Hey hey, ho ho, those Fighting Illini are 2-0! Hardly anyone gave them a shot against a Cincinnati Bearcats team that thoroughly dismantled Purdue 42-7 a week ago, but games aren’t won on paper. This time it was Cincinnati that endured a rather sizable beating, falling to the hometown Illini by a final margin of 45-17.
Here are 3 things we learned while watching Illinois down Cincinnati on Saturday.
1. The Illinois Offense finally has an identity.
A year ago, no one could have told you what the Illini offense was going to do week in and week out. The co-offensive coordinator scheme failed miserably, and as a result the Illini offense never established an identity.
This season, it appears Illinois has already established what type of team it’s going to be; a team that uses the pass to set up the run. Typically, offensive football works in reverse of this apparent philosophy as most teams establish a running game and then use it to set up the pass.
We are only two games in to the season and Nathan Scheelhaase has thrown for 728 yards and a 6:1 TD:INT ratio.
At this rate, Scheelhaase is on pace to throw for 4,368 yards this season, which would surpass the single season passing yardage mark of 3,671 yards set by Tony Eason in 1982. Further, if he were to maintain this pace, he would finish with 9,664 passing yards for his career, which would also break the All-time Illinois career passing yardage record of 8,725 yards set by Jack Trudeau during his tenure as Illini QB from 1981-1985.
Obviously, there is a long way to go for Scheelhaase to achieve these feats, but it has become very clear that Illinois is going to sling the ball all over the field this season, and if the early returns are any indicator it appears that this could be a special season for the Illini as they have finally found their offensive identity.
2. The Illini have more depth at the Skill Positions than previously thought.
Coming into this year, one of the biggest topics surrounding Illinois football was the change in offensive coordinators and what type of impact it was going to have on the Illini this season. One of the underlying questions that it seemed no one could answer was with regards to the skill players. Namely, who would step up and benefit from a wide open passing offense?
So far, it appears Illinois has more depth than anyone could have imagined.
In the opener, Ryan Lankford (6 catches, 115 yards) and Josh Ferguson (4 catches, 103 yards, 1TD) were the receiving leaders for Illinois. Yesterday, Martize Barr (5 catches, 72 yards, 1 TD) and Josh Ferguson (2 catches, 55 yards, 1 TD) were the receiving leaders for Illinois.
While this tells you who the most successful Illini receiving targets were in the first two games, what it doesn’t tell you is that 10 different players caught 29 passes for 416 yards against SIU, and 11 different players caught 26 passes for 312 yards against Cincinnati.
Having the ability to spread the ball all over the field bodes well for Nathan Scheelhaase’s, and ultimately the Illini’s, chances for success this season.
3. Steve Hull should have been a WR all along.
While Steve Hull was serviceable as a Safety for Illinois during his first three seasons, he should have been playing WR the entire time.
I understand that the move had to be made because Illinois was extremely thin in the secondary, but it’s a shame that it came at the expense of Hull’s talents as a WR.
Coming out of Sycamore High in Cincinnati, Hull was a top 60 prospect according to rivals.com, averaging 22.3 yards per catch and scoring 11 touchdowns.
While Hull has yet to lead Illinois in receiving in a single game this season, he has a 23.4 yard per catch average, good for 1st among the WR corps, while hauling in 5 passes for 117 yards including a 22 yard TD reception in yesterday’s win over Cincinnati.
Moving Hull back to receiver may not have been as completely necessary as it first appeared during the off-season based off the way the ball is being spread around the field early on this year, but his production is certainly welcomed.
As the year rolls along, and defenses try to scheme to stop Lankford, Ferguson, Barr, and Wilson, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Hull lead the team in receiving yards during any given contest.
Clearly, his addition to the offensive side of the ball has paid early dividends, and I expect this success to continue throughout the rest of the season. It’s just unfortunate that it took so long for Hull to finally come back to where he has belonged all along.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.