Tate: Scheelhaase not passing muster
Citing Army's Black Knights as an exception — QB Trent Steelman completed just 24 passes in 2011 — most collegiate football teams place heavy emphasis on the overhead game.
The spread formation exploded in popularity as a way to deploy receivers across the width of the field while featuring quarterbacks in misdirection runs. Some consider this style an equalizer for an outmanned underdog.
Illinois has moved to this approach after decades — most of a century, really — in which the Illini attacked the game almost exclusively with a pro-style quarterback. The old plan was to protect the QB so he'd have a clear head and a healthy body for accurate passes.
Former athletic director Neale Stoner made a point of bringing in pass-minded head coaches with NFL backgrounds, Mike White (1980) and John Mackovic (1988). Those two raised havoc with the Illini record book. Nine UI passers threw for 1,000 yards prior to White, and only Tommy O'Connell (1952) topped 1,300. White's first QB, Dave Wilson, passed for 3,154. This pro-style trend continued with Lou Tepper's coordinator, Greg Landry, and former Bear Ron Turner. For better or worse, the UI had a distinct offensive style that operated under the multi-year direction of a string of dropback passers like Kurt Kittner, Jeff George, Jack Trudeau, Tony Eason, Mike Wells and Mike Taliaferro.
Then came Ron Zook, and the Illini ran a reverse. This third season with Nathan Scheelhaase will mark the seventh straight year of a run-first QB style that featured Juice Williams for four seasons. This will be the seventh year that the QB's legs appear as important as his arm.
Question is: What does that mean for first-year coach Tim Beckman? Accepting the fact that Beckman kept much of his offense under wraps Saturday, the overhead game was unimpressive. This is a concern because Illinois doesn't have the up-front muscle to punch out yardage against strong Big Ten foes, not without creating more of an aerial threat than was seen in the Blue team's 13-12 defeat of the Orange.
On that cloudy, misty day, Scheelhaase completed 11 of 26 passes for 65 yards. In formulating an excuse, it should be noted that wet and windy conditions were not ideal, blocking protection was poor, Scheelhaase's go-to guy (A.J. Jenkins) was gone, the best returning receiver (Darius Millines) was ailing, some incomplete passes could have been caught, and the defense was familiar with the vanilla plays that Beckman permitted. That said, Scheelhaase became a starter in 2010 despite questionable arm strength, and this outing did not show marked improvement.
The other quarterbacks, Reilly O'Toole (19 of 31 for 159 yards) and Miles Osei (8 of 12 for 115), appeared sharper, even as the rival squads were equally divided. But Scheelhaase has "won the position" according to Beckman, and his removal from the lineup would limit the UI running game and waste his experience and leadership qualities. To be good, Illinois needs Scheelhaase to step up.
To his credit, Scheelhaase has shown bursts of aerial effectiveness, completing 63 percent of his passes last season and throwing for 391 yards against Northwestern. That said, he threw just two touchdown passes during 2011's six-game losing streak, and was replaced by O'Toole in a 27-7 debacle at Minnesota that served as the final nail in Zook's coffin.
The Illini faltered at midseason when the passing game hit the wall, on three occasions failing to produce 100 yards in the air. They will falter again unless Beckman and co-coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty can fix it.
— Getting through the spring football game without a significant injury is always a bonus, and that's what happened Saturday. On the negative side, the small attendance (generously estimated at 3,000) doesn't speak well for ticket sales, and doesn't help recruiting.
— Ohio State claims the national record for spring attendance with 95,000 in 2009. With weather a huge factor across the nation Saturday, no one came close. Alabama reported 80,000 and several other SEC schools topped 30,000. Nebraska, which drew 66,784 last year, had to call off its game. Illinois isn't in the ballpark with these football-crazy institutions.
— If you're overlooking the UI's Sept. 22 date with Louisiana Tech, don't! This projects as a tossup. The Bulldogs have quality returnees, including QB Colby Cameron and receiver Quinton Patton (1,202 yards) on a bowl team that suffered tossup losses to Kevin Sumlin's 13-1 Houston Cougars 35-34, Southern Mississippi 19-17, and Mississippi State 24-20 in overtime. They soundly whipped Fresno State 41-21 and Ole Miss 27-7 during a seven-game win streak, and led an 11-2 TCU club 24-17 in the fourth quarter of the Poinsettia Bowl before falling. Sept. 22 sounds scary to me.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.