CHAMPAIGN – You wanted turnovers? You got turnovers. Seven of them.
But if the spring game performance speaks well of Vic Koenning's rejuvenated Illini defense, what does it say about ball security by the UI offense?
"Turnovers ... that was the one (disappointing) thing," coach Ron Zook said after his regulars swarmed and dominated the reserves 24-6 Saturday. The threatening clouds, which emptied later, kept the turnout down to a reported 5,832 but it seemed smaller, and offered a stark comparison to the incredible assemblage of 91,312 for Alabama's spring game last week.
If, as Zook said, "The team has a long way to go," so does the UI fandom. There is doubt in the air. You could feel it at the football reunion Friday night. Three bowl appearances in the last 15 years saps the confidence.
And nothing about this day indicated that Illinois is ready to challenge Big Ten contenders Iowa and Wisconsin – thankfully, neither is on the 2010 UI schedule – much less the perennial favorite, Ohio State.
To be honest, this intrasquad game was the first baby step of a spanking new football operation. And that's not to say a turnaround from 5-7 and 3-9 seasons is impossible. Most of Saturday's errors are correctable. And if the defense is really improved without the help of Martez Wilson, Clay Nurse, Josh Brent and Miami Thomas, that's a good thing. Tackles Corey Liuget and Glenn Foster were dominant against the No. 2 unit, and slashing end Michael Buchanan played bigger than his 225 pounds, but ... we keep coming back to that BUT ... the fork is the road is awaiting in St. Louis on Sept. 4, and Illinois has gone the wrong direction five straight times down there against Missouri. Everything must be weighed and judged against an annual opener in which Illini defenders have been repeatedly driven to cover.
Scheelhaase in charge
Competing quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Jacob Charest threw interceptions in the opening minutes of Saturday's contest. Charest, working mostly with a drastically overmatched second unit vs. Liuget, Foster & Co., completed two passes in eight tries with two interceptions. Given a late opportunity with the No. 1 unit, he couldn't handle a high snap, the fumble setting up a game-ending TD pass by freshman Chandler Whitmer, who capped a 7-for-8 aerial showing.
But this is Scheelhaase's team. Even though he threw into coverage (Aaron Gress intercepted) in the second quarter, he took advantage of his situation with 11-for-20 accuracy and handed off to the alternating juniors, Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, for TD runs of 75 and 56 yards in the second half. Scheelhaase wore a no-hit jersey which limited his running, but it didn't prevent him from executing as a lead blocker on two downfield runs.
"Regardless of the type of offense, we have to be able to run the football," Zook said. "That sets up our play-action pass. A.J. Jenkins has had a great spring (six catches for 95 yards Saturday). His early fumble near the goal line was his biggest blunder of the spring."
Paul Petrino said Scheelhaase's best showings were on the two days that he was "live." According to the new offensive coordinator, "It hurts Nathan when they're not tackling him, especially on those rollouts where the defense can hang back. Sometimes the officials call him down when somebody reaches out and touches him, but that doesn't mean they would be able to tackle him.
"I'm encouraged. It was 3-0 at the half, and I challenged them to toughen up. There are some base things that we're good at."
Making things happen
On the defensive side, Koenning has stressed turnovers for a team that has lagged far behind in that category. The Illini had just five interceptions last season. The defense has been getting picks against young QBs all spring, and each side had two Saturday.
"We continue to work for takeaways, and I don't know if those were turnovers by the offense or takeaways by us," Koenning said. "There were two other interceptions that we should have had. Our running backs are good. They force you to have more than one person at the point of attack."
Koenning has been generally critical, giving credit only up to a point. Liuget, who broke through from his tackle spot on the first play, looked throughout Saturday like an all-conference contender.
"He's good until he gets tired," Koenning said. "I nicknamed him Tap Out. He's good until he taps out. That's why we design our practices to gas them out. When we get tired, little things become big things."
Even though Gress and Evan Frierson have progressed at middle linebacker, Koenning left little doubt that Martez Wilson (withheld following neck surgery) will be the starter in the fall.
"I'll steal a line from Dan Disch (fellow coach) who said, 'Wilson and (Ian) Thomas are like Batman and Robin.' Martez has showed us what he can do in our 'thud' (no tackling) practices."
With autumn additions, a defense that permitted 102 points in the last two games surely will be better. That said, just being a little bit better won't be enough.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org