Four Downs: A First Quarter Analysis of the 2010 Illinois Football Season


Writing Illini is proud to introduce a new section called Four Downs, where the college football season will be broken up into four quarters a la the Lovie Smith school of coaching.

After each quarter, Writing Illini will review what we’ve learned about the Illinois football team, detail some surprises, and speculate on how the rest of the season is looking.

With three games under its belt, the Illini have already completed a quarter of the season heading into next weekend’s home game against Ohio State.

Here’s what we’ve learned about the 2010 Fighting Illini thus far.

What We’ve Learned

With a 2-1 record after 3 games, the Illini are right on track with Writing Illini’s preseason predictions.

Several Illini have impressed through the first quarter of the season, including the following players.

  • Nathan Scheelhaase

The redshirt freshman quarterback has made some thrilling plays with both his arm and his feet during the first three games of the 2010 campaign.

With the exception of the second half of the Missouri game (when the Tigers’ defense had its way with him), Scheelhaase has looked more like an upperclassman than a freshman.

He shows a good pocket presence as well as an uncanny ability to make plays when forced to scramble and move on from one play to the next.

  • Mikel Leshoure

Leshoure has emerged as the team’s primary back, picking up right where he left off from last season.

Leshoure has not had a game of less than 110 yards this season and has 3 touchdowns. Leshoure is 8th in the nation in rushing yards and moving up the Doak Walker list for best running back in the nation.

Leshoure’s biggest challenge to date will come when the Buckeyes invade Memorial Stadium on October 2nd.

  • AJ Jenkins

After a tumultuous summer that almost saw the junior transfer schools, Jenkins is turning into the team’s go-to receiver.

Jenkins has already racked up more receptions, total yards and touchdowns in three games then he did all of last season.

As the season progresses and the coaches loosen the reigns on Scheelhaase (he only threw 16 times against NIU), Jenkins should continue to see his numbers improve.

  • Ian Thomas

Most of the off-season talk surrounded fellow linebacker Martez Wilson’s return from injury, but Thomas has been the star of the defense thus far.

Thomas has accumulated 25 tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble that was recovered by the Illini.

Thomas can often be found delivering big hits in the backfield, but he has also been able to defend the pass, recording two pass deflections.

  • Justin Green

Green has played amazingly well when you consider that he was a running back until injuries at Camp Rantoul caused him to switch to defensive back the week before the Missouri game.

A corner in high school, Green has not complained about the situation, instead stepping up and proving himself to be a true starter.

Green has done an excellent job preventing the big play, and almost had an interception against NIU but was ruled out of bounds.

  • Derek Dimke

Last season, Dimke was perfect as he came in to replace Matt Eller, going 5-5 in field goals and 12-12 in PAT’s.

This year, Dimke shows no signs of slowing up. He is currently 4-4 on field goal attempts, including a 52 yarder against Missouri, and 8-8 on PAT’s.

In addition to his amazing accuracy, Dimke has taken over the roll of kicking off, with his kicks usually touched back in the end zone.

  • Anthony Santella

Santella is having his best season yet and is second in the nation in average and net punt distance.

Santella’s contributions can not be overlooked as it gives the coaches the confidence to call more plays on second and third down knowing that the the opponent will still have poor field position if the team has to punt.

  • Other Notables

Travon Bellamy and Nate Bussey have done a nice job defensively as has Corey Liuget in my opinion.

What Should We Think of the 2-1 Illini?

It is hard to tell much about a team after only three games, especially non-conference contests.

The next three games, which Writing Illini has dubbed the State Stretch (Illinois’ next three opponents are Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State), will really show fans what the team is made of.

If the Illini can grab one win from the three and come away 3-3, they should have the confidence to finish out the season strong and head back to the team’s first bowl game since 2007.

Beginning next week against Ohio State, the key will be for the Illini to play competitive and not lose confidence, even in what will most likely be a loss.

What’s Surprised Us about the Illini

  • Lack of Second Half Urgency

In both the Missouri game and the NIU contest, Illinois has come out of the half looking sluggish and uncoordinated.

Illinois has not trailed at the half yet this year, but in every game except SIU, the opponent has clawed back in the second half to make it a close game.

Against Missouri, the troubles were written off as the Tigers’ figuring out the Illini offense and simply the stronger unit prevailing.

However, Illinois had the same trouble in the second half of the NIU game, needing a Leshoure touchdown and a special team’s recovery of an onside kick late in the fourth quarter to put the game away.

No one seems to know for sure what happens between halves, but the team must figure it out fast because in conference play, the Illini won’t be able to sleepwalk for 10 minute stretches.

  • Turnover Troubles Continue

After a 2009 season that saw the Illini finish last in the FBS in interceptions, the team continues to struggle.

Six of the 120 FBS schools still have not had an interception, and the Illini are once again one of them.

Illinois’ next three opponents all have at least 2 interceptions already (Ohio State has 7, tied with Missouri for the 5th most in the nation). While Illinois’ defense has definitely improved from last year’s squad, it must start creating turnovers if it hopes to make a bowl game this season.

  • Scheelhaase’s Leadership

It is not often that a freshman can lead his team.

Juice Williams (the last Illini to do so) had a learning curve in 2006 when the team adapted to him before getting on a roll for the 2007 Rose Bowl run.

However, from the beginning of Camp Rantoul, Scheelhaase has been the unquestioned leader of the offense, and everyone seems quite comfortable working with him.

The freshman has thrown for more than 380 yards and 3 touchdowns (as well as 3 picks, none since the opening game loss to Missouri), with an average quarterback rating of 117.23.

To put that into perspective, Juice Williams’ freshman year rating was 55.87.

Here’s hoping that Scheelhaase can continue to impress as the Illini head into the State Stretch.

Looking Ahead

Here is a look at Illinois’ next 3 games.

Oct. 2 – Ohio State – Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL – 11:00 am CT

  • The Illini will try to shock the world as they did on November 10th, 2007. The Buckeye’s have not been ranked #1 since the Illini beat them in Columbus. It’s unlikely that Ohio State has come close to forgiving the Illini for that loss.

Oct. 9 – Penn State – Beaver Stadium, University Park, PA – 11:00 am CT

  • The Illini will face their first true road game of the season as they head to the always-exciting Beaver Stadium. Illinois has never beat Penn State on the road.

Oct. 16 – Michigan State – Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI – 11:00 am CT

Illini Team Grade for the First Quarter: Solid B

With the exception of a flat second half against Missouri, Illinois has been pretty sharp and could be 3-0.

With that said, the Illini could also be 1-2 after a tight game against NIU.

While Illinois was hardly perfect against the Huskies, give the team credit for getting the victory, something that might not have happened in 2009 and 2008.

At 2-1, the Illini are where they should be.

The defense came back to Earth a bit against NIU but has been better than expected while the offense has had its moments and done a good job of limiting turnovers since the Missouri game.

The Illini certainly look like a better coached team with the additions of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, and the special teams play has been fantastic.

For as much heat as Ron Zook gets, he has this team playing very hard so far this season, which has been a very positive sign.

If Illinois can be 3-3 by the end of the second quarter (with a victory against either Penn State or Michigan State), fans should be happy.

To pull off an upset in one of the next three games, the Illini will need to continue to have no turnovers on offense, start forcing some on defense, get solid special teams’ play and cut out the bad penalties. Of course, Leshoure’s ability to rush the football will be huge, as will Scheelhaase’s scrambling skills and occasional passing attempts.

It would be nice to see Jason Ford continue to get more involved in the running game and for Martez Wilson to play with a little more consistency.

With all that said, let’s see how the Illini are able to compete with Ohio State.

By no means should fans expect a victory, but if the Illini can play the Buckeyes relatively close, that will be an encouraging sign about this team’s long-term moxie, which has been much better than in the past two seasons.

Until October 2nd.