If Nathan Scheelhaase is your quarterback, his feet are as important as his arm.
This became obvious in 2010 and 2011 when he rushed for 1,492 yards in 26 games. So, since Scheelhaase sprained his ankle in the opener against Western Michigan, coach Tim Beckman has been ultra-careful about employing him ... keeping him on the sideline for two games, then avoiding running calls in a quarter of action before removing him in Saturday’s 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech. Replacement Reilly O’Toole completed 19 of 25 mostly short passes, creating Sunday speculation that he might get the call in Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Penn State.
Not so. Beckman stated emphatically:
“Nathan is our starting quarterback. Our game plan against Louisiana Tech was to get the ball on the perimeter with our running backs and wide receivers. I think it was a good plan, and we could have utilized Nathan later on to carry the ball.
“But on the first play, Nathan took a big high-low hit, and I was a little concerned. He played a few more series, and then we decided it was in the best interest of the football team to put Reilly in.”
Scheelhaase played five series. An opening drive reached the Tech 24, where Josh Ferguson fumbled on a 24-yard reception. Scheelhaase was sacked for a 7-yard loss to kill the second possession and threw an 18-yard TD pass to Ryan Lankford on the third. Illinois led 7-0. Then he had consecutive turnovers that ended his evening, a “bad read” leading to an interception and a fumble on a scramble. The Illini wound up with six turnovers.
“I think the coach was a little worried because I took a couple of hits,” Scheelhaase said, “and that I wasn’t able to move as I can. I think we erred a little bit on the side of caution, you know, but I’ve just got to get it right. I felt better Sunday, and I don’t see anything holding me back this week. It’s tough to come out. You just have to change your mind-set and help the team any way you can. I had a taste of it spending the two previous games on the sideline.
“The play I fumbled on, like my girlfriend said she heard on TV, I ought to be able to outrun a linebacker. I’m faster than most linebackers. Yesterday when I ran and lifted, I made my times with ease. I haven’t had that kind of burst early in the last few weeks.”
Beckman called both quarterbacks “capable,” adding that Scheelhaase is the starter “if he continues to show it on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”
Media members from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg called into Monday’s news conference on a subject near forgotten in Illinois but still a “hot subject” in Happy Valley, according to the Patriot-News’ David Jones. It concerns the UI’s “recruitment” of tackle Ryan Nowicki after the Penn State sanctions allowed the sophomore to move without penalty. After Illinois sent multiple coaches to talk to Nowicki, several Big Ten head coaches stated in August that they disapproved.
“We were contacted prior to any of this by a player (Nowicki),” Beckman said, “and we told him we’d be off campus if he desired to talk to us. Otherwise we’d pursue it no further. I regret that it’s still being talked about, but it nevertheless gave a young man an opportunity to make his decision and do what he wanted to do (transfer with a scholarship and without losing any eligibility).”
Nowicki was one of nine Nittany Lion players to leave. He was not listed on the Penn State depth chart in June and is not among the 12 offensive linemen on this week’s 30-man UI offensive depth chart.
Beckman said he talked to coach Bill O’Brien at the Big Ten meetings in Chicago but didn’t explain whether they discussed Nowicki.
Beckman “isn’t big on bulletin-board material” and changed the subject Monday: “This is one of 12 opportunities, and we’re shooting for 13 or 14. We cherish each opportunity. The season goes fast.”
It appears the UI received a lot of unfavorable national coverage to attract a young lineman who was a Penn State third-teamer and now holds approximately the same status here.
What’s the rush?
What’s happened to the vaunted UI defense? Is the unit overrated? Or are they simply slow in picking up a new system and are being outmaneuvered by offenses that they aren’t accustomed to.
“The two times we struggled came against offenses you don’t often see,” Beckman said. “We have to give Louisiana Tech credit. They’re a proven team with seniors on offense. We critiqued it as a team. Louisiana Tech forced one-on-one coverage and hit some big strikes. We need to get cornerback help from the backside safety.”
Tackle Akeem Spence, analyzing the defensive problems, said Monday: “I’m not pointing fingers, but we’ve had some mistakes in the secondary. We didn’t handle the sudden changes (from turnovers). Now, this is about being a man about it and getting ready for next Saturday. I’m happy we’re getting into the Big Ten with a lot of play-action and power stuff. I’m tired of running from side to side.
“If their guys are upset (about Nowicki), then they’re upset. They still have to line up and play football. We’re the same guys we were last season, and we just have to prove it when the lights come on Saturday. We’re the same guys.”
Spence called the system “pretty much the same up front but different in the secondary ... some of the guys are worried about making mistakes. JB (Jonathan Brown) was out of the box a lot on receivers. We don’t blitz like we used to with our linebackers. Last year we could bring pressure from anywhere, and that’s what we got used to for two years. This is more conservative, but if we execute it properly it will work. We ask (about blitzing), but they have the power to tell us what to do. They give us the game plan.”
— Taylor Zalewski, walk-on from suburban Carl Sandburg, will do the placement kicking again this week with Nick Immekus still out. The status of senior linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, tight end Evan Wilson, receiver Darius Millines and safety Supo Sanni won’t be clear until later this week. Said Beckman: “We’re just trying to be productive with what we’ve got. We’ll utilize the running backs in the best way to get them the football. If it means Donovonn Young as a receiver, that’s what we’ll do.”
— With Louisiana Tech making sure nobody got behind the secondary, the three Illini running backs caught 17 passes Saturday. If that isn’t a record, it’s close. And it might have produced a lot of points but for the six turnovers.
— With Penn State winning twice and regaining its swagger, it came as something of a surprise to see Illinois open as a 11/2-point favorite. The Nittany Lions scored late to beat Illinois 10-7 last year.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.