with a sprained ankle, will be used in this manner after catching 29 balls last season.
— Cubit wants to emphasize the tight end. Senior Evan Wilson is more involved in the aerial game, and 255-pound walk-on Tim Clary was particularly impressive. Clary shared the "unsung" award with cornerback V'Angelo Bentley for overall spring performance. And Cubit looks forward to working in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse at tight end when they return.
— Former Illini Martin O'Donnell and J Leman, in their announcing roles, expressed concern about defensive line depth. In this regard, former Illini cager Bruce Douglas says son Bryce is a "trim 315" and ready to contribute. Freshmen will play. New enrollee Darius Mosely of O'Fallon broke in with 10 tackles Friday from his cornerback slot.
— Versatile Ohio redshirt Joe Spencer appears to be making progress but the offensive line looks set with Corey Lewis and Simon Cvijanovic at the tackles. Left guard Michael Heitz took a turn at right tackle Friday night.
Front and center
— O'Donnell comments:
"The offense is ahead of the defense because of experienced personnel. When the quarterback plants quick and throws, it helps pass blocking. It's good to have the threat of the zone read option, but it's better to have someone other than the quarterback to be the prime ball carrier.
"O'Toole got in a nice rhythm in the second half but he threw a couple of wounded ducks."
— Leman comments: "Quarterbacks like to hit those intermediate routes. I'm comfortable with our linebackers, but there were 10 or 15 balls in their area that they have to be aware of.
"The lack of depth in the offensive line may be manageable, but I'm concerned about depth in the defensive line. Big Ten games are won and lost up front."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.