Four Downs: A Third Quarter Analysis of the 2010 Illini Football Season


With three quarters of the 2010 season completed, Writing Illini once again takes a look at how the Illinois football team has fared and details what to expect in the final three regular-season games of the 2010 campaign.

Despite a heartbreaking loss to Michigan last weekend, many would argue that the third quarter of the season has been Illinois’ best thus far.

Apparently peaking at the perfect time, Illinois looks to be bowl-bound.

What We’ve Learned

At 5-4, the Illini continue to surprise many who doubted this team would amount to anything this year.

Illinois is on track for a bowl game as many players who struggled in previous seasons or simply never played before are stepping up and making big plays.

As in Writing Illini’s first quarter and halftime breakdowns, here is a look at some of the key players on both sides of the ball.

  • Nathan Scheelhaase

The freshman quarterback has improved immensely throughout the season and is the front runner for the freshman of the year award in the Big Ten.

The quarterback position was the biggest worry for the team this offseason, but thanks to Scheelhaase, it is not something that Illinois fans will have to worry about again for another 4 years.

  • Mikel Leshoure

The junior broke out if his mini slump against Michigan and scored 5 touchdowns. That is tied for the 4th most touchdowns by a player in a single game in Big Ten history.

If Leshoure can finish the season strong, he will garner significant interest from the NFL.

  • AJ Jenkins

The team’s leading receiver is averaging more than 13 yards per reception and is a big reason why Scheelhaase is having such a big year. Jenkins is also developing into a team leader and figures to step into Eddie McGee’s shoes as the offense’s senior leader next season.

  • Martez Wilson

Having already set career highs for tackles, interceptions, and fumbles forced, Wilson is finally having the type of season that was expected when he was signed by head coach Ron Zook as the team’s most heralded recruit in 2006.

  • Terry Hawthorne

The corner’s return is a big reason the defense was so dominant in the first two games of the third quarter. Hawthorne has shut down his man against some very skilled quarterbacks and has 1 of the team’s 10 interceptions on the season.

  • Derek Dimke

The junior kicker has been exceptional all season. Although his streak of consecutive perfect games has been broken, he is still 18-21 on the season and is a one of the semi-finalists on the Lou Groza Award for best placekicker.

  • Anthony Santella

The senior punter has been one of the best this season. Leading the nation in yards per punt at one point this season, he is currently ranked 8th and is also a semi-finalist for the Ray Guy Award.

Who’s Impressed in the Third Quarter of the Season

Nathan Scheelhaase unquestionably has been the most impressive player in the third quarter of the season. Through the last three games, the freshman has thrown for more than 500 yards and 9 touchdowns with no interceptions.

To put that in some perspective, Cam Newton, the consensus front runner for the Heisman, has racked up less than 50 more yards and only has 6 touchdowns.

Scheelhaase has matured immensely throughout the year and can be expected to continue to improve throughout the remainder of the 2010 season.

What Should We Think of the 5-4 Illini?

At 5-4, the Illini only need one more win to become bowl eligible for only the second time under head coach Ron Zook’s watch.

Some people could already consider the season a success considering that the team has won almost twice as many games as it did the previous season after entering 2010 with expectations of finishing last in the conference.

The Illini, however, will not be so quick to call the season a success.

While they know they are having a great season, they won’t be happy until they make it to a bowl game.

What’s Surprised Us about the Illini?

  • Emergence of the Passing Game

As Scheelhaase’s impressive stats show, the passing game has really materialized for the Illini in the third quarter of the season. This is both a result of the early success of the run game, and the maturation of both the quarterback and his receivers.

What is impressive is not only the yards and touchdowns the team is racking up through the air but the precision with which they are doing so. The Illini are the only team in the Big Ten that has not had an interception in their past 3 games.

  • Depth of the Running Game

People knew that the Illini running game would be good this season. Leshoure was preseason all Big Ten on many lists and Jason Ford had proven that he was a terrific third down threat. However, few grasped just how deep this unit was.

Troy Pollard has played in all but one of the team’s games and is great third-string boost of energy when the team needs it, and Bud Golden has also proven to be a threat. What is even more exciting, all four of these backs could be back next year unless Leshoure chooses to leave early for the NFL.

Looking Ahead

Nov. 13thMinnesota – Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois – 11:00 am CT

  • Illinois looks to secure a postseason bowl with a win over the struggling Gophers during the last home game of the season, which is also senior day and dad’s weekend for the students on campus.

Nov. 20thNorthwestern – Wrigley Field, Chicago, Illinois – 2:30 pm CT

  • The Wildcats, though already bowl eligible, are hitting some late season speed bumps. The winner of this game will likely head to Texas for its bowl game while the loser may get stuck in Detroit. College football returns to Wrigley Field!

Dec. 3rdFresno State – Bulldog Stadium, Fresno, California – 9:15 pm CT

  • Illinois will be looking for pay back after the last-play debacle that resulted in a 52-51 loss at home last season. While both teams have improved from last season, can Illinois avenge itself?

Illini Team Grade After 3 Quarters: B

Illinois has already passed most preseason expectations, and one more win will ensure the team makes a bowl game.

The Illini have seemingly reached their stride at the perfect time of the year. Their last three games are all tough, but very winnable, and the numbers that the team is putting up are causing people around the conference to take notice.

Zook and his staff deserve kudos for the turnaround and fans can be excited because the team finally seems to have the pieces in place to make the Illini a consistent threat in the conference.