Illinois is 1-0 following their tilt with SIU despite the game being much too close for comfort in the closing minute of the 4th quarter. This game had a bit of everything, but let’s accentuate the positive takeaways from what took place in Memorial Stadium yesterday.
Here are 3 things we learned while watching Illinois hold on for their week 1 victory.
1. Nathan Scheelhaase is a different quarterback when healthy.
Nathan Scheelhaase’s stat line sure was pretty as he completed 28/36 pass attempts for 416 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT.
The 416 yards passing was the 10th best yardage performance in school history, and it was also the first time an Illini QB has crested 400 yards passing since 2008. The Illini came out with a 55 yard bomb, and quite frankly, should have been in the end zone on the opening play had it been tossed a little further. Ryan Lankford had his defender burned by about 4 steps, but had to slow down and adjust to make the play.
Regardless, this is the Scheelhaase that Illinois fans expected to see last season, but he never reached these heights due to injury and a lack of a cohesive identity in the offensive play calling. Enter Bill Cubit, and an identity.
Everything Cubit said leading up to this game came to pass. He wanted the ball out quick, and Nathan delivered with a lot of quick hit passes that ended up equaling the aforementioned lofty yardage totals and also produced a pair of 100 yard receivers as well.
A much stiffer test awaits next week with Cincinnati, but the takeaway today is that Nathan Scheelhaase is healthy, and that’s a very good thing for Illinois.
2. The Tight End group has the chance to be a solid contributing force for the offense.
It seems that one of the most common complaints from Illinois fans, and really many college fans in general, is that they want to see the tight end position used more frequently in the passing game. Well, based on what took place yesterday, it appears that Bill Cubit truly does intend on making sure the tight ends are utilized in the Illini offense this season.
Evan Wilson caught 2 passes for 15 yards. Jon Davis caught 2 passes for 14 yards and 1 TD. Matt LaCosse caught 1 ball for 5 yards, but also caught the 2 point conversion toss from Tim Russell following the Davis TD – yes, a tight end double whammy! Tim Clary caught 1 pass for 33 yards, and would have scored a TD had he not been tripped by an SIU defender just before he would have crossed the goal line. Ultimately, Clary’s catch set up Aaron Bailey’s first collegiate TD, so we can let that illegal trip of Clary slide.
The tight end group is highly skilled, and it’s good to see that Cubit not only recognizes it, but also has zero reservations about calling their number to provide production when needed.
3. All of the special teams practice has already payed dividends.
If you read my last post you’ll know that Illinois has been spending a ton of time working on their special teams this off season, and it paid immediate dividends yesterday when V’Angelo Bentley returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD. A kickoff return for a TD is something that hasn’t happened for Illinois since 2008, so it was great to see it happen in game 1 of the 2013 season.
Sometimes special teams can win you a game. Yesterday’s return put Illinois up 39-17 with 5:30 to go in the 3rd quarter, and ultimately was the TD that provided the difference in this contest. This unit finally has solid promise, and that’s more than anyone can say the last 5 years.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.